Retractable Leashes: A Line to Freedom or Instrument of Peril?
Updated: May 31
I've never really been a fan of the retractable dog leash. It always seemed to me that it reduced the amount of control one had over their dog while walking them. For a long time I refused to even consider buying one. But in a moment of weakness I caved.
Pre-Covid we spent our winters in Arizona. The landscape surrounding our house was the typical decorative stone. Our fur-kids understandably did not care to walk on it - let alone do their business. So, a lovely little park with rolling lush green grass down at the end of our street became a little piece of heaven according to our pups Thomas and Teegan!
After a few visits though, we found that it was hard to contain the exuberance the fur-kids felt about the park. We'd be half way down the block and they were already pulling on their leashes like sled-dogs anxious to get to that grass. And, when they set paws on it, well! They'd wanted so much to run and frolic. Yes, frolic. But, unfortunately running and frolicking just wasn't in the cards with the traditional harness and short 5 foot leash in which they were strapped.
So, after a little (very little) thought, I decided to purchase retractable leashes and give them a try.
Well, it was immediately evident on the first trip to the park, with the fur-kids sporting their new retractable leashes attached to their harnesses, that they were going to like them. And, quite frankly, us too. About 5 paces before the edge of the park we'd unlock the leash and they could run toward the grass with high anticipation of that lush carpet under their toes letting us maintain our normal pace. Once they stopped for their first pee, we'd have time to catch them up and then give them another 16 feet to run again. The newfound freedom at both ends of the leash was great!
However, even though it can be a real treat for fur-kids, these retractable leashes have their dangerous downsides. User error and lack of common sense attributes to the problems and accidents encountered using these devices. And I'm proof.
A SPLIT SECOND IS ALL IT TAKES
The "Brats" (as I lovingly called them) loved visiting with folks and would naturally become excited when we encountered other fur-kids. While standing with them extended the fullw length of their leashes, a couple with a shi-tzu mix began walking toward us. Before I had a chance to "rein in" my two, they began running in circles of excitement at the anticipation of meeting up with a new buddy. Within seconds I had the thin steel lines of both leashes wrapped around my calves. Fortunately, the couple realized the "jam" I was in and walked away so my two could calm down. Once I was able to get myself untangled from the lines and retract them into a somewhat controllable length, we were able to meet up with these new friends.
However, as a result of my carelessness, I sustained serious bruising on my calves. I should have been more aware of the surroundings and shortened up the leashes to a "manageable" length long before Thomas and Teegan had a chance to tie me up as they did. I was extremely lucky that I was only bruised; the sharp steel cord used in these leashes could have easily sliced my calves had it been strung any tighter!
ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN
Over the years since the retractable leash came on the market, hundreds of horror stories recounting circumstances where people have suffered serious, even life-altering injuries have been documented. Reportedly, people have lost fingers and thumbs, and have been cut seriously by the sharp steel cord. Worse, dogs have been injured, maimed, and even killed due to improper use of the leash. I personally have witnessed people "walking" their pooches from their golf carts and bicycles using these leashes. Tragedies waiting to happen!
Since 2001, nearly 3/4 of a million injuries attributed to retractable leashes were reported. They have been banned in more than half of the states in the US due to leash length restrictions prohibiting leashes over 6 feet long. Here in Ontario, a provincial bylaw prohibits leashes over 6 feet long and in many municipalities they are required to be even shorter.
Originally designed for training purposes to teach certain types of "tracking" and 'recall", the retractable leash was never meant to be used for your leisurely stroll on a busy city sidewalk or bustling park pathway.
Common sense and acute awareness to the surroundings is of the utmost importance and is key when using a retractable leash.
Included in an arm's length of instructions and warnings listed on the website of the Germany-based Flexi, one of the largest manufacturers of the retractable leashes, state: “To avoid the risk of eye or face injury and cuts, burns, and amputations to your body or the body of another person from the leash cord/tape or all belt and hook, read and follow these warnings and directions for use before using your Flexi leash.” Gosh, if that doesn't make you stop and think.....
There are so many more "hidden" dangers to these "instruments of peril". The plastic handle is so easily yanked out of one's hand by a sudden jerk when a fur-kid at top speed hits the end of the length. As opposed to keeping a traditional leash looped around one's wrist in order to prevent a breakaway from happening, a pup will further likely be spooked when this plastic projectile bounces on the pavement behind them sending them running out of control in fear.
Once the length of a leash is longer than 4 or 5 feet, control of your pooch will become difficult. "Reining in" is virtually impossible in an emergency situation and the chance of a pup on the chase running into traffic, ingesting something dangerous, walking through broken glass or other hazardous debris, and vulnerable to attack increases significantly. Imagine that aggressive big dog or even a coyote zeroing in on your fur-kid while they are extended out 16 feet or more? What chance do you have of pulling them in to safety in time? I shudder to think....
Serious injury to your fur-kid is not a risk worth taking. If you use a traditional collar with this kind of leash, a sharp stop can snap your pup's neck back causing damage to their trachea and neck vertebrae which can be extremely painful and have long-lasting effects. Even attached to a harness, rather than collar, back and leg injuries are common and can be life altering for your pooch.
When we are leash training, we work hard to teach our pups NOT to pull. However, using a retractable leash actually encourages a pup to pull. Yes, they're actually being trained to pull! When they believe that every time they sprint off they'll run fast and far, they will never be satisfied to walk calmly on a loose traditional leash.
LEASH TRAINING & ETIQUETTE
Naturally, the whole issue of leash training is critical. Here are a just few quick tips to help you and your pooch stay safe as you walk.
Training on leash should begin from day 1. NEVER, EVER begin leash training using a retractable leash! In fact, if you've taken anything away from this story so far, you'll refrain from using one at all.
Training a young puppy varies slightly and may be somewhat easier than training an adult (most likely shelter) pup. Rescues often have lived years of undesired behaviour and may have never even been on a walk on leash. It will be a delicate task with a rescue who may also be skittish, nervous, full of anxiety, or even aggressive.
Your goal should be loose leash training. In other words, you should be able to hold a coffee in your hand with the leash looped around your wrist. (But, never do that when you're out walking in public! ...for obvious reasons keep a firm grip on that leash.)
Train your pup to walk on your right side. This is important because if you're walking along a public pathway your body and that of an oncoming walker will separate your pup and a dog coming from the other direction. That should give you more control on any encounter that might happen once you pass each other.
Without a doubt, leash training is one of the most critical behaviours you'll teach your pup! It will take immense dedication, patience, and practice. But, when you have a pooch who behaves perfectly and politely on a leash, you'll be amazed at how rewarding your walks will be. You can find detailed instruction and practical tips and tricks for leash etiquette and training in my upcoming ebook, Belt-Loop Boot Camp 101.
WILL WE OR WON'T WE?
The clear risks of danger and injury when using a retractable leash should be first and foremost in our minds whenever we clip one on to our pooch! Maintaining vigilance when in public such as a park or city sidewalk, paying attention to the surroundings, and anticipating dangerous situations are all critical when we use these devices. For our own family, we'll continue to use them in "certain circumstances", mostly just in our own unfenced backyard giving the new rescue fur-kid a sense of freedom to run and play but, without a doubt, we'll exercise far more caution while we have her on the other end.