The Votes Are In On Retractable Leashes

by Lyn T. Garson, CVT, CCRP

Take a poll. Ask veterinary professionals, behavioral trainers, groomers and doggie day care providers about their most hated pet product and you will probably receive the same answer from everyone – the retractable leash.

Sure, retractable leashes are convenient, sporty, and allow a dog some extra walking freedom. Many models even come with on-board accessories such as flashlights and bone-shaped poop bag holders. But the fact is that these leashes are extremely dangerous.

Common Injuries to Dogs and Humans
While the retractable leash does allow a larger area and distance for dogs to roam and sniff, it also opens up a world of increased risk. Because the cords on these leashes roll out at up to thirty feet in length, it’s much more difficult to control a dog’s sudden movements. While attached to the wandering end of a retractable leash, dogs have been known to easily dart into the street and get hit by a car. They can bolt after a squirrel, cat or another dog. Pet owners in a panic might grab the leash cord or attempt to engage the locking button on the handle to stop the dog but these actions can happen so abruptly that the dog gets jolted back by their collar, causing possible damage to their trachea, neck, or spine. Also, without warning, the cords can suddenly snap off the reel mechanism inside the plastic handle while in use with any size dog, but especially by the forceful pull of larger animals. The dog is then free to run unprotected, meanwhile the owner may be smacked in the face by the recoiled leash handle.

Here’s another situation that happens more often than pet owners imagine. While fumbling with car keys, mail, or distracted by a smartphone in hand, the bulky plastic handle of the retractable leash is accidentally dropped on a dog’s body, or worse, their head. Sadly, a friend’s small dog was once struck on the head by a falling leash handle and suffered life-long seizure episodes as a result.

Head injuries are just one of the many problems caused by these leashes. Lacerations, bruises, rope-type burns, and fractures are commonly seen injuries in both dogs and humans. There are even reports of finger amputations as a result of grabbing or being entangled by the thin cord. Retractable leashes now come with a warning stamped on them, and some manufacturers include a guidebook describing not only proper use but potential hazards.

Other dangerous scenarios are associated with the use of retractable leashes. While dogs are busy exploring their surroundings, the leash cord might snag on obstacles such as trees, bushes and other objects. The cord can also be caught around their neck, causing strangulation. When a dog on a retractable leash encounters another dog to play with, their leash cords can easily become wrapped around their bodies or limbs increasing the chance of various types of injuries to themselves and their owners. If either dog is aggressive, an uncontrolled greeting can turn into a vicious attack that is difficult to prevent or break up without the strength and reliability of a solid leash.

As dogs learn to associate pulling on the leash cord with independence, this additional perceived freedom becomes a rewarded behavior, so dogs continue to pull and ignore training commands. When a dog tugs the cord hard or unexpectedly, the heavy cumbersome handle can be yanked out of a pet owner’s hand allowing the dog the ultimate escape – to run loose and into potential trouble. The dog might be so terrified by the sound of the plastic handle banging against the ground as it trails behind him that he panics and runs farther away from his owner. This situation not only is hazardous but also creates an associated fear of leash walking.

Safe Leash Walking
The whole purpose of using a leash is for safe and controlled walking for both you and your dog. While it’s fine to allow some slack for sniffing and exploring, the longer a leash extends out, the less control you have, which minimizes the ability to manage potential problems. The best method of safe leash walking is using a fixed-length four- to six-foot flat standard lead, with your dog either by your side or nearby obeying your commands.

Take the time and patience required to train your dog not to pull by offering high value treats while practicing walking nicely beside you. Small pieces of raw hot dogs, tiny meatballs, or bits of string cheese all make tasty treats for learning proper leash manners. Combining a harness with the leash is a great way to protect your pet from accidentally slipping out of a collar or damaging their neck or trachea. Walking with your dog safely by your side on a sturdy leash makes for much more relaxing and enjoyable outings together.

Now take another poll. Ask your pet professionals which type of leash material they like best. You may be surprised by their answer – good quality leather. The reasons are many. These leashes are strong, more comfortable to hold, less slippery in wet weather, and easier to grip. Cowhide leather leashes are more durable than nylon, will last many years with basic care, and become more supple over time. They are my personal favorite, and the one I recommend to pet owners consistently. The leash I still use today is the same six-foot leather lead I purchased when training my newly adopted three-year-old shepherd beagle mix more than 30 years ago. And every day when I clip the lead on my current dog’s harness, I reminisce about my three dogs who safely used this leash before him.