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A Vet's Opinion on Retractable Dog Leashes

My thoughts? Retractable leashes don't kill dogs, but inattentive people with retractable leashes kill dogs.

 |  Jan 21st 2014  |   34 Contributions


The subject of retractable leashes has caused some controversy on Dogster over the years. A while back one of my editors asked me to weigh in on the subject as a veterinarian. I replied that I'd be happy to, but that my opinion on the subject could be very simply boiled down: Retractable leashes don't kill dogs. Inattentive people holding retractable leashes kill dogs.

Retractable leashes are great in theory. They allow attentive owners and their dogs to explore the world more freely. If the dog wants to veer off the sidewalk to check something out, the owner can allow it while the dog remains under careful supervision and, ultimately, under the owner's direct physical control. If an unfriendly dog approaches, the leash can be retracted and the dog kept close to prevent a fight. If a doddering old man comes near, the leash can be retracted to prevent a broken hip. When an intersection is reached, the leash can be retracted to prevent the dog from being struck by a car. When a businessman dressed in a nice suit approaches, the leash can be retracted to prevent the dog from jumping on him and getting mud on his trousers. If a pile of chicken bones is on the grass, the leash can be retracted so that the dog cannot consume them.

Here is the problem: in my life, I have never once met a person who uses a retractable leash in the above-described fashion. Those people may be out there, but I haven't encountered them.

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There's a downside to retractable leashes. Walking a dog by Shutterstock.

Instead, what I see regularly are inattentive people with un-retracted retractable leashes allowing their dogs to run roughshod while they pay attention to something else, such as the Facebook app on their smartphones. These dogs might as well not be on leashes at all.

In my daily life, this is a nuisance but it's not the end of the world. I can generally handle it when not-so-friendly little dogs on retractable leashes try to attack my 65-pound pal, Buster. (I have noted that when the owners of these dogs finally look up from their phones and realize that their pet is attempting to commit suicide, they invariably are unable to work the leash and cannot cause it to retract.) I have been the person whose trousers were muddied by dogs on retractable leashes, and I can simply visit a dry cleaner. I'm not yet old enough to break a hip when dogs on retractable leashes trip me up.

However, it is in my professional life that I see the truly tragic outcomes of inappropriate retractable leash use. Those suicidal little dogs with Napoleon complexes sometimes get mauled or killed. Other dogs are needlessly hit by cars, or they get into more even-handed fights, or they suffer pancreatitis after consuming leftovers from picnics.

In theory, any inattentive person with any leash, retractable or not, is a potential menace to their dog's safety and well-being. However, in practice the length of flexileads allows dogs to go further and therefore get into more trouble. An inattentive person walking a dog on a short leash is unlikely to have their pal get hit by a car unless the car jumps onto the sidewalk (which happens not infrequently -- I have many times treated dogs who were hit at the same time as their owners while walking on sidewalks). If that same dog is on a long leash he can get off the sidewalk to where the traffic is, which is substantially more dangerous.

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Two friends walk a dog by Shutterstock.

As a dog owner, I take umbrage to any people who allow their dogs to give the species a bad name. Dogs that muddy nice clothes make the dog haters of the world feel justified in hating my dog, even though he has never in his life done such a thing.

And it goes deeper. The dog haters of the world would love to see further restrictions on canine access to public places. They'd like to see dogs allowed only in certain areas of parks or banished altogether (their usual refrain is something along the line of "parks are for people"). Misbehaving dogs -- whether off leash or on long leashes -- give them ammunition. I hate to see them get that ammunition, because I like going places with my dog.

In fact, the use of retractable leashes is already illegal in many places such as the city of San Francisco and all California state parks. These places have laws requiring dogs to be on leashes that are six feet in length or less. Yet many people flaunt these laws, and I worry they could place the future of dogs in public places at risk. I imagine that if one large dog on an un-retracted retractable leash were to maul a child in a California State Park, then in the future all dogs might simply be prohibited from the parks (as they are in many places). In this sue-happy world, we dog owners need to cherish and respect places such as the California state parks that have liberal dog policies.

If you are an attentive person who uses a retractable leash responsibly, then more power to you. I have no problem with you. But one thing's for sure: I've never met you.

What do you think of retractable leashes? Do you use one? Do you have a problem with people who do? Let us know in the comments!

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