Flexi Leashes Are Dangerous In the Wrong Hands, But Here’s Why I Love Them

I've heard every horror story in the book about retractable leashes. But is the solution to ban the tool, or to teach owners how to use it responsibly?

Last Updated on May 13, 2015 by Dogster Team

Occasionally the universe aligns to bring great fortune, and one article inspires another. Such is the case this week. Last week I wrote “Four Awesome Things for Dogs that Some People Think Are Cruel,” discussing the appropriate and recommended use of scheduled feedings, muzzles, crates, and long lines.

A long line can be as simple as a length of rope or other material with a handle at one end and a leash clasp on the other. My favorite long lines are inexpensive and easily made in an afternoon with supplies from any hardware store. Created by Colleen Koch, the device is my favorite for most situations where a long line might be required for safety. (But be careful and wear long pants when using it with dogs with lots of energy — you don’t want rope burns on your legs.)

Regarding retractable leashes, using them irresponsibly puts dogs, people, and other animals in danger. Because I’ve been meaning to write something for my own clients, a new blog post, “The Great Flexi Debate,” was born on my Rewarding Behaviors blog discussing the appropriate use of retractable leashes. Here’s an overview.

The Good

+ Retractable leashes are great for relatively unpopulated trails or parks. (Caution: This might not apply to dogs that have extremely high prey drives.)
Retractable leashes are great for relatively unpopulated trails or parks. (Caution: This might not apply to dogs that have extremely high prey drives.)

+ They are great for use with dogs that are already trained to walk politely and give their handlers attention on standard, six-foot leashes.

+ They will probably allow your dog to walk two miles for every one you walk.

+ They can be a safe way for you to enjoy beautiful areas your dogs cannot safely enjoy off-leash. Retractable leashes allow both my dogs to experience beaches, forests, mountains, lakes, and trails that we would otherwise not experience, providing more sniffing and exploring opportunities than they’d get on a standard leash.

The Bad

+ If your dog is not trained to walk politely on a loose leash, a retractable leash might encourage pulling behavior via opposition reflex. See the Rewarding Behaviors blog for a tip on equipment cues.

+ Dropped flexi leashes can be extremely frightening (What is that monster chasing my tail?!) and cause your dog to run away, far and fast. You are advised to desensitize your dog to a dropped leash.

+ Retractable leashes present a safety risk to dogs. Never attach a retractable leash to a prong or choke collar or any type of head halter (like a Gentle Leader). Call your dog back before he reaches the end of his retractable leash and reward him for returning, so he doesn’t flip himself over hitting the end of the leash at full run.

+ These leashes are a safety risk to humans and have even caused amputations. The tape-type products are generally safer than the rope-type. Wear long pants to reduce the chance of rope burns, and hold the leash only by the plastic housing, as grabbing on to the leash itself may cause rope burns at a minimum and amputation of fingers at worst.

+ Retractable leashes are not recommended for dogs with reactivity problems in environments where triggers might be encountered.

The Common Sense

+ Small children should never handle a dog on a retractable leash.

+ Don’t use a flexi leash on city streets, in city parks, in veterinary offices, at dog events or large walking events, or where there is a lot of traffic, dogs, or foot traffic.

+ Never allow dogs to play on retractable leashes, even if they are friendly and well acquainted.

+ If you are walking your dog and encounter a dog or person who wants to greet your dog, lock the leash at a length of six feet or so before approaching.

+ Your dog should never have enough length of leash to run into the road.

+ Retractables are best for walking a single dog. Several dogs can tangle quickly, and the bulky housings are awkward to carry when you are dealing with more than one.

Examine your leashes, like all training equipment, before use. If the leash is damaged or frayed, if the locking mechanism is slow or ineffective or spontaneously pops out of locked position, or if the clasp doesn’t close securely, replace the item immediately. It’s advisable to replace a retractable leash every two years or so anyway.

+ Have a poop-scooping plan — my dogs are taught to sit and wait while I grab a poop bag, lock the leash, place it on the ground, scoop and pocket poop, and pick the leashes up until they are released.

+ If you see another dog or person, give your dog a pre-trained hand target cue to get back toward your side where you can lock the leash at a six-foot distance.

+ If you use your retractable leash in areas where your dog will be swimming or if the leash gets wet, fully extend it and lock it into place to dry when you get home to prevent mold or mildew.

I know many people who hate retractable leashes, but I think more than the leashes themselves these people hate irresponsible use of the leashes, which is unfortunately common. I’ve heard some say they want retractable leashes banned. This might be a logical decision within busy urban environments, but not when used according to the terms described here.

With a well-trained dog and responsible owner paying attention to the other creature at the end of the leash as opposed to texting or chatting on the phone, retractable leashes can greatly enhance exercise opportunities and quality of life for dogs and their people.

What are your thoughts? Do you have a retractable leash? Have you had bad experiences with it? Do you have any additions to the list? Is the solution to ban the tool, or to teach owners how to use it responsibly?

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