5 Rules I Follow When It Comes to Controversial Retractable Leashes

Flexi leashes have a bad reputation, but I really feel they can be safe under the right circumstances.


Editor’s Note: Your editors at Dogster HQ (most vocally our Editor-in-Chief) are not fans of retractable leashes because of the many dangers associated with them. But some of our writers are fans, and in the interest of keeping Dogster a place for lively debate, we like to let them share their opinions. Also see trainer Casey Lomonaco’s post from last year titled Flexi Leashes Are Dangerous in the Wrong Hands, But Here’s Why I Love Them. (And let us know where you stand on this issue.)

Some people hate retractable leashes, and there are some pretty good reasons for that attitude, but this article is not for those people. This is for people who use a retractable leash and want to avoid adding to its bad reputation. In fact, a few of these came from others who noticed I was using the leashes all wrong. Hopefully, by laying it all out here, I can help a few of you guys out there avoid repeating my mistakes.

1. Don’t even take a retractable leash to a congested area

No matter how well you use a retractable leash, there are some places people just don’t want to see it. The veterinarian’s waiting room, for example, most likely has a rule of “no retractable leashes.” It probably just isn’t worth the risk in highly trafficked areas with joggers and bicyclists whizzing by.

It’s generally a pretty good idea to always carry a standard leash just in case you need it, in case the spring fails and you’re left with a dozen feet of unmanageable cord. If a situation gets busy or congested unexpectedly, shorten and lock the leash immediately. You need the leash to be locked before the dog even thinks about doing something she shouldn’t, because her reaction time is probably quicker than yours.

2. Monitor your circle

If your dog is off to the side checking his pee-mail, you may know he won’t suddenly attack passing pedestrians, but passing pedestrians don’t necessarily know this. So if you are the center of the circle and the current length of the leash is the radius, you probably shouldn’t make other people enter the circle, no matter where the dog is. If the leash is locked hold it taut enough for them to be able to see it, so they know the dog is not able to suddenly dash towards them.

The more leash you let your dog have, the more alert you need to be, because you need to know who or what is within your circle. Nothing says “oblivious retractable leash user” more clearly than a dog who has wrapped himself three times around a tree before you even noticed. And naturally don’t use two retractable leashes at once, because one set of eyes cannot watch two separate dogs, and the potential for tangles and complications is exponentially increased.

3. Choose a highly visible leash

Some retractable leashes use a narrow black cord that can be hard to see. So pedestrians and even drivers on the road might not be able to see that your dog is leashed at all. This can lead them to thinking the dog might be running unrestrained towards them, or at the very least that you are not following the leash laws. A brightly colored wide tape leash may not be quite as long, but it is strong, highly visible, and, as a bonus, less likely to snap off your fingers if you manage to get tangled up in it.

4. Don’t get more leash than you can handle

My dog Avon responds really well to a recall, unless he is more than 20 feet away, in which case I have to apply a sliding scale of probability. So I would never get a leash that is more than 20 feet long. Personally, I think a 26-foot-long foot leash is a bit ridiculous — but maybe it has some kind of utility I don’t know about. In any case, don’t just get the longest leash there is (and they are just going to keep getting longer). Think about what you need and what is just going to get you into trouble.

5. Retractable leashes aren’t for every dog

Avon, my old Border Collie, has a million and one things he wants to sniff or look at on the morning walk. So the retractable leash lets him flit back and forth across the path while I am cautiously navigating the ice or mud. My Greyhound, on the other hand, absolutely wants to walk at heel and likes a loose leash. Also, while her recall is pretty good under normal circumstances, if I dropped the heavy handle unit of a retractable leash, she would most likely bolt for miles thinking it was chasing her. Every dog has their own style of walking and their own way of reacting to things. So the time, place and method of walking the dog should take this into account.

And remember that there are a lot of idiots out there with retractable leashes. Your neighbors probably don’t see the happy dog sniffing around in an open meadow in an area where leashes are mandated — and they may not notice that the well-mannered dog trotting around the pond is even on a retractable leash. But at some point they have probably been mugged by some muddy, manic beast on a mile-long cable held by an oblivious owner. So, just the sight of the retractable leash can make a lot of people nervous or irritated, just waiting for it to happen all over again.

The retracting leash is just a tool. If you choose to use it you not only need to use it well, you need to use it with an excess of courtesy and caution. Otherwise, more retractable leash bans will spring up, and more leash laws will be written to exclude retractable leashes. Soon, nobody will be able to use them.

About the author: Emily Kane is a New Zealand-born animal behaviorist of the throw-back radical behaviorist type, albeit with a holistic-yuppie-feminist-slacker twist. She spent many years as an animal behavior researcher and is now more of an indoor paper-pushing researcher. Her early dog-related education came from Jess the Afghan Hound and Border Collies Bandit and Tam. It is now being continued by her own dogs and extended dog family and some cats (and her three aquatic snails Gala, Granny, and Pippin — they think of themselves as dog-esque).

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1 thought on “5 Rules I Follow When It Comes to Controversial Retractable Leashes”

  1. You don’t know squat about walking a dog. Obviously you are the one being walked. People who think it’s OK to walk their dog in a 15 foot diameter need to be slapped. I don’t care how small or cute your dog is. Other dogs being walked properly don’t need their space invaded. I have had dogs for almost 50 years. I have never encountered a retractable leash user that walked their dog properly with respect to others in the community.

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