Why Trainers Hate Retractable Leashes (But I Own One Anyway)

retractable leash

Retractable leashes are one of those things that dog trainers love to hate. This is partially due to the fact that retractable leashes are made with convenience, not training, in mind. But the real problem with retractable leashes in most dog trainer’s minds is that people just don’t seem to know how to use them correctly.

But wait, you might be thinking. Retractable leashes are so easy to use. How could people possibly be getting them wrong?

We’ll get to that in a second. But first, I want to come clean about something. I bought a retractable leash last week. And I love it.

puppy leash

Why to Own a Retractable Leash and When to Use It

Since I’m all about teaching people (and dogs) what to do rather than lecturing or scolding for doing something wrong, let me start here: retractable leashes have a time and a place, especially when they’re used right.

I plan on using my new retractable leash in precisely one situation: when I am hiking and it is illegal or dangerous to have my dog off-leash.

Barley has superb off-leash obedience, but that does not give us the right to break leash laws. Leash laws exist to protect wildlife, people, and dogs.

Even though my dog has rock-solid recall, he’s still potentially very scary for nesting birds, skittish (and threatened) pika, or even other dogs that are enjoying their hikes. I work with enough fearful and aggressive dogs to know that one of the best (and least-often mentioned) reasons for leash laws is other dogs that just want to enjoy their hikes.

We also spend a lot of time hiking internationally, where Barley could easily startle another hiker who is less used to dogs than Americans are. Worse, it’s just too easy to imagine him stumbling upon a venomous snake or another dangerous animal in Central America.

In other words, there are a lot of good reasons to obey leash laws. I’m not going to say that I’ve never broken a leash law – I have. I’ve arrived in an empty parking lot on a mountain road and decided to break the law that day, based on my assessment of the low hiking traffic and safety of a trail.

But I like to obey leash laws more than I break them, especially if an area is popular or snakes are all over the place.

So I purchased a retractable leash.

I could easily use a good biothane long line instead. But I don’t.

Why? Same reason everyone else likes retractable leashes: they’re so darn easy.

Managing a long line just isn’t my idea of fun on a hike. The constant giving and taking of slack is a pain.

A retractable leash is my way to still enjoy my hike without putting my dog at risk from predators, disrupting the hike of others, or breaking the law. 

Which Retractable Leash Should I Use?

In short, get a retractable leash with tape instead of cord. The cord on a flexi-lead can be pretty dangerous to your fingers or to your dog’s appendages.

Always get a retractable leash that’s a bit stronger than necessary for your dog (most have “weight limits” that you don’t want to surpass).

I recommend using a sixteen-foot retractable leash rather than a twenty-five-foot one. Twenty-five feet is so far that your dog might as well be off-leash as far as other people (and wildlife) are concerned.

Finally, ensure that your chosen retractable leash has a locking mechanism. This allows you to keep your dog closer to you while you pass other people on the trail or get in and out of the car. This is SO important for safety!

I use the one linked below.

dog hiking

Being off-leash is cool – but only if it’s legal and safe.

I Still (Mostly) Hate Retractable Leashes

All of that said, if I’m not on a hike, my retractable leash is in the car. We own a four-foot and eight-foot leather leash that we use for 60% of Barley’s on-leash time (unless we’re on a run, then we use a waist bungee leash or a canicross belt leash).

The four-foot leash is perfect for “around town” stuff where we don’t want him wandering too far, while the eight-foot leash is my go-to “walking time” leash. It allows Barley to sniff and explore a bit more without giving too much freedom.

We do not use our retractable leash in the city. And I suggest you don’t, either. Here’s why.

Retractable leashes are not my go-to leash because they:

1. Teach dogs to pull.

Retractable leashes are constantly putting pressure on the dog. This teaches the dog that to move forward, he needs to pull (at least a little bit). If he slows down, the leash reels him in. This is great if you’re working on canicross, but not if you want to teach leash manners.

If your dog is still working on loose-leash walking,  skip the retractable leash for now. Build up her skills first.

2. Are 0ften paired with improper equipment.

Retractable leashes put constant pressure on your dog. That means that they should never be used with choke chains, prong collars, or pinch collars. You can’t easily give an effective correction with a retractable leash, and the constant pressure may have one of two effects on your dog.

A flexi lead paired with a “training collar” may desensitize your dog to the pressure, making the tool less effective. Or that constant pressure can be a constant source of discomfort for your dog, making her likely to start acting aggressively from the stress.

Flexi leads are equally silly to use with no-pull harnesses or head collars. All of these tools are made to give you more control over your dog, while the express purpose of a retractable leash is to give your dog more freedom. Using both tools at once just doesn’t make sense.

I don’t use training collars with my dogs (I prefer a nice, comfy harness and good training), but I especially hate seeing dogs that are being walked with both a flexi lead and a training collar.

It’s simply counterproductive, since the retractable leash rewards pulling while the training collar attempts to discourage pulling.

3. Let dogs wander too far.

We’ve all been there: sitting in the vet’s office while a dog on a retractable leash wanders three rooms away from his owner. Or watching as a dog on a flexi lead steals treats, snarks at other dogs, and trips the salesperson in Petco. Or gasping in horror as a dog on a retractable leash narrowly escapes being hit by a car as he wanders 20+ feet away from his owner.

All of these examples are why you should avoid using a retractable leash in urban environments (especially indoors).

But even more importantly, they highlight that many owners value their dog’s “freedom” over the safety and enjoyment of others.

Retractable leashes have locking mechanisms that could make them OK to use in urban environments, but so many owners simply don’t seem to know how to use the lock.

In most urban environments, it’s dangerous to let your dog wander sixteen or twenty-five feet away from you. Get a shorter leash instead and keep your dog safe (and your neighbors happy).

4. Can cause injury.

Your dog can get up to a pretty high speed on a flexi lead, meaning it’s easy for a dog on a retractable leash to yank your shoulder (hard). This hurts. Using a retractable leash with a large dog can be dangerous for you.

Just as risky, the corded retractable leashes are quite dangerous for fingers. You can easily burn yourself or even amputate a finger on a retractable leash.


5. Heavy and awkward.

Yes, I personally got my retractable leash because I found it less cumbersome than a long line. But it’s still heavy and awkward. I’ll never go trail running while carrying a flexi-lead, and I think I’ll always feel a bit like an idiot with the huge, clunky thing in my hands.

It’s heavy, awkward, and annoying. While the locking mechanism on most retractable leashes is pretty easy to use, they’re still harder to really control dogs with than using a normal leash.

So, what’s your verdict? Do you love or hate retractable leashes – and if so, when and why are they at their best and worst?

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