Dogs love to roam free – it’s just what they do. Given the chance, they’ll run and play to their heart’s content. All us dog owners know this. And we also know that living in more urban areas also means (sadly) that our dogs can’t run free when they wish.
That’s why we have leashes.
But not all leashes are created equally, and some leashes can often even do more harm than good. For many dog owners, retractable leashes have become the perfect solution to the problem of dogs that want to roam free, but can’t. Because they can extend to lengths of up to 26 feet, dogs get that little bit of freedom they just don’t get with the standard 6-foot leash. But this extra space and movement can come at a hefty price in the form of misbehaving dogs, or worse: injury to you or your pet.
“Understanding the pitfalls and pros of using a retractable leash will keep you and Fido successful, happy and injury-free on your walks,” says ASPCA behavior expert Sharon Wirant, manager for ASPCA Anti-Cruelty Behavior Services. “Retractable leashes are risky when walking a dog in an area with lots of activity going on. Maintaining control is difficult at best, especially if your dog gets spooked or decides to chase a potential canine friend or small critter. A sudden reaction by Fido can easily pull the retractable leash right out of the owner’s hand. Fido is then at risk of injury from a car, a dog that’s not appreciative of his greeting or getting lost in the neighborhood. If you were fortunate to keep hold of the leash, the potential for injury by the cord is high for the leash holder and other people close by.”
Wirant says that when used properly and wisely, retractable leashes are useful to give your dog that extra room to stretch his legs. However, it is key to only use these leashes in areas with low activity, such as a quiet park, trail or fenced-in area. You must always be aware of your surroundings to prevent potential mishaps, she says. If you see a person, dog or other animal approaching, call your dog over to shorten the leash and help get more control to prevent any incidents.
“With a retractable leash, the longer the leash, the less control of Fido you have,” Wirant says.
For Dr. Kim Smyth, Petplan Pet Insurance staff veterinarian, there is just never a good time to use a retractable leash. Smyth has treated several dogs after they’ve been hurt while on a retractable leash – both from being injured by the leash itself and from altercations with other dogs.
“Retractable leashes are deceiving – because the dog is on a leash he seems to be safe, but the truth is that a lot can happen – and quickly – when a dog is 10 or 20 feet from his owner,” says Smyth. “They can bolt into traffic, have a confrontation with another dog or animal or get tangled in the long lead – and panic – injuring their limbs. In the time it takes an owner to retract the leash when something like this happens, oftentimes the dog has already been injured. And when the leash is trying to be retracted quickly, it can cause friction burn, or ‘rope burns,’ to the pet’s mouth or limbs, and even their owner’s hands.”
In addition to rope burns, more serious injuries can occur, says Smyth.
“People can also fall if they get tangled up in the long lead,” she says. “There are even several reports of pet owners losing their fingers after the retractable cord wrapped around their limb when their pet took off without notice.”
Another problem that can arise, she says, is if your dog sees something like a squirrel and runs after it speedily, it is easy for you to drop the heavy handle of the retractable leash.
“The noise of the handle dragging on the ground behind the dog can be terrifying to them,” she says. “They can feel as if they are being chased, and might run even faster trying to escape, which can result in a lost or injured dog – especially if this occurs near a road.”
Professional dog trainer Kate Connell, owner of Calmer Canines and specializing in fear and aggression cases, says retractable leashes can also lead to training and behavioral problems.
“I personally wish that the retractable leash had never been invented,” says Connell. “Just the very mechanism by which they work can cause training and behavioral problems, not to mention safety hazards. Because dogs must pull to get more leash length, they are rewarded for pulling, thus ruining any efforts made at training a dog to walk on a loose leash. This also rewards the dog for having outward focus (i.e. ignoring the owner). While having a dog that pulls is not the worst thing in the world, it can create a dog that feels he should be able to get to what he wants, when he wants, thus fueling temper tantrums, which can become aggressive, when the dog isn’t allowed to.”
Another concern Connell has regarding retractable leashes is neck injuries, and other related health problems.
“If a dog takes off running while on a retractable leash, depending on the weight and speed of the dog, the dog can get anything from whiplash, a collapsed trachea, a herniated disc or a broken neck,” she says.
Plus, if the leash clip or cord breaks or comes undone, or if the collar breaks, the clip/cord may come flying at the owner at high speed and lacerate an eye, she says. And there’s also the risk of your dog eating something dangerous off the ground.
“If a dog is 16-26 feet from his owner, his owner is not able to see what he is sniffing/eating,” Connell says. “People drop chicken bones, pills, gum, trash and all sorts of dangerous items on the ground and if the owner is unaware of what the dog ingested, he may not know to take the dog to the vet until long after the damage is done.”
So what are you supposed to do? You live in an apartment and your dog needs to get a little extra exercise.
Here are some recommendations from Connell:
1. Use a cotton or nylon long line when training at the park. Make sure that there is no human or dog who could get caught up in the leash.
2. Work with a positive reinforcement-based trainer who will help you teach your dog to become reliable off-leash. Of course, only let your dog off the leash in enclosed dog-safe areas.
3. Find a friend who has a yard and will let you give your dog some off-leash play time.
4. Walk with your dog at a pace that gives him the exercise he needs. Or consider getting a dog walker to meet your dog’s exercise needs.