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a warning against retractable leashes

  • Dr. Kim
  • Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on
    Staff Veterinarian and Pet Health Writer of Petplan

I was reading an article the other day about the top “must have” pet products for summer. I was really enjoying the article until I came to one entry: the retractable leash.


Retractable leashes are very, very popular. In case you aren’t familiar with them, they are leashes that consist of a long, thin cord on a reel. The leashes range in length, but their selling point is that they are very long (some up to 26 feet!), allowing your dog to roam and exercise but still be under control. With the click of a button, you can reign in your pet, albeit a foot or two at a time.


If there is a veterinary product that is more loathed by veterinarians than the retractable leash, I don’t know what it is. The retractable leash has sent many an individual (both pets and humans!) to the hospital. Sure, they allow your dog to stop and smell the roses without hindering your walk, but they also contribute to bad behavior and injury.


Retractable leashes almost always teach a dog to pull. Think about it—you’re on a walk and your dog wants to walk faster than you. He pulls on the leash, and you let out a foot or two of line to let him walk ahead. BAM! You just rewarded him for an undesirable behavior (pulling on the lead). When you reward behaviors, they are repeated.


Dogs who are 10 feet away from you on a walk are NOT under control, even if they are on a leash. The retractable leash isn’t magic—it doesn’t suddenly pull your pet to you when you unlock it. You have to essentially reel them in, and a lot can happen in the time it takes you to get control of your dog.


We veterinarians have seen all manner of injury due to the use of retractable leashes. Dogs on long leads can dart into traffic and get hit by a car. They can get into fights. They can get tangled in their own leash cord, which results in injuries to the limbs. They can tangle YOU in their cord, causing you to fall or be dragged.


The retractable cord itself is a hazard. Friction burns (or “rope burns”) are so, so common. Human hands and doggie mouths and tongues are frequent victims of a fast moving retractable cord. There are even multiple reports of amputations due to the cord being wrapped around an owner’s finger when their pet took off without notice.


Lastly, the reel and handle part of the leash are heavy and the unit is easily dropped. Imagine this scenario: you and your dog are out on a walk. She’s walking about 10 feet in front of you, and you both are daydreaming. Suddenly, she sees a squirrel (or other distraction) and bolts. You weren’t expecting this and you drop the leash.


Now the retractable leash is retracting, and the way your dog sees it, it is clunking along the road and IT IS CHASING HER! This can be terrifying to dogs, and will encourage them to continue running (despite dangers like oncoming traffic) and ignoring your commands to return. This scenario happens, and lost dogs or worse are the result.


Have I put you off this “must have” product? I hope so, and your vet does, too!

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Posted by Soniae Chobanian
on December 28 2016 22:12

What is the best leash to use to walk ur dog I have two dogs a pitbull n a miniature havenese poodle,and the leash u said not to use I have two if those for both dog's so please help me with a better leash.? what kind should I get?

Posted by Kathy Holland
on December 19 2016 12:33

I abhor retractable leashes and have never used one. Earlier this year, I was horrified when I saw a little dog on a fully extended one dart out into the street right in front of an oncoming van. Luckily the driver swerved and the unthinkable was avoided. Almost worse was a few minutes later, the owner again let the leash extend to it's full length. I was simply appalled at this owner's lack of consciousness.

Posted by Brandi Hunter
on April 19 2016 11:15

I attempted to use one with my dog Bernie and the dog that I leashed trained...suddenly became a puller. I haven't used it since and he hasn't pulled since, minus the occasional squirrel encounter. I use a fabric leash with a harness and all of my neighbors marvel at how well behaved he is on a leash....as they struggle with their retractable leashes.

Posted by Rebecca R. Greene
on March 02 2016 09:07

For us, the use of a HALTER has prevented most of the problems you have referred to with the use of a retractable leash. We are able to grab the halter and totally control the dog when needed. And by the way, using a halter when a dog pulls also prevents damage to the dog's throat that can be caused by only using a collar.

Posted by Sheryl Watts-Smith
on March 01 2016 17:17

I agree with you about the retractable leash,but I have one and I love it while walking my Lola she is allowed 5 feet and when she feels the lock she stops and looks to me for a command,when we jog she is next to me as if she was at the dog show

Posted by Suzie Rose
on December 15 2015 20:20

We've been using a retractable leash for our pup, and have never had a problem with it or him. When I walk him near where there are cars, I keep him on a short leash, and when we're out on a walk where there are no cars, or other dogs, or other people, I let me walk with the longer length of leash. We've had him for 6 years, and no problems at all. I keep my eyes on him the whole time we're walking...to keep him safe.

Posted by Glenn Skinner
on December 08 2015 09:26

I use a retractable lease on my devon rex cat. I started out with a short solid lease, but it did not give the cat enough room to "hunt" I moved to a 16ft retractable. Even though he is only a cat, he has on a couple of occasions bolted after a bird and pulled the lease from my hand. In his case, the clunking of the lease annoys him so he stops and sits until I come and pick the lease back up. If we are near the road, or around people I keep the lease locked and short. I do not give him more lease if he tugs on the lease, I pull back and give a stern "no". Some of your arguments against retractable leashes has more to do with incorrect use by the owner than a problem with the leash itself. I have been walking with my cat for 2 years now and have moved him to a 23ft run, which has worked out very well. When holding the leash firmly, there is no way for my fingers to get tangled in the cord no matter what the cat does.

Posted by Mary Bodel, MH
on June 10 2015 19:07

I had been using a 16 foot retractable leash to prevent the dog from pulling. I don't walk either dog out of the enclosed back yard but Ashley pulls so hard that a six foot fixed leash can have her dragging me. I have a serious back and knee problem that makes this particularly dangerous. At sixteen feet she was check reined. I read the instructions, which included what to do if the leash gets wrapped around your fingers. Good think I did. Serious rope burn on one finger, minor on two others and my palm. Needless to say I don't use it anymore. Unfortunately that also means someone else in the family has to walk her, which is sad.

Posted by Linda Swanson
on June 09 2015 13:15

I agree with you totally. I have a pitbull border collie mix. She does pull alot. I had a retractable leash given to me and I never used it because I could see the dangers it could cause. My girl is alive and safe because I seen the dangers this could cause,Thank-you for bringing this to others attention.I wou ld die if I lost my baby because of a retractable leash.

Posted by Lou and Apollo
on June 08 2015 15:12

my 4 Month old puppy was attached by 2 dogs on a flexi-leash I HATE THEM, the dogs were about 20 feet ahead of their owner and I was peacefully walking my dog on a 6feet leash on a heel command, perfectly fine. These 2 just take off running toward us and just attack my puppy and she just screams and cries !! She didn't even vote back :-( I cried so hard and the owner had a toddler with him too!! I yelled "take control of your freaggin dogs!!!!!! I now yell at people to back the F off if they are coming toward me. I actually avoid going places with my 2 dogs now. It was traumatizing. I decided to have a HUGE fenced in yard instead... The 2 of them run and play and exercise way more than on s walk anyway! I'll take an ugly house with a yard any day over a house without it

Posted by Mary Stetzel
on June 08 2015 11:42

I have been warning people about the dangers of using a retractable leash for years. Unfortunately, it seems to fall on deaf ears.

Posted by Patti Warren
on August 13 2014 15:14

The dropped leash chasing the dog thing happened to me, too. If was horrific, watching her trying so desparately to get away from the leash that was bouncing off the sidewalk & road every which way and with such noise. The closer it got to her the faster she tried to go. Me too, but I couldn't run as fast as she was. She only stopped after the leash got stuck in some bushes in a grassy area. The leash went from the bushes into the trash.

Posted by A
on August 12 2014 10:36

I have a large dog who is aggressive towards other dogs. I have no issues keeping my dog away from other dogs, but unfortunately other owners are not so good at this, especially ones with these retractable leashes. Their dogs will come running up to my dog and I will have to essentially put my dog into a headlock with his chin up to prevent him from going after the other dog. Just because your dog is friendly does not mean other dogs will be friendly to him/her...

Posted by Lynn Bass
on June 30 2014 16:38

The last scenario, dropping the leash, happened to me. I was walking both my dog and my sister's 6 month old puppy on retractable leashes. I have NEVER used a retractable leash since. He was terrified. This was in a fairly busy upper Manhattan street. That's quiet relative to midtown, but still very busy. I screamed at the top of my lungs and literally stopped traffic. Luckily, he stopped UNDER a parked car and did not run out into the road. I'd have lost him if he had run into the road. I have not used a flexi since. I was VERY careful, but they are VERY dangerous. I had neighbors who walked two dogs with Flexis at a time. One dog is a bad idea; two dogs is a REALLY bad idea.

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