At first glance, retractable dog leashes may seem like a great idea, offering dog owners the flexibility to manage their pets in a variety of situations. But many veterinarians and dog trainers (and even Consumer Reports) say they are dangerous to both humans and pets, and they also can result in undesirable dog behaviors.
"Professionally I am not much of a fan when it comes to retractable leashes. I do not recommend them to my customers, and invariably we find a better leash solution for them to utilize," says Matt Bryant, Houston area dog trainer and owner of Texas Dogfather.
A retractable leash consists of a thin cord wrapped around a spring-loaded reel in a plastic handle. The cord is typically from 10 to 26 feet long, and a button on the handle allows the pet owner to control the length of the leash. The big selling point of retractable leashes is flexibility: With a single leash, a dog owner can keep their pet close or allow them more freedom to roam and explore. But that flexibility comes at a cost.
"They can make things 'convenient' for the parent--sometimes, "Bryant says. "But the safe control and communication that is sacrificed is rarely worth it."
The use of retractable leashes has resulted in many reported injuries to humans. A startled or excited dog may suddenly jerk the leash, and the leash's thin cord can cause serious cuts, friction burns, broken bones and amputations. Many dog owners have become entangled in the cord and fallen.
Dogs are at risk, too. When a retractable leash runs out of line, it can jerk abruptly, startling the dog and causing injuries to its neck, spine and trachea. An animal that gets tangled in the cord becomes fearful and reacts unpredictably. Suddenly, the leash -- which was supposed to give the human control over the dog -- has created a very dangerous situation.
"In a challenging moment, the inherent design of the retractable leash robs the parent of safe and reasonable control over their dog, " says Bryant.
Safety risks aside, many trainers advise against retractable leashes for behavioral reasons.
"I find retractable leashes undesirable for several key reasons," says Bryant. "First, they add an element of uncertainty and unpredictability when passing by other leashed dogs. This allows for and sometimes actually reinforces reactive behavior."
Bryant says that retractable leashes actually "mute" the communication that should occur between human and dog in a way that other leashes do not. And, in some dogs, the consistent tension on the leash can actually encourage the dog to resist until they are at the limit of the leash length, "essentially conditioning your dog to pull to the leash limit every time."
So if retractable leashes are ill-advised, what's the best leash for a pup? For Bryant, the answer depends on the dog, his or her particular behaviors, the abilities and expectations of the parents and the environments that they will be walking in.
"I may suggest different kinds of 'rigs' depending on whether it is a nature walk, a trip to the Farmers Market or a long ride in the country," Bryant says. "But a retractable is never one of the options. A martingale is at the top of my list although there are others that I may recommend as well."