When you go on a walk with your dog, you want them to be able to have the freedom to sniff, run ahead, and go at her own pace.
A retractable leash seems like a great solution. Your dog has more freedom than a standard 6 foot leash, yet you’re not as prone to tangling as you would be with a longer leash.
But retractable leashes have been causing problems for dogs, their owners, and passersby. While you may be able to use them safely in some situations, you should understand the risks before you swap out your regular leash for one of these devices.
Safety Tips For Using A Retractable Leash:
- Always use a harness, not a collar. The tension of a retractable leash can cause neck injuries, or even eye injuries in small dogs when paired with a collar.
- Use it in a wide open space. Your dog shouldn’t be able to reach a road, other dogs, other people, or critters even if they hit the full length of the leash.
- Always use a leash that is appropriate for your dog’s size and weight.
- Test the locking mechanism every time before you head out on your journey.
How Does A Retractable Leash Work?
If you’ve never owned a retractable leash, you might be wondering how it allows a dog so much leeway.
Inside the handle is a long line that may be thin, almost like a fishing line, or a bit thicker like a ribbon. It’s spring loaded so your dog can run up to 30 feet ahead of you, and the line retracts back into the handle when your dog returns.
Most retractable leashes have a button that allow you to lock the line so your dog cannot run ahead if you’re, for example, crossing a busy road.
Retractable Leash Injuries In Small Dogs
Retractable leashes contain a thin cord. This cord can wrap around your dog’s legs, and when combined with the constant pressure of the spring-loaded mechanism, it can cause friction burns, or even fracture or dislocate your dog’s leg.
These leashes can also cause friction burns, even deep cuts, on people. The leash can wrap around your ankles, or it can cut into your skin if you grab the line at the last moment as your dog lunges for a squirrel.
What’s more, retractable leashes maintain a constant pressure that requires your dog to pull forward to operate. If you use a leash that is meant for a larger dog, that pressure can put a strain on your dog’s back and joints over time.
To prevent injury while using a retractable leash, opt for a thick, ribbon-style leash. A wider leash distributes pressure more evenly so you and your dog are less likely to get leash burns if it ever wraps around a body part.
You should never use a retractable lead designed for a medium or large dog on a small dog. Even a “small” can be too powerful for a tiny toy breed like a Chihuahua or Yorkie.
NEVER use a retractable leash attached to a collar to avoid neck injuries and eye injuries. ALWAYS clip it to a harness.
Why Trainers And Other Dog Owners Hate Retractable Leashes
Although you can lock the leash to keep your dog from pulling forward, that lock isn’t very useful if you can’t engage it quickly enough.
So your dog can suddenly dash into the road, and you will have no way to reel them back in. Locking the leash only prevents your dog from going further.
When I see a dog on a retractable leash, especially if that dog is large and exuberant, I can’t help but get annoyed as I cross the street to avoid them.
I sometimes allow my dogs to greet other, friendly dogs, but I first need a moment to evaluate the dogs’ body language and at least make eye contact with the owner to see if they’re paying attention and seem confident in their dog’s ability to get along with mine.
When dogs run directly at us, we can’t help but get nervous.
No matter how friendly your dog is, please give other dogs and their owners a chance to give you permission to interact. It’s the best way for all of us to stay safe.
It’s not as though you should never use these leashes if you like them and know how to use them, but the entire time, you’re still the leader of the walk – it’s not the role of the leash to walk the dog. You still need to be present, and you need to decide where you’re going, not the dog.
When Is It Appropriate To Use A Retractable Leash?
If you’ve found a great retractable leash and you want to use it, take it to an empty soccer field or other open area. Your dog should not be able to run into other dogs, creatures, or people, even if they reach the end of the leash, so you should be clear for about 30 feet around.
Alternatives To A Retractable Leash
For a regular walk around your neighborhood, a standard 6 foot leash is perfect. Your dog has plenty of room to walk beside you or just in front of you, but they can’t access the road.
If you’re looking to give your dog more freedom in a field, at a beach, or lake, or campsite, a long line is my preferred option.
A long line is just like a regular leash, wide enough so it’s unlikely to cause leash burn, and long enough for your dog to run around and be free. If your dog suddenly runs into danger, you can simply reel them in.
Thursday 27th of January 2022
Thanks for all the info and reminders!
Thursday 19th of August 2021
To be honest, I hadn't consciously thought too much about this, but (I hope) have always exercised common sense when it comes to retractable leashes. For me, the takeaways are to be conscious of timing (not too busy), environment (wide open spaces and be mindful of roads and other dangers) and function (ensure it works!). Great article - after reading this hard not to be even more careful in future. Maybe my final takeaway is ... to find other alternatives for those times when I'm not sure of what I'm going to find in a particular destination!
Saturday 1st of August 2020
Hi Lindsey, thank you so much for the awesome article!
Wednesday 3rd of June 2020
Hi Lindsay - I really liked the points you made on this post. I feel the exact same way about dogs I don't know approaching my dogs on a retractable. The owner has very little control and it's dangerous for the dog and other people. Our lab is 13 and getting a bit cranky in her old age (who isn't? :)) and doesn't like exuberant younger dogs in her face. I always hope others will ask before their dog greets her, but it seems like it doesn't happen that often. Also great info about how harmful this can be for small dogs. I didn't know that, and I'm sure others will learn about it from you too. Thanks for another helpful post!
Thursday 4th of June 2020
Thanks Cheri! I try to veer away from telling people not to use things, just offer what I know and let them make an informed choice on their own.