big black and white dog walking on a leash thinking 'this one is more comfortable!'

There are many areas of life that humans and dogs can agree on: couches are comfy, protein-rich meals are delicious, and the neighbor’s hairless cat is highly suspicious.

However, our canine companions often disagree with us when it comes to walking. Dogs walk faster than us, and they also like to stop and smell the roses (literally). They’ll meander a little, pee a bit, and meander a little more. Humans, on the other hand, tend to enjoy a slow stroll at a steady pace with very few stops.

Enter the supposedly-perfect compromise: the retractable dog leash. These extendable leashes give your dog the freedom to trot ahead or lag behind without much effort on your part. That way you can maintain your same pace, and you won’t have to ping-pong between encouraging your dog to keep up and fighting with your dog to slow down.

However, the convenience of retractable dog leashes come at a high price. In fact, these leashes present a variety of very serious dangers — which is why many professional trainers recommend dog parents ditch the retractable leash!

Retractable Leashes Teach Dogs to Pull

Dogs pulling on the leash is one of the most common training challenges dog parents face — which makes the popularity of retractable leashes puzzling, as these tools literally reward your dog for pulling!

Pulling against the tension of a retractable leash extends it, allowing your dog to move forward, speed up, sniff fun smells and wander at their leisure. Your dog quickly learns that if they want to go somewhere or do something, the only way to get there is to pull.

This is the exact opposite of what is taught in classic leash training, where the lesson is that only a loose leash gets Fido what he wants.

“There are a few reasons why these [retractable] leashes are not conducive to learning for dogs, but the most important is that they are confusing,” says Laurie Lawless, CDBC, owner of Dogs Rock! Vermont. “Since the length of the leash changes constantly, and owners can lock it at random, the dog never truly knows if they have four feet or ten. So they never really learn where they are supposed to be: fifteen feet in front of you or at your side…When the dog is switched back to a normal lead, the dog practices the same behavior, which is to pull against the leash.”

Retractable Leashes Are Often Used With the Wrong Equipment

There are many collars and harnesses available for dog parents that are advertised as the solution to dogs pulling on the leash.

Unfortunately, many dog parents figure that using one of these tools in combination with a retractable leash will give them the “best of both worlds” — when in fact, using a retractable leash with a tool designed to reduce pulling is extremely counterproductive.

That’s because most “training collars” such as pinch collars, choke chains or prong collars are intended to discourage your dog from pulling by causing discomfort when tension is applied to the leash. However, a retractable leash works by constantly applying tension! Therefore, Fido’s choke chain or prong collar will be constantly applying pressure to their neck while they are walking with a retractable leash. The never-ending discomfort may make your poor pup stressed or even reactive as they learn to dread walks.

Even tools that aren’t designed to apply discomfort, such as no-pull harnesses or head collars, shouldn’t be used with a retractable leash.

As dog trainer Kayla Fratt says: “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.”

Retractable Leashes Increase the Risk of Injury

The most concerning retractable leash dangers are the chances of a serious injury. Walking a dog is never without risk, but retractable leashes greatly compound that risk. They have the potential to lead to horrific injuries for yourself, your dog, or other people and dogs.

Many of the dangers come from the fact that retractable leashes are much longer than normal leashes. Some retractable leashes can extend as far as twenty or thirty feet. If you thought wrestling with your big dog was hard enough on a short leash, just imagine how much momentum he’ll have after a twenty-foot sprint!

Expert animal handler Cathy Gait writes: 

“Because retractable leashes have a long ‘runway,’ they provide your dog the opportunity to really get moving when he sees something that captures his interest, like a squirrel. He can lunge so fast that when he reaches the end of the leash, he gets a strong jolt that can put a lot of stress on his neck and throat. This can cause serious damage to the trachea.

Likewise, you can injure your shoulder because of that strong jolt. If you let go to avoid injuring yourself or your dog, now your dog is running around off-leash. Either way, it’s a problem.”

If you hang on to the leash as your dog runs, you may be dragged along the ground, skinning your elbows and knees. If your fingers are in the way when your dog bolts, you may even lose them! Amputations, rope burns and deep gashes are all dangers of retractable dog leashes.

This powerful jolt can also break your leash’s clips or other components, letting your dog run free while the leash itself snaps back and rebounds onto you like a whip. One 12-year-old girl was partially blinded by this exact situation.

The dangers of retractable dog leashes are compounded when other dogs or people are nearby. Any people or dogs who interact with you (or with your fleeing pup) also have to worry about the risks of getting entangled in the retractable leash, and the dangerous injuries that may result.

Other Dangers of Retractable Dog Leashes

Retractable Dog Leashes are Easy to Drop

Normal dog leashes are easy to hold, and can be gripped loosely or tightly. They also have a loop that you can slip over your wrist temporarily to free that hand (to pick up poop, for example).

Retractable dog leash handles, however, are made of a thick, hard plastic that has no flexibility. They can’t be adjusted to a way that’s more comfortable for you to hold, and there’s no easy way to free both hands without setting down the leash. It’s even more awkward to try to hold two retractable dog leashes in one hand.

The handle of a retractable dog leash can all too easily be dropped or ripped from your grip. Once that happens, it’s much more difficult to regain control than it would be with a normal leash.

A regular leash can be stepped on or grabbed to stop your dog’s escape, but a retractable leash is constantly retracting and shortening as your dog runs. This makes your dog extremely difficult to catch, and it can even be dangerous to try. If you grab the thin leash while your dog runs, the friction can leave you with a nasty rope burn — or even worse. Plus, your dog is being subjected to the traumatizing experience of being chased by the leash handle the whole time! Even if your dog normally wouldn’t wander far while off-leash, a heavy chunk of plastic clattering on the ground behind them can cause any pup to run for the hills. 

According to the Heartland Animal Rescue Team, “Many dogs – especially fearful ones – are terrorized by the sound of a dropped retractable leash handle and may take off running, which is dangerous enough. To make matters worse, the object of the poor dog’s fear is then “chasing” her, and if the leash is retracting as she runs, the handle is gaining ground on her – she can’t escape it. Even if this scenario ultimately ends without physical harm to the dog (or anyone else), it can create lingering fear in the dog not only of leashes, but also of being walked.”

In a worst case scenario, your dog is so frightened by the object chasing her that she runs straight into traffic or another danger.

Retractable Dog Leashes Are More Likely to Break

All leashes wear down over time and may eventually snap — but the problem with retractable dog leashes is that you’re less likely to notice “weak spots” in advance.

Because the coil of a retractable dog leash is stored inside a hard case that can’t be easily opened, you’re significantly less likely to notice fraying or excessive wear on the leash itself. Furthermore, you can’t inspect the internal mechanism at all.

Plus, retractable leashes are subjected to much stronger forces than normal leashes (such as the momentum a dog picks up after running flat-out for over twenty feet). These sudden jolts always have the potential to snap or break those important plastic components.

Finally, knowing that the one universal rule of technology is that it will malfunction just when you need it most, do you really want to be reliant on a delicate mechanism to keep your dog safe? Your leash failing to lock, extend or retract in the wrong moment could lead to serious consequences for you, your dog or other people.

Retractable Leashes Don’t Give You Control of Your Dog

One of the biggest downsides of a retractable leash is that you’ll have very little control over your dog. 

Even if you’re walking a low-key dog in a quiet neighborhood, life happens. There’s always the chance Fido could eat something dangerous off the ground, get wrapped around a tree, harass (or be harassed by) another dog, step into the road with a vehicle coming, or encounter a stranger who does not appreciate their slobbery greeting.

In any of these situations, you’re not able to restrain your dog quickly if Fido is ten feet away from you — or more. On a typical six foot dog leash, your dog won’t be that far away from you to begin with, and it’s far easier to reel in the leash and restrain your pup if needed.

As Stephanie Gibeault from the American Kennel Club points out: “A retractable leash has a long spool of tape or cord coiled within the handle. When your dog pulls on the leash, the remaining length of tape unspools. You can use the lock or brake button to prevent further tape from unspooling; however, the leash will only retract if it’s slack. So, if your dog is pulling, you can’t reel your dog back without running to catch up or using verbal cues to entice your dog to return.”

Have you ever had to run towards your misbehaving dog while fumbling to reel in a retractable leash? You’re forced to constantly lock, retract, lock, retract, all while hollering at your dog not to tackle the neighbors…it’s not the relaxing walk you were expecting!

When CAN You Use a Retractable Dog Leash?

Considering all of the dangers of retractable dog leashes, the circumstances in which you can use a retractable dog leash safely are very limited.

For example, if you are walking your small adult dog in an open area (such as a field or beach) where there are no other people or dogs around, a retractable leash may offer a good compromise. They do allow your dog the freedom to explore the immediate vicinity without letting them entirely off-leash.

However, always remember that while your dog is several feet away from you, the only control you will have over them will be your voice. If you can’t control your dog reliably off-leash, you shouldn’t use a retractable leash.

According to dog trainer Cathy Madson, you should also never use a retractable leash if:

  • You walk your dog using a head halter (such as a Gentle Leader or Halti)
  • Your dog is walked using a prong, choke, or other aversive collars
  • You are likely to encounter other dogs, people, and especially children
  • You are within reach of traffic, cliffs, or other hazards
  • You are in busy locations such as street fairs, crowded sidewalks, bike trails, or dog parks
  • Your dog has had any prior neck or back injury
  • Your dog is more powerful than you are
  • Your dog is in training or has any type of behavioral issues
  • You are walking more than one dog at a time
  • You are a child under the age of 14

Any of these circumstances may result in tragic consequences for you or your pet, due to the increased risk of an accident while using a retractable leash. 

As professional trainer Staci Lemke puts it: “As a dog trainer, would I ever use a retractable? Yes, in wide open spaces, with a well-trained adult dog, that I would otherwise have off leash if the law allowed.”

 

Proponents of retractable dog leashes claim that these additional risks all result from improper use, and that when used correctly, retractable leashes are no more dangerous than typical fixed-length leashes. This claim is debatable — but even if retractable leashes are less dangerous when used correctly, the bottom line is, why take the risk?

Realistically, no one is perfect and no situation is completely predictable. Even the most dedicated dog parents occasionally make mistakes — and retractable dog leashes make the consequences of those mistakes worse than they otherwise would have been.

As Gait concludes:

“While retractable leashes might seem like a good alternative for loving dog owners who want to give their fur babies a little more room to run, they are really not worth the risk they cause to you and your dog. It’s better to go with a traditional leash or choose a few of varying lengths so that you can give your best friend more room to roam in those situations where it is appropriate.

In all situations, you want to ensure your dog gets the proper loose leash training so that he knows his leash manners. It will make your life and his a whole lot easier!”