As I recently told you in 10 Best Websites for Dog Lovers, and a Bonus, I’m always learning when it comes to dogs, and sometimes I’m forced to admit that I’ve been wrong. This is one of those times.
In Down, Boy! Training Your Dog Not to Jump on People, I recommended the use of a retractable leash for controlling a dog who, when out on a walk, rushes ahead of his handler to jump on an approaching person. I take back what I said. So, what brought me to this point?
My Annual Keep, Toss or Donate Project
Every year around this time I like to do a household purge. I go through my closets, drawers and storage bins, and evaluate the clutter, deciding what to keep and what to get rid of. Deciding what to keep is easy – if I use it, it stays. If it’s something useful, but I haven’t used it in the past year, I put it in a box to donate to the local thrift store. If it’s crap, I send it to the curb on garbage day.
Anyway, I was going through the front porch clutter, and tucked in behind a bin, I found a retractable leash that I haven’t used in years – it must have fallen there and been overlooked in previous purges. I looked at it, turned it over in my hand, and somehow got the feeling that I hadn’t used it because on some level, I just didn’t like it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on a reason, though, so I headed for the computer and started Googling, trying to find out why this object made me so uncomfortable.
If you don’t own a retractable leash, or you’ve never seen one, a brief description is in order. A retractable leash consists of a thin rope, coiled up in a plastic housing. You clip it onto your dog’s collar, hang onto the handle, and let your dog go ahead of you while you’re walking. Retractable leashes usually come in lengths of anywhere from 10 to 26 feet.
I guess I must have known on some level that retractable leashes are just not good for your dog, because what I learned definitely validated my aversion. Here are 3 reasons why you should get rid of your retractable leash.
1. Your Dog is Ahead of You
When you’re out with your dog, and you allow him to be in front of you, you’re essentially telling him that he’s the boss. The proper position for your dog is beside you, so you’re controlling the walk. That’s not to say that you can’t allow your dog to venture off from time to time (if he needs to go potty, for instance), but if he’s constantly out in front, then he’s controlling the walk, not you.
Also, if you’re allowing the dog to be several feet away from you, it makes it more difficult to communicate. If you need your dog back at your side, the way to make that happen should be with an effective recall command, not by using the leash to snap him back into position. Your dog should be sharing the walk with you, not doing his own thing until you press a button on the leash handle or housing to bring him back.
2. Your Dog is Not Safe, and Neither are You
When your dog is at the end of a retractable leash, he’s not close enough to you for you to be able to control him effectively. Now, I know that I’ve said that retractable leashes can be as short as 10 feet, but realistically, 8 feet is about the maximum safe length for good control. When you’re dealing with lengths of 16 feet, or worse, 26 feet, you might as well say that you have no control at all. If the dog reacts to something (another dog, or a person, for instance) and pulls hard, you might not be able to retract the leash I time. Or, the mechanism could fail. It’s also very easy for a dog to dart into traffic when he’s several feet away from you.
Also, even if the leash mechanism does work correctly, you can easily get your hand tangled up in the rope. If this happens, the best case scenario is going to be that you’ll get a nasty burn. You could also end up with lacerations, and in the worst case scenario, severed fingers.
Often, too, people who walk their dogs using retractable leashes become complacent, and less alert to potential dangers. After all, your dog is on a leash, and you can always retract, right? But let’s say you’re walking in a pretty neighborhood with beautifully landscaped yards and tall hedges. You’re not really paying much attention, your dog is at the limit of the leash, and a car pulls out of a driveway. The driver looks over his well-manicured hedge, and sees you, but not your dog, who is standing in the driveway. Will you notice in time to pull the dog back?
I don’t know about you, but if my momentary inattention resulted in injury or death to one of my dogs, I’d never forgive myself. Of course you might say “I always pay attention,” but the reality is that none of us do. Not 100% of the time. There are always potential dangers when you’re walking a dog on a long lead, but with a standard 6-foot leash, your dog will always be close enough to you to be safe.
3. Retractable Leashes are Not an Alternative to Proper Training
You might argue that if your dog is in an open area, and there are no other people or animals present, it’s okay to let him play on a retractable leash. Or you might say that a retractable leash is okay for “potty breaks” if your yard isn’t fenced in. But here’s the thing – these leashes are far more prone to breaking than other types. If you’re not absolutely certain that you can call your dog back to you every time, in any situation, he could end up in danger if the leash breaks. For that matter, if your dog is totally reliable when it comes to recall, why would you need to have him on a retractable leash in the first place?
So, these are the reasons why you shouldn’t use retractable leashes. Now, let’s talk about the alternatives.
When you’re choosing a leash for your dog, you need to think about the right length for the purpose, the best material, and also the type of clip that will be used to attach the leash to the dog’s collar. There are probably as many different leashes as there are breeds of dogs, if not more, but they can be grouped into a handful of basic types.
1. The Standard Leash
This is the type of leash that is most often used for basic training and everyday walks. Usually, these leashes are anywhere from 4-8 feet. The 6-foot leash is the most common, and in fact many jurisdictions require that you walk your dog on a leash that is no longer than 6 feet. The standard leash can be made from a variety of materials, but the best ones are constructed from leather or nylon, since they’re lightweight and yet strong enough to keep even a large, rambunctious dog under control.
2. The Adjustable Leash
This type of leash is exactly what it sounds like – a leash that you can adjust the length of, depending on its purpose. You can actually get leashes that will adjust up to 94 feet, but these are not used for standard purposes – you would only need one if your dog is in Schutzhund training. For everyday purposes, you can get leashes that will adjust from 3-6 feet, simply by adding or removing clips or loops along the length of the leash.
3. The Chain Leash
I’m not all that fond of this type of leash, simply because using one can be very hard on your hands. Of course they come with a padded loop at the end, but most of us find that in order to effectively control our dogs, it’s necessary to have the other hand on the part of the leash that is closest to the dog. If the dog lunges, the leash moves and pulls along that hand. It’s not unpleasant with nylon or leather, but chain can cause a fair bit of discomfort if you’re working with a very active dog.
The advantage to a chain leash is that if your dog is prone to chewing on the leash, he’s not going to be able to break it. Most dogs, once they figure this out, will stop chewing, but a few will keep on chewing. This can cause damage to your dog’s teeth.
4. The Martingale Leash
This is actually a combination of a martingale collar and a standard leash. It’s most often used when you’re trying to train a dog not to pull. It tightens around the neck, delivering pressure if the dog pulls. Personally, I use fine-link choke collars for this purpose, and I’d imagine this is going to earn me about as much flack from some people as my belief that sometimes an alpha roll is not a bad thing. My perspective, though, is that a choke collar is just another tool of many that we can use for training, and it’s only undesirable in the hands of a bad trainer – one who is going to yank a dog as opposed to simply pulling gently.
But I’m digressing. The martingale leash works in essentially the same way as a conventional leash and choke collar, but if you’re concerned that you might be “heavy handed,” you’re better off with the martingale.
5. The Multiple Dog Leash
Janice and Leroy are really good together on walks, so rather than have them tangling up in separate leashes, I use a multiple dog leash. You simply attach one leash to a dog, and then connect a coupler and second leash to the primary lead. If you’ve ever seen people walking several dogs together, chances are they’re using this type of leash.
So, those are the basic types of leashes. Even the best, strongest leash, could end up being useless if it’s not equipped with the right clip.
I’ve always made sure that my leashes have very strong clips, because I never take it on faith that Janice or Leroy (or both, if they’re on a multi lead) will not take it into their heads to pull as hard as they can, and that I will not have to pull back equally hard. I’ve never had that problem with either of them, but I always assume that there could come a day when whatever interests them overrides their training. So, I want clips that are as unlikely to break as Janice and Leroy are to bolt.
All my leashes have trigger snap clips. I choose them over bolt snaps for a couple of reasons. Bolt snaps work by means of a spring that slides open, creating a hole that lets you attach it to the dog’s collar. They’re generally reliable, but the spring is small and can weaken over time. A trigger snap also has a spring, but the spring is bigger, and you use a trigger to open the clip. Also, the trigger snap clip opens inward, so even if your dog is pulling, the clip stays closed – there’s virtually no chance of your dog getting off leash.
I always err on the side of caution where my dogs are concerned, so don’t interpret this as me saying “You have to get a leash with a bolt snap clip.” Really, they’re almost equally reliable, provided that you make sure to check the spring in a bolt snap clip every couple of weeks to make sure it’s still strong.
The Final Word
I’m not going to put that retractable leash I found in the “donate” box and make it someone else’s problem – it’s going to the curb come trash day. If you have a retractable leash for your dog, I hope you’ll do the same thing, and replace it with something safer.