We've all seen it. The little dog on a retractable leash, happily strolling down the street with the freedom to go (almost) wherever he pleases. His human calmly following behind him, poop bag at the ready. It's a pleasant, blissful image.
And then there's that other little dog on the retractable leash. The one at the vet's office who's coming waaaay too close to the other animals in the waiting room while their human is busy at the reception desk, oblivious to the dog's movements. Or the anxious one on the street who barks and spins around and around his flustered human's legs.
Or how about that other dog, the really big one. The 90-pound gladiator barreling at full speed towards the terrified woman and her Bichon in the park. At one end of the leash is a plastic handle. At the other, a dog collar with a quick-release clip. There's a high-pitch whir as the leash unspools, and the dog is rapidly nearing the limit of the 20-foot length. One of several things could happen when that dog reaches the end of the leash with that kind of force, and none of them are good.
For years I rejected the concept of the retractable leash. I'm very aware of the ghastly dangers to the handler (amputated digits, anyone?) and to the dog (amputated limbs, neck injury). The risk is real enough that some packaging actually depicts an illustrated severed finger. Just so there's no confusion, I guess.
And then there's the whole business of dogs getting into spaces they really shouldn't have access to. Like the middle of the street while their human walks safely on the sidewalk. Or all the way up people's front lawns. Or right up into the face of another strolling dog who would really prefer to be left alone. I actually panic if I meet a dog on a retractable leash and the line starts getting wrapped around my legs.
But recently, and much to my surprise, I have experienced the brilliance of the retractable leash. Yeah, I said brilliance. I have discovered that when used correctly and under very specific conditions, it can greatly improve the quality of life for many dogs and their people.
I've been taking my dog-reactive dog Chili to wide open fields or quiet wooded paths where she's (relatively) free to explore, thanks to the retractable leash. Because of her reaction towards other dogs, I prefer not to allow her to be off-leash unless we're in our own fenced-in yard. It's just safer for everyone that way, and it's the responsible thing to do. I find the retractable leash to be a good compromise between "regular 6-foot leash" and "off-leash", and by allowing me to keep it short if I want to, it offers me the control that I can't have with just a long line that I can't reel in neatly.
Here are the conditions under which I think the use of a retractable leash is good:
1. The leash is attached to a sturdy back-clip harness, and never to a regular collar around the dog's neck, never to a head halter (Gentle Leader, Halti, etc.), never to a front-clip harness, and for crying out loud, never to a choke chain or a prong collar.
2. The leash is made of nylon ribbon. The ones made with a metal cable scare the bejeezus out of me. (Think horrifying amputation stories...)
3. You've practiced using it in a safe environment. It takes some coordination to operate those things. You need to be able to lock the reel quickly with one finger or your thumb, and it's just as important to be able to unlock it quickly. You need to be able to call your dog back to you (practice a good recall, whether you plan to use a retractable leash or not!). You need to be able to shorten the leash quickly without dragging your dog in the process, and without putting your hands on the leash itself.
4. You're in an environment where the dog can safely explore. That means an area where it's unlikely you'll run into any trouble by allowing your dog to wander 15 feet away from you, with a leash linking you together (think of possible obstacles, like trees, poles, or people...). And don't kid yourself: Those areas are rare! Don't use a retractable leash to walk on the street, or in an urban environment, or to shop at a pet supply store, or to visit the vet, or to meander at a fair.
5. You are aware of your surroundings and of your dog's movements. Don't use a retractable leash when you can't see what's happening around you, like at nighttime. Pay attention to your dog and where's he's going. You should be with your dog when you walk together, not just attached to him while you check your phone. This is true for any dog-walking scenario, but is especially important when using a retractable leash.
If you do come across people or dogs, shorten the leash and lock it at a reasonable length, no longer than 6 feet. In an ideal scenario, you will also have trained your dog proper leash manners and basic cues. I use "slow" to get Chili to slow her pace, and "stop" to get her to stop moving forward completely. The last thing I want is for my dog to run and pick up speed over a 15-foot distance only to very suddenly arrive at the end of the leash.
Retractable leashes are not the root of all evil, but nor are they the answer to all of your leash needs. If you're going to use one, don't be a jerk. Be mindful, be safe, be smart, splurge on a high-quality one, and respect other people and other dogs' space.