A question I get asked a lot is “how do you feel about retractable leashes?” While I can see the appeal of a conveniently coiled lead that can provide your dog with more freedom at the click of a button, I think there are a few things to consider before using them.
One of the top reasons I get called for training is Loose Leash Walking. Pulling on leash is a very frustrating behaviour for owners to deal with and a complex behaviour to change as there are many reinforcers involved for our dogs. Reinforcement is more than just cookies! Opportunities to sniff, getting to say hello to a person or another dog, are just a few examples of things our dogs value when we are out for our daily walk. A big part of teaching our dogs to walk politely on leash is managing access to those reinforcers. So how do retractable leashes tie in to this? Mechanically, for the dog to feed out more leash the dog has to pull. The dog pulls, gains access to reinforcers, thereby strengthening the behaviour of pulling on leash.
There are also several safety factors to keep in mind. I have seen some painful burns occur when an owner tried to grab the leash with their hands in order to stop their dogs. The thin cords are not comfortable and can be very dangerous (see the amputation warning on the handle of the leash!). Retractable leashes around other people can lead to tangling, and again the risk of burns to people shins, as well as the tripping hazard. Also, dogs can easily move into traffic or into other unsafe situations and the clunky handle makes it challenging to prevent an accident from happening.
Our dogs safety is another thing to consider, just like the cords can cause injuries to people, dogs can be burned by them as well. If your dog chases something while on a retractable leash it can cause serious injury when they hit the end going at top speed, or it can cause the owner to drop the handle leading to a loose dog being chased by their leash (for some dogs being chased by the handle is very scary!).
Retractable leashes can also lead to miscommunication between dogs. Dogs communicate with body language. A pulling dog shares much of the same body language as a confrontational dog. Even a friendly dog can come off as a threat when pulling towards another dog at the end of their leash.
So what can we use instead?
Those who know me, know that I am a huge advocate for providing our dogs with off leash exercise and freedom to sniff and explore. That being said not all dogs are good candidates for off leash exercise and sometimes finding appropriate areas to provide this exercise can be a challenge. A well fitting harness and a long line (15-30 feet) are the next best thing to being totally off leash.
A harness will help prevent injury to our dogs, and is much safer if they were to run to the end at top speed. We can also teach our dogs those perfect loose leash manners we dream of one their collar using a 6 foot leash and then allow some pulling or less perfection on a harness. The equipment we use can be a cue for the behaviours we are after. The feeling of a collar signifies a ‘business’ like walk and a harness is time to sniff, explore and be a dog.
A long line gives us the freedom to feed leash in and out as we deem appropriate and is much easier to stop the dog from wandering in to unsafe territory or approach another person or animal.