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Dog Word of the Day: Retractable Leash

When it comes to the many types of leashes for dogs, there are several to choose from and the retractable leash is one option. As the name implies, the retractable leash may sound like a good idea as it allows dogs more freedom on walks, but there are several drawbacks when it comes to their efficacy and safety. It's important to understand how these leashes work before purchasing one as there are several things to become aware of. So today, we'll be taking a closer look at retractable leashes for dogs, how they work and their pros and cons.

dog retractable leash

At a Closer Glance

In the world of dog leashes, there are regular leashes that typically come in lengths of 4 to 6 feet and then there are retractable "leashes" which offer the possibility for dogs to wander at distances generally ranging from 15 to 25 feet.

How are these "leashes" made? A retractable leash has a plastic handle which houses a thin cord that releases courtesy of a spring-loaded device that activates when the dog pulls. As the dog walks, the owner has the option to allow the cord to release or retract, thus, dog owners can control how much the leash extends through the use of a button on the handle.

The main appeal of these leashes is the fact that dogs can be granted more freedom for exploration, but as mentioned they have some drawbacks worth mentioning.

Pros and Cons of Retractable Leashes for Dogs

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Lack of Control

Dog on retractable leash spots a bunny across the road.

Dog on retractable leash spots a bunny across the road.

One major drawback of using retractable leashes is the fact they may not allow a good level of control. With the dog 15 to 25 feet ahead, swift intervention is difficult in an emergency scenario. The dog may rush ahead on a road with traffic or may get too close to a dog that isn't at all interested in such a close "in your face" interaction. The dog may also turn around a curb or around objects that do not allow visibility for the owner.

This kind of leash requires owners who are vigilant and constantly scan their environment instead of distractedly texting on their phones. Ideally, a retractable leash should be used in open areas where there are not many people walking or people on bikes or other dogs around.

In the wrong setting, this leash may be an accident waiting to happen. It may be safer in many instances having a dog on a 4 to 6 foot leash where the dog is better under control and visible at all times.

"Retractable leashes give dogs more freedom to roam without the owner having to continually adjust the length of the leash, but they pose a hazard as the owner does not have as much control of the dog, and people and other animals can even get seriously injured if they are tangled by the leash. " ~Dr. Meredith Stepita Veterinary Behaviorist

dog retractable leash injury

Injury caused to my hand after using a retractable leash.

Risk for Injuries

On top of not allowing much control from a safety perspective, retractable leashes have a history of causing even serious injury. The person walking the dog may get his hands or other body parts tangled in the thin cord and this can cause rope burns, abrasions, cuts and even amputation in some cases. In some instances, large dogs who have taken off in full speed have caused the thin cord to snap back and injure the person walking the dog.

The good news is that, nowadays, more and more retractable are made of retractable tape rather than thin cord, and thus, they are safer than those used years ago. Due to past injuries, many retractable leashes have been recalled.

Injuries from retractable leashes aren't restricted to dog owners. Dogs may also be at risk for injury when they reach the end of the leash at full speed and this can result in neck or trachea problems an/or injuries to the dog's spine.

Did you know? In 2007, 16,564 hospital-treated injuries were associated with leashes, according to Consumer Union's analysis of statistics collected by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Training Dogs to Pull

Retractable leashes are built in such a way as to train a dog to pull. This happens because the act of pulling extends the leash causing the dog to learn that pulling is effective and reinforcing! So if every time the dog pulls, the leash extends, the dog soon learns that pulling works so he can get closer to that bush or other dog he wants to so badly go meet.

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dog pulling on retractable leash

Basically, what happens is that, when the dog pulls on a retractable leash, he feels pressure on the collar and soon the pressure on the collar becomes a cue that means "speed up" rather than "slow down." explains Lisa Radosta, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.

After several repetitions, the dog risks to finally habituate to the pressure which ultimately “ becomes meaningless as a signal to slow down.” Dr. Radosta further adds that these leashes are not suitable for reactive dogs with a history of barking, lunging, or growling.

" If a behavior such as pulling on a leash is rewarded by allowing the dog more freedom, then the behavior will occur more often. Furthermore, the strongest way to reinforce a behavior is through random rewards, which happens when owners sometimes allow dogs to forge ahead and sometimes lock the leash." ~Dr. Laurie Bergman

dog retractable leash

The use of retractable leashes is quite controversial! There are often heated debates on their use. There are people who love them, there are people who hate them. Many professionals advocate against their use due to safety hazards, but many people feel that it's mostly a matter of how dog owners use it rather than the tool itself. Some readers have asked us to provide a list of some pros and cons of retractable leashes so to assess this tool better. Here are a few that come to mind, but readers are invited to add further pros and cons in our comments section.


  • Allows dogs more distance to wander and "be dogs"
  • The length of the leash can be adjusted
  • Small dogs are less likely to get tangled
  • Can be used in open areas where dogs (think beagles) can go happily on sniffing adventures with little interference
  • May be helpful for the disabled who need to send their assistance dogs at a distance to perform tasks. This leash is also less likely to get caught in a wheel chair's wheels.
  • It's an option for well-trained dogs under good voice control.
  • It gives dogs who are difficult to potty some distance and privacy from their handlers.


  • The cord can break or get tangled and cause injury
  • It can train dogs to pull and the pulling behavior may be difficult to eradicate.
  • It can be difficult to use on large dogs
  • It should be used mostly for open spaces only
  • The thin retractable cords may be almost invisible to pedestrians/bikers
  • It's not suitable for reactive or fearful dogs
  • The break button may not always work when owners need it the most
  • Some products may be flimsy and low quality.
  • In some places, it's against the law to use a leash that it longer than a few feet.
  • The handle can slip out of the hand and scare the dog when it's dragged.
  • Puppies and dogs may easily chew through them if not supervised.
  • Some dog owners find the handle difficult to hold.
retractable leash

Avoid using retractable leashes to tie up your dog!

The Bottom Line

Some problems with retractable leashes can happen with other types of leashes, but there are considerably more risks when a dog is walking at a distance ahead in places that can put other dogs and people at risk. Even though there are many fans of these leashes who claim to have used them for many years without incident, one must remember that it only takes one time for a tragedy to occur. There is no such thing as a completely safe retractable leash, but there are some precautions that can be taken to minimize risks.

For those who wish to use these leashes (we know there are a lot of fans of them out there) it's important to keep several safety precautions in mind. Here are a few tips:

  • Lock the leash for distances that are safe or acceptable based on each environment.
  • Respect others! When around other people or dogs, retract the leash so your dog is next to you.
  • Look for high quality retractable leashes that are made of a retractable belt versus a cord.
  • Train your dog to walk on a regular leash for those instances when a retractable leash may not be feasible.
  • Commit to always be vigilant scanning the environment for potential dangers.

And here's an interesting "twist" on the use of a dog flexi lead in dog training!


  • American Animal Hospital Association, Pet Matters, Retractable leashes: Are they a no-go? retrieved from the web on May 25th, 2016
  • Dr. Stepita, Making sense of harnesses, collar and leashes, retrieved from the web on May 25th, 2016
  • Veterinary Information Network, Inc. Injuries, behavioral problems linked to retractable leashes, retrieved from the web on May 25th, 2016
  • Consumer Reports, Retractable leashes pose problems for people and their pets, retrieved from the web on May 25th, 2016

Photo Credits:

  • Flickr, Creative Commons, Shelly, Retractable Lead, Newspaper ad for a retractable lead, 1941, (CC BY 2.0)
  • Flickr, Creative Commons, Dean Jarvey, Dog and Bunny, (CC BY 2.0)
  • Flickr, Creative Commons, vmiramontes, Friendly Face in Los Olivos, CA 102409
  • Flickr, Creative Commons, Amber & Eric Davil, Dog, It's Ruby SoHo!

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