The Retractable Dog Leash – What’s Not to Love?

You know I love those damn retractable leashes.

I don’t know how many times a month my dog and I quietly walk by a retractable-leash user whose dog suddenly goes psycho, lunging and choking itself, practically ripping the plastic handle from the owner’s grip.

And then we hear that awful retracting sound as the person fumbles to lock the fricking leash. It’s especially funny when the person also slips on the ice or when the dog gets caught between two mailboxes and has no clue how to back the f— up.


Now, I know my readers generally have well-trained dogs. If you’re one of those, I don’t care what kind of leash you use (or don’t use).

This post is meant to be taken in stride and is full of my (very much unsolicited) advice. We can all use the tools we know are best for our unique situations, even if you use the pinch collar/retractable leash combo. To each her own.

Before we get into some reasons why I – a dog walker – rarely use retractable leashes, I’ll admit to some of its positive uses. If you are feeling so low about yourself that you will actually admit you use a retractable leash, feel free to share your excuses in the comments.

Retractable leashes are those flimsy leashes that roll up into a plastic handle (kind of like a tape measure) that allow a dog to pull ahead 20 feet or so. Note that Flexi is a brand of retractable leash, and in this post I’m referring to all brands of retractable leashes.

Useful excuses purposes for the retractable leash

Walking a cat!

I let my cats outside on the patio in the summer. The fat one won’t run away (he knows where the food is). But the little one likes to “escape” and lead me on adventures across the park. So he’s usually on a leash and harness. I haven’t actually paid money for a Flexi retractable leash, but if I had one I would totally use it for my cat Scout. A Flexi would work well for a ferret or pet rabbit, too. OK, maybe even a shihtacockapoo.

Teaching a dog to stay

I know some obedience instructors like to use retractable leashes when teaching dogs to stay. I prefer a 6-foot leather leash or a 50-foot rope, but I can see why a retractable leash would be more convenient, assuming your dog is not going to lunge or bolt. If that happens, it’s much easier to re-gain control with a 6-foot leash vs. a retractable leash. Trying to re-gain control of a lunging dog on a retractable leash can be like reeling in a zoo animal with a yo-yo.

Transitioning to off-leash commands

Same as above, only a step further. If your dog is well trained and non-reactive on a leash, a Flexi can be a useful transitioning tool (there, I said it!).

Giving a dog freedom if he can’t be off leash

The main problem with retractable leashes is they give untrained dogs too much freedom. But, dogs do deserve to run around without restrictions at times. If you have no yard and your dog can’t be at a dog park or off leash, a retractable leash gives you some options.

A chance for the owner to “check out”

This is why retractable leashes are so popular, right? 🙂 We can let our dogs run around like lunatics without really paying attention. I get it.

Allowing the dog to swim 

This is my favorite use for the retractable leash. I can let the dog wade, swim and retrieve on a leash while I just stand there.

Please list any additional excuses for the retractable leash in the comments.

Some problems with the retractable leash

You have to keep a solid grip on the thing.

I like to walk dogs on a loose leash. With my own dog and my dog-running clients, I could literally hold the leash with my pinky finger because we are in a zone, running at the same, relaxed pace. If I were to drop the leash, the dog wouldn’t notice or care because the tension wouldn’t change.

Flexi retractable dog leash

With a retractable leash, it’s much harder to keep a light grip. It’s made of solid plastic and you have to keep your hand around it to prevent dropping it. Since most dogs are allowed to pull while on a retractable leash, most owners keep a very tight grip. When the leash is tight, the dog will try to resist the tension by pulling harder.

If the owner happens to drop the retractable leash or accidentally hit the unlock button, the leash will come crashing down or it will make that awful retracting sound and the dog will naturally bolt. Retractable leashes do come with a wrist strap for safety, but they either fall off or people don’t use them.

For control, you really need two hands on the darn leash.

For the most control of a dog, the dog should either be taught to respect a loose leash, or she should remain in a heel position at the owner’s side. The loop end of the leash should be held in one hand, while the other hand lightly guides the slack. If the dog becomes excited and pulls (and what dog doesn’t?), it’s easier for the owner to remain in control with two hands on the leash. With a retractable leash, you are holding on with one hand, which throws off your center of gravity and doesn’t allow you to use the strength of your whole body.

It’s harder to walk two dogs together.

I know, I know. It can be done, and there are a few duos I walk together on retractable leashes. But it does become more difficult, for example, if you want to move both dogs to one side as you’re passing other dogs.

Or, if you need to stop and pick up after them it’s just so much easier to hold two leather leashes in one hand (while you are bent over picking up poop with the other) than it is to hold two blocks of plastic in one hand. If your dogs have solid obedience skills, this is a non-issue. Heck, this whole post does not apply to you, does it? 🙂

Tips for responsible retractable leash use

(More unsolicited advice from a know-it-all dog walker)

Teach your dog some obedience skills.

Really, this is my only advice. Work on obedience until your dog is rock solid, even in new environments and even around strange dogs and other distractions. If your dog has a high level of obedience, he will be well behaved no matter what type of leash you use (or no leash at all). I just think it’s so much easier to teach a dog to heel on a regular leash before transitioning to a retractable leash. So if you just adopted a dog or if you’re walking some other dog you don’t know, ditch the Flexi leash until later.

If your dog stays when told, comes when called, heels and doesn’t react to other dogs, then go for the retractable leash! Heck, walk your dog with a piece of string for all I care.

Teach your dog not to pull.

In addition to teaching your dog to heel on a regular leash, he should learn not to pull even while given more freedom on the Flexi leash.

A friend of mine uses a retractable leash for her dog on rural walks, and she taught him not to strain or pull once he reaches the end. I’m assuming she did this the same way you teach a dog to walk on any loose leash – by stopping and refusing to move whenever the leash is tight. Or perhaps by using a “wait” command or calling the dog back and rewarding him. When used in this way, the retractable leash can be a great tool for transitioning to off-leash time.

Be aware of your surroundings.

This goes without saying, but please don’t be one of those people. Pay attention to your dog, yes, but also pay attention to your environment.

Do you use a retractable leash?

The Internets has blessed us with little bits of heaven such as cat videos, but it has also blessed us with reactive types who comment before reading the post. So before you lose your shit over a dog leash, know that you can go ahead and walk your dog with whatever tool you want. I would never suggest a ban on retractable leashes.

There is no such thing as an irresponsible retractable leash or an irresponsible type of dog or an irresponsible gun or an irresponsible car. It’s always an irresponsible person. Some of my family members, clients and best dog-owning friends use retractable leashes, and they’re all wonderful dog owners. Well, except for that one … 🙂

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Retractable dog leashes - what's not to love

48 thoughts on “The Retractable Dog Leash – What’s Not to Love?”

  1. I used a Flexi leash once. Once. Long ago. The dog weighed around 60 pounds, I weigh around 100 pounds. I had no idea what I was getting into. Let’s just say it took 2 weeks for my body to heal, but the story became legendary around my neighborhood. My advice for anyone bent on using one is to practice somewhere outside your own busy neighborhood.

  2. I stopped using retractable leads because I realized Maya wasn’t learning to walk properly on a leash. I also got worried that she’d dart out into the street after a squirrel or something before I could lock it. One funny story involving the retractable lead was when Maya and I walked to the park. There is a water fountain there that Maya absolutely loves. When she saw it on that particular day, she bolted ahead and I lost my grip on the leash. The funny part is that on that day, the fountain water had been dyed pink for Breast Cancer Awareness. By the time I finally caught up to Maya, it was too late. She was in the fountain, and yes, the water had turned her pink too!

  3. I do use one -sometimes- for my 75 pound Lab 2 year old. He’s beautifully well-behaved on the leash, and it gives him a little lee-way. There have been two times when I screwed up on my end of the leash, and was just lucky there were no consequences. Those mistakes happened when he was new to me, and won’t be happening again, that’s for sure.

    Very occasionally he will pull, on any kind of leash, but I don’t find it hard to remind him to mind his manners. Typically, he doesn’t get all the way to the end of the retractable leash. He jogs ahead a bit, stops and looks for me, and waits for me to catch up. He pulls a little more on the short leash, because he’s used to being able to get that little distance away from me. Even there, though, he remembers to heel after a few direction changes and reminders.

    So, I just do it because he seems to enjoy himself on that leash. I use it on our 5:00 AM walks when not much is happening in our little neighborhood. It does change how I scan the environment, this is true. But that’s not a big deal and could actually be a good thing.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I have made mistakes, too, that’s for sure! Thanks for your thoughtful comment. The walks you describe at 5 am are similar to my walks with my dog where I tell him “ok free” and I let him go ahead of me on his leather leash. As long as the dog is trained, I don’t think it matters what type of leash is used.

  4. Celeste is well behaved and not a puller. In certain areas, like at the fairgrounds where it is not legal to let her off leash, I do use the flexi lead. I use it on our walks, because there is a park we go to where she can be further ahead. In neighborhoods, Celeste does not take advantage of the lead nor do I permit her to (it’s too dangerous). She does not lunge at other dogs so I’m not concerned about her causing problems that way. Since she doesn’t pull, I don’t have a death grip on it.

    I wouldn’t dream of walking Mina with Celeste, because that would just be dumb of me. And I’d never walk Mina on a flexi lead, because that would also be dumb.

    I think it can be used responsibly but that it is flippantly used. I know someone whose dog nearly ate Celeste b/c they were on a flexi lead and the 60lb dog dragged her guardian about 40 feet before she got control. Celeste was (legally) off leash at the time. She has a decent recall, particularly in the face of a charging dog so she pranced over to me very quickly, but I had a mini-heart attack.

    When walking Celeste on a flexi-lead, I make a point of recalling her verbally when another dog guardian or person approaches. And I move her to the side or ask her to sit. I think this helps reinforce that I am being responsible with Celeste and that she does not pose a threat, despite the flexi-lead.

    It’s nice when used responsibly with certain dogs under certain circumstances. Otherwise, it’s a tool that can easily be dangerous to people and other animals.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I especially like how you said you call her back often to reinforce a good recall. That’s a great tip.

  5. Random things I have learned about flexi leashes:

    – If you have 2 dogs (or more), be like the Ghostbusters. NEVER let the lines cross each other.

    – Don’t let sand or dirt get on the leash or inside the retractable portion.

    – Never combine flexi leash with people wearing shorts. Ever. Leash burn is evil.

    – Thin flexi leashes were created to test the reflexes of cyclists and skaters

    Great post. Obviously…not a fan of the flexi leash here…

  6. When I was a kid we used one for out Beagle. The are notorious for wandering off and it gave her the option to sniff without running off. I can’t imagine using one again, but I guess it’s helpful if you use it right and probably for smaller dogs.

  7. Oh how I hate flexi leashes. A man in my neighborhood has 6 little fluff dogs that he takes walking all on those stupid things. They hate everyone and everything so anything comes near and they all get to snapping and snarling and pulling and looking like one big mess. His wife used to walk them til she ate it one day when they decided to take off after a small child up the road. Thankfully the kid was ok and the woman just had a scraped knee and most likely a bruised ego. We change directions when walking the girls and they come in sight.

  8. I’ve never tried that leash. Now I don’t have to, thanks for the insights. Misty (3 1/2 months old) and I walk our neighborhood and where ever my errands take us. She has made friends everywhere. Who can resist a soft cuddly puppy? She loves everyone, and is getting great socialization.

  9. I strikes me from reading this and some of your other posts, that most of your ire towards the Flexi leash has very little to do with the leash itself – lack of dog obedience, and more importantly lack of responsibility on the part of dog owners seems to be shining through in every post.

    You may not like the tool yourself, but complaining about the mis-use of a tool and putting the blame on the tool itself rather than the user, seems a little childish.

    Try going through this post and identify just how many times you slate the Flexi without mention of the owner’s poor handling of the dog.

  10. One reason (there are others but they have already been mentioned 🙂 ) I do not care for the Flexi is that the dog is encouraged to pull, as s/he need to do so in order to prevent the leash from retracting (unless it is locked I guess, but then you may as well use a regular leash). It seems to me that that can’t be comfortable, as the dog always has that tension at his/her neck.

    1. What evidence do you have that a flexi lead encourages a dog to pull? Just curious. In my experience, a dog who pulls does so because they have not been taught an alternative behavior not because of any particular tool a person uses.

      There is no tension on a dog’s neck if the guardian is utilizing an appropriately matched flexi-lead. It’s not more pressure than a regular loose lead, in my experience.

      1. Lindsay Stordahl

        I can’t speak for Sylv, but I can share my own examples, not that it counts as evidence.

        I think you are right, Marji, that it isn’t the tool, it’s whether or not the dog has been taught an alternative to pulling. A problem I see with Flexi leashes is that if the dog pulls and the leash is locked, some owners eventually get tired of the pulling and allow the leash to extend further after a few seconds or a few minutes of pulling. Then if the dog keeps pulling, the owner might extend the leash even more. The longer the owner waits before extending the leash, the harder or longer the dog thinks he has to pull. This is enough of a reward to encourage the dog to pull the next time.

        Now, does this mean dogs walked on Flexi leashes pull more than dogs on regular leashes? I really don’t know. As a dog walker, it might just seem that they do since people who use Flexi leashes, in my experience, are less likely to teach heel or loose leash walking. So in that case, it’s not the tool but whether or not the dog has been taught not to pull. I’m curious what others think.

        Wouldn’t it be nice if we all ended up with those sweet, laid back dogs that seem to naturally walk without pulling? 🙂

        1. I have not had that experience with Celeste or other dogs I’ve worked with on flexi-leads. They did not pull any more or less on a regular leash. If they pulled before on a regular leash, they pulled on a flexi. If they didn’t pull before on a regular leash, they didn’t pull on a flexi. I don’t know of any behavioral study on this issue, but it’d be a fun one to perform!

          And yes, I make a point to work with Celeste on her recall. That’s my responsibility. I expect that of any dog guardian, regardless of the length of their leash. And if they cannot, then yes, I would prefer they use a shorter lead (giving more control) to diminish the risks of any negative/unsafe interactions w/ other people or animals.

          Good topic!

  11. Our Airedale couldn’t get the hang of healing outside of our training class so I started using a Flexi with his Gentle Leader. I would keep the leash locked down with a very short length and he got the point that he coudn’t get ahead at all. Now that he’s healing with no problem we use his regular leash for walks and the Flexi is saved for trips to Grandma’s house.

  12. I could be totally wrong, but when the leash is not locked, does the dog not have to maintain some pull to prevent the leash from retracting? What happens to the leash if there is no tension on it?

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      If there is no tension from the dog or owner, the leash gently retracts the slack. The dog shouldn’t have to pull to keep it from retracting.

  13. I sometimes use a flexi lead on my walks. I will put my hands up and say its down to my pure laziness! I try and keep up with my training (my dog is an awful puller) but I bring her out for a walk at 6.30am and on that walk I either use the flexi lead or let her off altogther. I have never had an issue with the flexi lead and I find that she actually pulls LESS on the flexi lead than she does on the normal lead.

    Just in relation to the dogs quickly lunging etc. My dog hates motorbikes and mopeds. My dog is very obedient and listens to everything I have to say (except heel!!!) however, as faithfull and obedient as she is, I have to constantly be listening out for a motorbike because she will chase after it without hesitation.

    So I will disagree with some of the points made above. I personally dont have much of a difference with my normal lead and my flexi lead but I do always have my wits about me and I do think that’s the most important thing when using these leads!

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Haha! I love how you say it’s pure laziness! I use them sometimes, too, out of complete laziness as well.

      Thanks for chiming in, especially on the points where you disagree with me.

  14. I personally like the flexi leashes. I never use them with the length extended though, just fully retracted and locked. I like the handle as it is easier for me to grip.

    Have you seen traditional leashes that have nice handles on them? I our stores we only have the plain nylon straps.

  15. So I rescued a dog last month and I’m a first-time dog owner living in the city (Chicago). I’ve done obedience training with my dog these last few weeks, which has been incredibly helpful: she walks on a loose leash, etc. I will NEVER use a leash like this walking around on the streets here. I want my dog near me to keep me and her safe. What I WAS considering is getting one to do “off-leash” training (as near as I can get it) at the park because people are fined in my hood if a dog is off-leash. That said, I have a long ol’ rope that can probably do the same thing, so now I’m thinking I’ll just go with that and not spend $$ on yet another item. Hmmmm….

  16. I have a poodle/bichon frise who is people and dog agressive. My stepdad’s mom uses a flexi when walking him until he bit someone. This isn’t the first time either. I know to NEVER use it on our other dog who is a 6 month american pit bull terrier/boxer. Our poodle thinks he has the flexi and tries to walk ahead but I use the pit’s old chain leash.

  17. I live in a quiet village that works well for using a flex leash. So I use it here. I think they have a time and a place and you have to be respectful of others with it. And a dog that’s trained to listen definitely helps. I don’t use it in the busy town nearby, or other towns and cities we go to, where there are narrow sidewalks by busy roads. And I don’t use it on narrow trails in wooded areas – learned that one quite quickly when I spent some aggravation trying to untangle Tessi from a bush. Problem is, as you’ve pointed out before, people aren’t respectful or in control of that leash.

  18. This is how I broke my collar bone–trying to control my 60-lb hound on a retractable leash as he tried to chase a stray cat in our yard. A friend of mine had a similar experience with her dog and was injured too. No more retractables for moi! Seems to work for my neighbor but her little pup is only 12 lbs. (haha.)

  19. I agree with some of the other defenders of the leash. I have a small dog and prefer using a flexible leash. I do, however, always use it in the locked position. I have a good quality one, find the handle comfortable, and like the option of changing the length slightly. Sometimes we’re trotting faster and I lock it a tad longer (still not very long, maybe 5-6 ft?) to make myself more comfortable. Other times he’s walking right by me and then I’ll have it set pretty short. But he’s pretty obedient and honestly tends to stay right by me even when not on a leash. He doesn’t chase or leap after animals or cars or anything.

    I don’t think I’d use one for a larger dog. And I agree, they can be annoying when you see people letting their dogs run all over the place with the leash fully extended. But it’s the dog owners’ fault, not the leash.

  20. I don’t have one and don’t use one, although my Dad does for his “little monster” Zerker. Zerker is a rescue that was advertised as a “miniature poodle mix” but our guess is that based on appearance and temperament she is really a Cairn Terrier She currently weighs around 13lbs.

    My Girl Okami is a Siberian husky and or Siberian/ Malamute Mix. She weighs ~60 lbs and although I have been trying to work on it, I haven’t managed to get her convinced that Heeling, and loose leash walking are the right way to take a walk. She is mostly well behaved with the qwerks that She has never met a person who is not her friend, all dogs are her friends, but she should be in charge of the other dogs (Quite Dominant towards other dogs but mostly in a nice/mother sense. )

    Because of her pulling issues I haven’t even considered a “flexi” although I did notice the other day that our leash, a ~6ft nylon web flat one is starting to suffer from clip wear.

  21. Normally my dog who is a Shetland sheepdog runs free while I hike miles In the woods,but in the winter I use a 26 ft retractable with a harness to still give her some running room. She is only 23 Lbs and coyotes are more prone to attack!But I will say my dog is very well behaved!

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I’ll do something similar with my Weimaraner pup, Connie. And he’s not well behaved at all.

  22. Sandy Weinstein

    i hate these things. i cant stand it when you are out with your dogs and other people just let their dogs go to the end of the leash, they get wrapped all around you and your dogs. the people do not understand the potential risk. i have a huge scar on my leg where the leash got wrapped around me and the dog pulled away. if you use them, watch them, dont let your dog get wrapped around other dogs and people. it is dangerous. dogs just pull til the end of the leash and never learn as well.

  23. Caroline (UK)

    Oh how I hate those leads. My puppy was nearly garrotted by one and I am sick and tired of side stepping them when their owners stop to chat but insist on keeping them out on their longest position. Someone please tell me why you would want to walk your dog yards ahead on the end of a piece of nylon? Surely a training lead would suit better if ones dog cannot be trusted to be off lead?!

  24. I do use a Flexi leash, because my 7-1/2 year old cocker needs way more exercise than her 72-year old human could otherwise keep up with. She and I no longer have a big fenced yard, so some freedom on a 14-foot Flexi allows her to walk or run a lot of extra distance when we get to an open space. But I use the it in full awareness of its many dangers and of the constant need for situational awareness. In the back of my mind always is the story of a dog around here killed by a fire truck because her human thought the leash was locked short and it wasn’t. I outweigh my dog 8:1, and I am confident that I can stop her if she gets a sudden impulse to go after a squirrel or a discarded hamburger. With only one dog to walk these days, I can two-hand it whenever the situation warrants extra control and I always insist she heel for a part of every walk. I have to be more vigilant when she’s on the Flexi than when she’s on a 6-foot regular leash. But the Flexi is worth it to maximize the exercise she gets from the limited distance I am able to walk.

  25. Too much handle to mess around with. I’ve actually gone “Cesar Millan” and use a slip lead. I mainly only have to put my dog on a leash when passing other dogs on a leash, so she won’t go up unwanted or at the vet’s, Petco etc. It’s small, fits easily in my pocket when I’m not using it and I couldn’t care less if I lose it somewhere. Can’t even remember how many leather leashes I’ve lost over the year… 😉

  26. Sam my 5 month old pup always attempts to eat his waste so the retractable leash is a way of keeping him away from it

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