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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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