Second Thoughts on Retractable Leashes

Jennifer Coates, DVM
Published: April 14, 2014
Second Thoughts on Retractable Leashes

I’m starting to hate my dog’s retractable leash. I bought it for Apollo as a Christmas present last year. His old one had broken, and he had been relegated to his 6 footer for several months. He seemed to miss the freedom his old leash provided so I figured it was time to spring for a new, retractable one. Now I’ve got buyer’s remorse.

To be honest, this leash is a bit of a lemon. It doesn’t retract all that well and will often get tangled around Apollo’s legs, the wheels of our stroller … pretty much anything within a few foot radius of the dog. Also, the button that should stop more of the leash from unfurling is unpredictable. I’ve had to grab onto the webbing to stop Apollo from running into the street, and on those times when it does engage it takes its own sweet time deciding when to release.

You might be wondering why I don’t just go out and buy a replacement. First of all I’m cheap, but I’m also starting to appreciate that retractable leashes are not the best option for many dogs and owners and in many situations.

Dogs, especially big dogs, can build up an enormous head of steam over the typical 16 to 26 foot length of a retractable leash. Anybody remember the equation for momentum from high school physics?

momentum = mass x velocity

Nothing good is going to happen as a result of that momentum when a dog running at top speed hits the end of a retractable leash. The handle may come flying out of the person’s hand, at which point it “chases” the dog down the sidewalk making a terrifying (to many dogs, at least) noise. Good luck getting them to stop running under those conditions. Dogs have also suffered severe injuries due to sudden jerks on their necks, including lacerated tracheas (windpipes) and spinal injuries. Many people report being pulled completely off their feet, suffering bruises, abrasions, and worse as a result.

Injuries can also occur when the leash becomes wrapped around part of the dog or dog walker. Cuts and friction burns are frequently reported, but more serious outcomes are also possible. For an especially grisly report, check out this Consumer Reports story from 2009. Fair warning — those of you with weak stomachs may want to take a pass.

Retractable leashes only provide the illusion of control. Many dogs have been hit by cars, involved in dog fights, etc. when on a retractable leash. Picture this scenario. You are standing on the sidewalk and your dog is 20 feet to your left peeing on a neighbor’s tree. He sees a dog come out of the house on the opposite side of the street and makes a break for it, running in a semicircle in front of you as you madly pull on the leash. Within seconds, your dog will be 20 feet out in the road. Better hope the driver of the oncoming SUV is paying attention.

I’m coming to believe that there is really only one occasion when using a retractable leash is appropriate: A handler has impeccable voice control over his or her dog and simply needs to comply with a leash law.

I have to be honest. Apollo and my family do not fall into this category, so it’s back to the 6 footer we go.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Csehak Szabolcs / Shutterstock

Last reviewed on October 7, 2015

Help us make PetMD better

Was this article helpful?