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Why I'm Against Retractable Leads

Caroline has more than 12 years of experience solving canine behavior problems either with families, in rescue or at her own home.

Read on to find out why I just can't stand retractable leads.

Read on to find out why I just can't stand retractable leads.

What Is a Retractable Lead?

Sometimes called a stretchy or extendable lead, a retractable lead has a long line that is wound up neatly inside the handle; the dog is in control of making the lead longer by pulling on it and unraveling it from the handle. Many can be locked to a chosen length to allow more or less control as desired.

They have become a popular accessory, particularly over recent years, as they are now available for most sizes of dog and come in a selection of lengths.

Why Do People Use Them?

Simply put, many people use them because they believe the lead allows their dog at least some freedom without too much risk of the dog getting lost or into a situation that might be dangerous to them or others.

For many, the retractable lead eliminates the need to train the dog and, as a by-product, encourages lazy dog walking etiquette, allowing people to continue walking without needing to pay too much attention to their dog.

An example of a retractable lead

An example of a retractable lead

Retractable Lead Pros

So far as I can see, there is only really one possible reason to own a retractable lead, and that is as an aid to recall training. The lead allows some freedom in a public place whilst recall is practiced without fear of your best bud running off or getting into too much trouble and is especially useful when teaching him to come back to you when there are distractions nearby or if he has already learned that not coming back is much more fun and that there is not much you can do about it. The result is a trained dog that can eventually be trusted off the lead in safe places; the lead has done its job and can be finally binned.


Cons to Using an Extendable Lead

There are a lot of cons to using an extendable lead, here are nine that I think pretty much cover all the bases.

  • The first con I want to talk about concerns general lead discipline, many people purchase a retractable lead because their dog pulls on the lead and the retractable lead allows the handler a more comfortable walk, but actually, it will only reinforce the notion that your dog was right to pull on the lead, for him, pulling on the lead now means even more freedom, plus if he hasn’t already he will quickly become used to feeling tension around his collar and will simply normalize the feeling as just being a part of walkies.
  • Another good reason to ditch the retractable lead is that it is quite simply bad psychology to let your dog charge on ahead of you. As his mentor, he should be looking to you for leadership and you can’t guide him if you are lagging behind, he is also more likely to show territorial behavior if he is the scout party.
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  • It sounds obvious, but the longer the lead, the further the dog is away from you, and subsequently the less control you have, especially if your dog is reactive to other dogs or people, you should be right there in the middle of the action so you can intervene the second it happens, you are no good twenty or more feet away.
  • It's also worth noting that in terms of safety, even manufacturers of these products don’t have much faith in them; whilst the leads are supposed to withstand the weight of your dog, manufacturers of these products will accept no responsibility if the cord snaps or the handle breaks, nor will they accept liability for any injury caused to your dog or you, under any circumstances. Don’t believe me? You only have to read the disclaimer that comes with it.

In 2007, a survey in the USA recorded 16,564 accidents involving retractable leads. Injuries to people ranged from burns and cuts to full amputations, 10.5% involving children under the age of Ten.


  • If you need any further reasons to avoid these leads like the plague, let's talk about safety. Firstly, safety for your own dog. The retractable lead allows your dog to walk up to 26 feet ahead of you, behind you . . . and to the side of you. That means that if you are walking along the road with the lead extended more than a couple of feet, there is nothing you can do to stop your dog if he decides to dart out in front of traffic.
  • It is not uncommon for dogs to cause injuries to themselves while using the leads either, mostly by sprinting away from you and getting a painful jolt to the neck as they suddenly find the end of the lead. Reports include injuries to neck, spine and trachea.
  • And what about the safety of others? If your dog can run sideways into traffic, there is nothing to stop him from doing the same in front of a cyclist or runner, even on a footpath. I’ve had to hurdle far too many leads as dogs have bolted across my own path when I’ve been out running, and it’s only a matter of time before I go flying.

In 2015, 59 year old Anthony Steel was awarded £65,000 in damages after suffering multiple injuries, including permanent hearing damage and fractured ribs, when his bicycle became entangled with a retractable lead.


  • What if your dog gets in some bother with another dog, in this instance the lead might actually make matters worse. Just imagine a situation where another dog has approached to say hello, a couple of quick sniffs and both dogs could easily become entwined in the extended cord. Now unable to behave normally, the situation could quickly escalate and become dangerous, and not just to the dogs, but also to the people that will be frantically trying to untangle and free them.
  • And finally, as if you needed any more reasons, the retractable lead encourages lazy walking. The dog leads the way as the “walker” ambles along behind. There is no discipline and the dog just pleases himself. It is not a good precedent to set with your dog, if he thinks he can do whatever he wants, and go wherever he wants, then why should he listen to you in other situations?

What Should You Use Instead?

  1. Walking the dog on a short lead is a great start; this gives the dog a little bit of discipline, it also instills a sense of calm and purpose to his walks, as well as an element of teamwork. No longer is he forging ahead, leading the way and protecting his pack. Now, you are a team, facing the world together, with you as his trusted mentor.
  2. Second, address all the reasons that prevent your dog from being trustworthy off lead. If he is over-excited by other dogs, then he needs more socialization. If he gets distracted by smells, teach him to walk with his head up, paying proper attention to you. If he just won’t listen to you, then he needs more rules and discipline in his life.
  3. And then, teach him to respond reliably to the recall, and for this, there is no magic wand, it is just a case of having plenty of tasty treats, praise or toys (or all three) and practice, practice, practice. Start in the house and garden and gradually build up adding more and more distractions and you will have ditched the retractable lead in no time.

Being Off Lead Is the End Goal

Now you can let him off his lead in safe places, the benefits are huge. He will get more exercise and more stimulation as he will be free to explore as you walk, and play to his heart's content. Being off lead allows your dog to socialize more naturally with other dogs, he can go places you probably don’t want to go, such as into the sea for a splash and swim, and he can run and fetch a toy, all whilst you enjoy the freedom of walking without a lead.

As a final note, it is worth mentioning that some breeds of dog just do not do recall. For them there are a growing number of secure dog parks that are opening up, some are free and some come with a small charge. Alternatively, learning to run or cycle with your dog might be an option for you, especially if they have a lot of energy to burn.

Happy and safe walks!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2016 Caroline Brackin

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