Ask the RV Vet
With Dr. Deanna Tolliver, M.S., DVM
For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, a retractable leash has a molded plastic handle; inside is a length of thin cord or nylon tape wrapped around a spring-loaded “axle.” On the other end of the cord is a snap that attaches to your dog’s collar. A button on the handle releases the cord.
So what’s wrong with that? A lot, it turns out. But let’s look at both sides of the story.
1. The handler can decide how much cord (I have trouble calling this a leash) to let out, so the dog can be up to 16 feet away. This allows the dog to make its own decisions as to where to go in that 16-f00t circle.
2. There is no number two. I can’t think of another reason why some may think these are great leashes. And even number one is really a con.
Because the dog decides where it wants to go in that large circle, it can get into all kinds of trouble. I can think of dozens of bad things, but to keep it short, I’ll include: going in the brush and encountering snakes, skunks and other critters; broken glass, nails and other sharp objects to step on; foxtails, stickers and other penetrable plant parts.
But the number one reason why I think these “leashes” are dangerous?
You have no control over your dog.
Scenario: You’re walking your dog with a retractable leash, set to release about 10 feet of cord. Another dog is walking towards you and suddenly runs at your dog. What do you do?
You won’t be able to quickly retract the leash. So you grab the cord with your free hand. Your dog runs around behind you to hide, and now your hand is caught in the cord, and it’s quickly getting too tight and it hurts. So you drop the handle to use your now-free hand to untangle the cord, and by now the dogs are fighting. Your dog manages to get free and runs away. The sound of the plastic handle hitting the ground makes him think something is chasing him, and that scares him even more.
Or, same scenario, only this time it’s a small child that appears out of nowhere and runs gleefully toward your dog, who just happens to not like small children. Again, you might not be able to gain control over your dog until after it bites the child.
One more: You’re walking your dog on a sidewalk next to a busy street. Your dog spies a squirrel on the other side and makes a mad dash to chase it. Because the leashes are generally cheaply made, when you try to set the lock mechanism, it breaks and your dog gets hit by a car.
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• Some leashes have a warning on the handle: “Fingers have been amputated when entangled in these leashes.” Some people have been hurt when the cord gets wrapped around their legs and they fall.
• Dogs have been hurt either when the cord reached its full length or the handler pulled back forcefully and the dog literally reaches “the end of the rope.” It can be jerked so hard that injuries to the neck and throat are not uncommon.
• Veterinarians who specialize in dog behavior and training warn that using a retractable leash can actually train the dog to pull. And, it’s much more difficult to train a dog when it’s so far away.
Okay. I already know there will be many of you who insist on using your retractable leash. Here’s some advice.
—Use one that has flat nylon tape instead thin cord.
—Restrict the length of the tape to eight feet.
—Make sure your dog is thoroughly leash-trained on a regular six-foot leash before using a retractable.
—Don’t use the retractable in areas crowded with either people or dogs.
—Never grab the cord or tape with your bare hands.
Dr. Deanna welcomes your questions. Email her at YourRVvet@gmail.com
Dr. Deanna Tolliver has been a full-time RVer for over 3 years, although she has been an RVer for several more. She travels with a fifth wheel and a 1-ton dually truck. Her travel companions include 4 small dogs and a 36-year-old Yellow-Naped Amazon Parrot. She has a BS and MS in biology and zoology, respectively, and a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Missouri, Columbia. She owned a veterinary hospital for many years and recently handed over the reins to a new owner.
The fact that you have no control over the animal is why when you see a regulation that a dog needs to be leashed – it means six feet or less. The retractable leash seldom meets the legal definition of a “leash”.
We had a high-content wolf hybrid and I walked him with a retractable leash for many years. I would give him some freedom to sniff when it seemed safe, but shortened the leash when other people or animals were around. Everything was fine until 2 large, unleashed dogs came running out of their yard into the road barking at us one day. I thought I had things under control when I chased the dogs away, but they returned and Roman decided I needed protection. He ripped the leash out of my hands, shredding my hands in the process and pulling me to the ground skinning my knees. I managed to reach him and pull him off one of the dogs when he had his teeth around it’s neck. The only injuries that day were mine, but I threw the leash away. This is not a lesson about why one should not keep wolves as pets. (I could write an entire book on that subject.). He was incredibly well behaved most of the time, but I was wrong in thinking I could control him with that leash.
Since we have traveled to 48 of the 49 states and practically every park we have ever stayed in requires pets to be on a leash of no more than 6′ in length we seldom if ever see dog owners who actually limit the length of the leash to that size. I guess rules simply are not meant to be followed anymore.
Dr. Deanna’s thoughts probably makes sense for the masses – it’s sad that so many dog owners have control and obedience problems with their beloved pets. That said, fundamentally the core problem is the OWNER’S lack of training and discipline, not mechanical issues such as this or that type of leash. Yet practically speaking, I appreciate the notion that some leashes may be more of a safety concern with unruly pupsters.
I have about 20 years experience using retractable leashes with my pets (dogs from 10 to 130 pounds), so I think I can speak with some authority. The idea of a leash which can change from a 4-foot lead to a 50-foot range does not mean that you should not be changing the extension to suit the immediate conditions. You should know how to release the lock to allow the spring to gather in the leash when the dog roams near you, and how to manipulate the leash and your arm so as to be able to “reel in” your pet (a bit like fly fishing) quickly. BTW, for a large dog, you should use a “flat woven tape” style leash, not a “braided rope” style leash. Further, children do not “appear from nowhere” as Romulan cloaking devices are still fictional. (You should always “reel in” to the shortest “heel” position when approaching hidden corners or other areas which could contain squirrels, cats, other dogs, children or anything that might excite and distract your pet. As the owner, it’s your job to think ahead of your pet.)
Lastly, I never trained my dogs to do tricks or obey a lengthy command set, but I made sure they were well-socialized and would obey a halt, sit or drop command. The leash was never the primary pet controller; it was just the default (almost the emergency) backup to having a calm and socially polite dog (and me remaining alert to our surroundings).
Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I would like to respectfully suggest that you represent a very small minority. Most dogs are not as well trained as yours. I am in a campground at this very moment watching a young girl of about 8 trying to walk her 60 pound lab on a retractable leash. He is just pulling her along. She is not going to be able to control him in any situation. And her mother walks the dog exactly the same way. Their retractable is the cord type. They represent the reality at most campgrounds. And children do appear from nowhere. They run out from behind an RV, from the side of a car, out of a building, etc. I have over 30 years of veterinary experience seeing just about anything you can imagine with dogs. Most dogs are not trained correctly so most owners don’t know how to walk them on a retractable leash. Just because you’ve never seen a problem like that doesn’t mean it doesn’t occur dozens of times per day.
Retractable leashes are very dangerous on hike and bike trails. Have seen several cyclists and walkers taken down and injured. Not the dogs’ fault, but the owners who are clueless. By the way, I am a walker, hiker, cycler and a dog owner.
We have never used retractable leads with our dogs and firmly believe that the best and happiest dog is a well trained dog. Right now we have an Olde English bulldog who is a joy to be around, he walks naturally at heel, but wears a good harness and has a stout lead with a short handle and an end handle. I’ve seen too many of my dog walking campground neighbors unwrapping their “retractable” leads from around trees and bushes or scrambling to get their pups out of the way of park traffic to think these are a good idea.
Thank you Deanna … as a fellow camping veterinarian who does do behavioral work in clinic you summed everything up beautifully that I HATE about retractable leads but you did miss the breaking cord snapping the owner in the eye when it breaks. Have seen that reported also.
My options for our 2 dogs (that always wear collars with identification) include the easy walk harness with a 4 foot lead for when we are in close quarters, a harness that attaches over the shoulder blades with a 6 foot nylon lead for general hiking or to tie out and Amazon actually has some wonderful 30′, 50′ & 100′ nylon leashes with wonderful spongy handles for when we want to throw the ball for our younger dog.
On a side note the only system I have liked when traveling with our cat has been the Come With Me Kitty™ Cat Harness & Bungee Leash. Really easy to fit to the cat & none of mine have ever squirmed out of it.
Deanna: first, thanks for your GREAT articles lately… fresh info, RIGHT info, awesome all around.
I have to second everything you said, so I guess we’re up to squaring my support now. I’ve seen and experienced everything you recounted several times. I’ve seen the lack of control which leads to lack of training which leads back into lacking control, seen the crushed hands, seen people hogtied in their own cords, seen broken brakes and dropped leashes scaring hyper pets, seen dogs run to the end and snap back so hard they flipped backwards mid-air gasping for breath… ALL of it is true, and people are in denial if they think they have control. Even “good quality” retractors with reliable brakes just aren’t a direct connection in an emergency.
I actually have a *26 foot* retractable I use in VERY limited circumstances, generally amounting to at most a theatrical “anti-escape mechanism” for onlookers rather than a leash, because I only use it where I’d otherwise have the dog off-leash.
Story time! I did at one point walk into the middle of two other dogs fighting while walking mine. I gave my dog the command to plant herself so she wouldn’t get involved, she hit the ground and I dropped my (proper) leash and grabbed the middle of the retractible cords of one of the strangers’ dogs, planning to use my hand as a “carabiner brake.” BIG MISTAKE. As the dogs continued lunging, the wrapped cable first crushed my fingers, and then ripped the cord around my skin fast enough to BURN a scar into my palm I still have. After I jumped on the fighting dogs and separated them, one of the idiots (I mean “owners”) was flat out shocked that my dog was still on the ground waiting for me where I dropped her, and said she “wished her dog could be trained that well”. I not so politely gave her broken-braked leash back to her and said “This is why your dog isn’t.” I don’t mince words.
My dogs are trained to ADA Service Dog standards, and I literally have trusted my life to their obedience in dangerous situations on several occasions. And that’s the only reason I could use spool-leashes at all — if you can’t trust the dog OFF leash, don’t trust it on a spooler because just as Deanna said, that’s the level of control you really have. When busy-bodies have not liked my dog being off-leash (in allowed areas), I’ve had my dog carry hers in her mouth just to prove my point. The leash — any leash — should be a backup to an already trained dog. It’s “reins” to guide, not a restraint. If you actually rely on your leash to keep your dog from eating kids’ faces off (seen it…dog had to be shot), that’s not a pet you should be keeping.
What leash do I generally use? I have an 8′ “bungee” type leash which has a whole second handle right against the dog’s end. Where freedom is allowed, the dog has more comfortable “heel” room but I can still close distance faster than whatever else attacks us. During training, the close-handle gives me ABSOLUTE control to guide my dog because her butt doesn’t fit between us to reverse from “heel.”
The kind of freedom most people use retractors for is a dangerous form of “untrained off leash.” So yeah, just don’t use them. They ARE bad. Coming from the “safety guy”…
Thanks Wolfe. I really appreciate your comments!
I usually use a retractable leash but always limit how far it’s extended when walking on busy park roads or trails. My dog is one that doesn’t greet well on a leash so I must be vigilant no matter what type of leash he’s on.
I have a 90 pound Yellow Lab. He loves everyone and everything. Because of that, I have a retractable lease to keep him close when walking in the RV park. When we are where he can safely explore I extend the leash. When he reaches the end, he does not tug or pull. I think training is more important than leash style. If you have a dog that lacks training, keep it on a short leash. I don’t want to have to take two leashes on long walks.
Thanks for writing. I agree with you that training is important. Just an FYI, most of the dogs we would see in practice that were injured by retractable leashes were bigger dogs, who were strong enough that the brake broke, or were injured when the brake broke and they were able to run from their owner. It sounds like that won’t be happening to your dog because he is better trained than most.
They have their place if your dog can behave and if the human isn’t an idiot. To incriminate them just because some people are stupid and can’t even walk and chew gum at the same time isn’t fair to dogs that like a little space and humans that are smart enough to use the retractable responsibly.
Good advice. It troubles me to see people using a retractable leash, because, as you state, you have no control. I have been forced to use one, while walking my sister’s dog. I kept it at 6 foot, the dog did not like being on a short leash, but got used to it and was better behaved. I am sure that changed the next time she walked him. Keep up the education of our people
We have used both types and prefer the retractable. We lock it at shorter distances for general walking, longer when we get to potty areas. An issue for us is the difference between my height (5’2″) and my husband (6’8″). You might think that doesn’t matter much, but it does. Also, as stated in the above post, when we are stationary at our campsite it is nice to have more control over adjusting the length. We’ve used retractable leads for many, many years with all our dogs and I can’t think of one time we encountered any of the dramatic circumstances mentioned.
Thanks for writing. Most people haven’t “encountered any of the dramatic circumstances mentioned.” But those of us in the “dog repair” business for many many years have seen just about everything, many many times. I know of veterinarians who have posted signs saying that retractable leashes are not allowed in their clinics. I have personally been tripped when someone’s dog wrapped its retractable cord around my legs, and all the fingers on my left hand were bruised and swollen for days when I grabbed a dog’s retractable leash cord to prevent him from being hit by a car.
I’m happy you haven’t had any problems with your retractable leash. It sounds as if you’re using it more responsibly than some.
It isn’t a leash problem you describe, it is a human problem. Many of us do just fine with a retractable leash.
Amen! We just lost our dog of eighteen years. She spent 99% of her time on a well-built retractable with little problem. She wasn’t dog-friendly. If others approached the leash was retracted and locked well in advance. It’s not leashes that cause problems. It’s people.
They “retract” for a reason, right?
I hate retractable leashes primarily because of the lack of discipline of the owner and subsequently the dog as well. Having a dog charge at you with a 10′ scope is intimidating. Many RV parks have rules about the length of leashes for this reason…most say 6 feet. However, I keep my pepper spray handy. And I’ve personally seen a dog run 10 feet onto a street to be promptly flattened by a passing bus.
Our dog doesn’t do well with other people or dogs so I lock my leash at “heel” length when anyone else is around. Then when we get where she can do her business and we are alone I release it so she can roam. The alternative would be to keep a long leash coiled up (very unhandy) or carry 2 leashes. (just as dumb). When we tie her out at our camper it is nice to be able to adjust exactly how far she can go since campground yards vary from a few feet to a few yards. I will keep my adjustable leash, thank you very much .