Retractable Leashes: Handy Tool or Fifteen Feet of Doom?

Meeting a ROAR (Rover on a Retractable), can be a nightmare for other dog walkers, especially DINOS. Often ROARs are 10-15 feet away from their owners, making it difficult to step aside and let them pass without having our dogs interact. From a distance, it’s very difficult to determine if the dog is on a retractable or off leash all together. I’m not a big fan.

My own personal experience with retractables varies from just fine to pretty awful. I walk some small dogs on retractables and have no problem keeping my tiny DINOS close, locking the leash when we pass others, and letting them roam when we’re alone. I do my best to use the leash correctly and follow common sense dog walking etiquette, the same as I would with a flat leash.But, I’ve also had really bad experiences with them. I’ve burned my hand, trying to grab at the leash when the braking mechanism failed. And worse, my fear reactive DINOS, Boogie, was attacked by a ROAR.

Picture this: there we were, strolling on the sidewalk, when a very large dog, standing in his driveway on a retractable, began to chase us. The weight of the dog, running at full speed, snapped the bulky handle right out of his surprised owner’s hand. The dog ran towards us, bulky handle scraping on the sidewalk, making a terrible noise. He jumped on top of Boogie, biting him on the head. Boogie didn’t fight back, but he did curse at the other dog pretty loudly. The man who owned the large dog was afraid to step in and help me, because he had another dog, also on a retractable, and didn’t want to drag that dog into the chaos. It took a third person to step in and get the dog off of Boogie.

Would this have happened if the dog had been on a flat leash? Maybe, but I honestly doubt it. It was the force of the big dog hitting the end of the line at a full sprint that snapped the huge plastic handle out of his owner’s hands. It was the crazy sound of the handle crashing behind him that amped the dogs up even more. It was the lack of a flat leash to step on and safely pull his dog away that kept the tussle going, because there was nothing to grab onto (the giant handle was left dangling a foot or so off the attacking dog’s neck).

Do I think retractables should be banned? Nope. Do I think they have a place and that place isn’t on city streets or in other highly populated areas? Yep.

In addition to the control issues, the problem is that, no matter how skilled you are at using them, the equipment is known to fail. I’ve worked in pet stores and seen them returned, over and over again, for snapping. I’ve had the breaking mechanism fail on me. And that’s why Consumer Reports wrote that delightful article on finger amputations.

But these leashes aren’t going anywhere, so in the interest of exploring the more (and less) responsible methods of using retractables, I’ve compiled a DO and DON’T list (available as a pdf, minus this whole intro, for easy printing).

A Guide for ROARs (Rovers on a Retractable): Retractable Leash Etiquette

DO: Be aware that retractable leashes have a reputation for breaking, snapping, and otherwise failing.

DON’T: Let your dog’s retractable get tangled around another dog’s body. The friction from the moving tape or string can cause serious injuries.

DO: Lock your leash to 6 feet or less while walking your dog in public around other dogs and/or people (not all people want to be approached by your dog).

DO: Use them in unpopulated areas, such as the woods or your own back yard.

DON’T: Use them with a gentle leader or other training tools. The point of those tools are generally to teach your dog not to pull, to engage with you, or for better control. It’s a confusing message to a dog to be on both a retractable and a head harness or corrective collar at the same time.

DO: Purchase the best quality retractable you can afford. Typically the tape ones are stronger than the string ones.

DON’T: Expect to teach your dog to stop pulling while using these. Your dog is enjoying pulling ahead and wandering off.

DO: Work on your dog’s recall at other times, so that you’re not just relying on the leash to gather your dog back.

DO: Be aware that those bulky handles are difficult to hold on to, if your dog hits the end of the line at full speed.

DON’T: Let your dog wander off while in public places like the pet store or at the vet’s office. If your dog can walk away from you, into another aisle or across a room, the point of using a leash (for management) has been defeated.

DO: Consider them a potentially useful tool for environmentally fearful dogs, dogs that are semi-feral with humans, or other dogs that may need some extra space while they are building confidence.

DON’T: Drop the leash, especially if you’re working with a fearful dog. The bulky handle “chases” behind them, making a terrible scraping sound on pavement, further terrifying the dog.

DO: Be aware that Consumer Reports notes that people have suffered serious injuries, including finger amputations and bad burns from retractable leashes.

DON’T: Walk your large reactive dogs on retractables in any place you may encounter their triggers. It only takes a second to miss the opportunity to lock the leash and then you’ve got a thrashing dog, fifteen feet ahead of you.

Printable PDF is here: Retractable Leash Etiquette