Whenever I see a dog on a retractable leash prancing between interesting-smelling bushes and squirrel-filled trees, I roll my eyes. No, I’m not cold-hearted. To me, it always looks like dogs on retractable leashes are pulling and then being rewarded for it by reaching what they were trying to reach (e.g., interesting-smelling bushes and squirrel-filled trees). It turns out I was half right—but the full picture is much more complex.
Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, sums up the philosophy behind leash training like this, “The philosophy, in a nut shell, is to prevent… any rewards for pulling and to reward [the dog for] walking near the owner on a loose leash.” Wayne Hunthausen, DVM, who, in addition to being a veterinarian is also a pet behavior consultant, concurs: “As soon as the dog pulls on the leash, you pull back a little (a minor correction) and say stop. When the dog stops, you take the pressure off the leash and then say ‘heel’ and start walking again. The dog gets the idea that when there’s pressure on the lead, the walk is over.”
With that in mind, the question becomes whether dogs sense that they are pulling when they walk on a retractable leash. If so, the dog might become used to the feeling of pulling and associate pulling with positive rewards. The tautness of the retractable leash comes from the retracting method. The leash is always a little tight, with any excess winding back into the plastic holder and then releasing again when needed. That tautness may or may not be the same sensation to the dog as actually pulling on a leash. Dr. Radosta says, “Basically, the dog pulls on the leash and feels pressure on the collar. The pressure on the collar, which should mean ‘yield, slow down,’ means ‘speed up’ to [a] dog… trained on a retractable leash. Each time that he feels pressure and moves forward away from the owner, he habituates to the pressure,” and “it becomes meaningless as a signal to slow down.” She does concede that nonreactive, older dogs who are already trained to walk on a standard leash may be able to use retractable leashes, though owners should use caution in certain situations (see sidebar).
But not all veterinarians and trainers agree on the extent to which dogs associate the sensation of the retractable leash with the sensation of pulling. Dr. Hunthausen says, “Retractable leashes just give the dog more freedom on the walk—an extra 15 feet.”
Are retractable leashes dangerous?
Training issues aside, retractable leashed have come under fire for being unsafe. “I would not use one walking along a busy street, because it could fail—the operator or the leash,” says Dr. Hunthausen. Some go even further and say to avoid them unless no cars and few people or dogs will cross your path during your retractable-leash walk. Otherwise, there is a chance that the dog could see something of interest and bolt after it into a dangerous situation, while the owner either drops the leash, can’t lock it, or it breaks. Not only are the leashes a potential hazard to the dog, a dog on a retractable leash could cause harm to another animal or person. Owners have also reported cuts, burns, and worse from rope-style retractable leashes if a dog darts off and the owner grabs the leash or gets wrapped up in it.
According to Consumer Reports News, “In 2007 there were 16,564 hospital-treated injuries associated with leashes, according to Consumer Union’s analysis of statistics collected by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Of those, about 10.5 percent involved children 10 and younger; 23.5 percent involved injuries to the finger. The CPSC’s data does not parse the leashes into types but it’s likely that the amputations were caused by retractable leashes.”
Either way, will a dog become used to moving freely within a 20-foot circumference? And if so, will the dog have a hard time readjusting to a standard 6-foot leash? Dr. Radosta says, “Some dogs will have been taught to walk politely on a non-retractable leash and will do so; however, when they are put on a retractable leash, they will pull. Then, others will pull more on the non-retractable leash because they were taught to do so on a retractable leash.”
If you’ve already trained the dog to walk on a leash, Dr. Hunthausen says using both kinds of leashes is acceptable. “If you train the dog to walk on a 6-foot lead,” he says, “you can use a retractable leash without a problem.” He says the dog should be trained to stop and heel as described above. Dr. Radosta agrees on that point: “It will depend on the time the owner puts into leash training on a non-retractable leash and also the amount of time spent on each leash….” The ASPCA reiterates this message, “Extendable leashes… or leashes longer than 6 feet in length are great for exercising dogs, but they don’t work well if you’re trying to teach your dog not to pull on leash.”
Still, some dogs should never be allowed to use retractable leashes. Dr. Radosta says, “Retractable leashes are inappropriate for any dog with reactivity (barking, lunging, or growling). The distance from the owner afforded by the retractable leash prohibits safe management of dogs with reactivity disorders.” Dr. Hunthausen concurs: “I don’t want aggressive dogs to ever be on a retractable leash.”
The other day, I tried out a retractable leash in an underused park. My chow chow is 9 years old and doesn’t pull as much as she stops and sniffs. To my surprise, I found walking her on a retractable leash to be an enjoyable experience for me. Rather than having to stop every few feet as she sniffed around, I could walk at a steady pace while she explored her surroundings more freely, and she almost always caught up with me before the leash reached its end. If not, I called her and she came jaunting to my side (unless something smelled particularly interesting). Because I’ve never truly trained my dog to stop and heel on command, I don’t think I would use a retractable leash again in the near future. However, I am motivated to work with her on her walking etiquette so we can switch between the two kinds of leashes when I feel it’s safe and appropriate.
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