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The Retractable Leash, good or bad?

The Retractable Leash is often a tool that gets a very bad wrap, but does this innocent looking device really deserve all the beatings it gets?

The most common use of the Retractable Leash has rendered this product a weapon! They get tangled around peoples legs, causing burns and cuts, people have their dogs walking at the end of the longest extension and getting involved in other peoples dogs, kids, cars and lunch!

But like every other negative feeling about tools, this isn’t the problem with the product, it’s a problem with the user.

I won’t try and excuse the way most people are using these, it really IS frustrating for everyone including me, but with a little thought, the infamous Flexi leash can be a great addition to your trainers tool box.

First is the bad press the Retractable Leash gets true and what are the dangers?

  1. The “Cord” style Retractable leashes can and often do cause burns, cuts and get tangled. When a dog goes to run off people inherently grab the cord which of course will burn. Know that
    Retrcatable Leash
    You don’t have to grab the cord, but you probably will

    ever long line, leash or piece of rope will burn. Pressure plus speed causes friction = burn.

The answer of course is “don’t grab the cord“, but having that said, I don’t use nor do we sell the cord type. I have used them and I have not burned or cut my hand, but people will do what they will do so we don’t help them do it by selling them.

  1. Dogs getting tangled in other dogs, peoples feet etc is another common problem, in fact I am sure that most of the retractable leash companies are kept in business by blue haired elderly ladies with small white fluffy dogs who have them half way down the street in your feet. Now is that a stereo type or what?!
Retractable Leash
Ouch not cool

It is true that many (NOT ALL) people who use retractable leashes allow way too much freedom to their dogs and before they can reel in their dog (because they cannot grab the cord), the dog is in your feet and it is a mess.

This problem would happen with a long line too, it is just called poor use.

  1. Dogs at the end of five metres of retractable leash pulling down the street. They see your dog and as soon as the owner tries to pull them back they become aggressive.

Know that these dogs are aggressive anyway, but I agree if they were 5 metres closer to the owner this might lessen the problem.

The problem is not where the dog is but its behaviour, if you bring this dog to the owner on a short leash the dog will still be aggressive, would this be less risk to you and your dog? Perhaps?

  1. Dogs racing to the end of the retractable leash and ripping the handle out of the owners hand. Yes this happens too, can happen to anyone. But again this is a dog with no leash manners and no impulse control.

So I 100% agree that there are going to be problems with people using the retractable leash, but I want you to know that the problems are in the dog or owner and when you put these dogs back

Retractable Leash
Not the best use of this tool

on a fixed length leash, the same problems will be there.

So what good can come from a Retractable Leash?

Puppies

These are great for training puppies, when you get a puppy there is something that most people do that they will regret later on. It is teaching their puppy to pull on a leash.

There are numerous reasons why this almost universally happens and I won’t cover them all here, but I will tell you how I avoid this happening.

A fixed length leash on a puppy will soon represent the item that robs them of fun and exploration. Remove the leash and your puppy is free, add the leash and all or most is lost (according to the puppy).

I have been using a Flexi Retractable Leash for my puppies for about 15 years, before that it was a lightweight long line but to save the line getting tangled I went to the Flexi, and back then it even had a cord!

I don’t stop the puppy accessing everything with a fixed length leash, instead I give the puppy some choice. When the puppy goes to move away from me, I about turn and call the puppy to me. As soon as the puppy turns toward me a click a clicker.

The puppy now races to get food.

I repeat this a lot in my controlled training area (read back yard), until the puppy hardly ever moves away from me. This takes about 2 weeks with a walk every day. In the other times when I am taking my pup out for exposure, I take them on a harness and fixed length leash.

But by the time they are 10 weeks old I can often walk them through town and they walk next to me. They are on a Flexi / Retractable leash and I don’t pull them back so much as call them back. They never really get any more of a metre from me before I either call them back, they come back of their own accord or I press the brake / lock button the retractable leash.

The difference is that the puppy is making the choice to stay with me. By not pulling on a fixed length leash I nor the puppy are triggering Opposition Reflex (desire to pull against tension).

This is one great use for this tool for sure, I have benefited greatly from its use.

This lady is not showing the benefits, but its a great laugh…

Shaping or inducive training

When I am teaching a dog scent work, clicker training or teaching the dog to shape, the retractable leash is a great tool. I can tell you that in early scent detection, a handler that adds a little leash tension can communicate a lot to the dog that is learning, perhaps not a lot of good either!

It can tell the dog that the handler thinks the target odour is not where the dog is looking. It can tell the dog that the handler is trying to pull the dog away from the target odour and raise drive for the article or area being searched, just to name a few.

The retractable Leash has the spring retractable mechanism that holds the same, very light pressure on the leash the whole time. If the handler walks off the leash just extends rather than send a message to the dog.

Some of the inducive training systems I use rely heavily on the dog making choices, the more the dog makes the choice the more solid the behaviour becomes.

A leash that helps the dog make a choice is not the dog making a choice, in fact the leash might make the dog resist moving forward.

Leash manners

When I am teaching a dog not to pull on the leash I will often use the Retractable Leash combined with some other tools. The clicker is one example where I can let the dog have free range (of my training area) but click when the dog is in the position I want. I also have the ultimate control if the dog goes to run away as the retractable Leash is 5 m long and I can apply the brake any place in the 5m.

When I go to reward this dog I at times will scatter 2 – 3 pieces of food on the ground and walk off allowing the dog to eat off the ground as I walk forward, allowing the Retractable Leash to feed out, the dog when finished runs back to the desired position (Retractable Leash reels in slack) and I click again.

So you see that just like every other tool that gets a bad reputation, they can be useful used properly. Could I replace the Retractable Leash with a long line or fixed length leash and achieve all the same things? Sure I could but we have a few Retractable Leashes on hand in our training room all the same.

I want to now just nail down some things I advise people to “avoid” with Retractable Leashes.

  • Don’t allow the dog free run, only use this as a training leash when it is not locked. In all other cases either use a fixed length leash or lock the Retractable Leash at an appropriate 4 or 6ft length.
  • Don’t let the dog run wild on the Retractable Leash in an off leash area, you will have the handle torn from your hand or it will be tangled in other dogs.
  • Don’t allow the dog to find the end of the Retractable Leash (5m?) and pull down the street. If your dog pulls on the leash, have it close to you (4 – 6ft) and train your dog NOT to pull.
  • Don’t grab the CORD!
Retractable Leash
Flexi Leash Durabelt

We only use and recommend the Flexi brand of Retractable Leash, they are made in Germany and are high quality, I have never seen one fail. We only sell the model with the nylon belt, it is called the Durabelt and at writing this article they are not yet available in Australia, so we import them direct ourselves. So no cord!

We only have the one rated for dogs up to 68 kilograms, so it will not break!

There are probably other brands that are just as good or perhaps better, but I have not tested them so I am only sharing my experience.

Final thoughts…

The goal of this post is not to change your view on Retractable Leashes, they work for me but they may not work for you or you may have no use for them, the goal to try and help you realise that every tool we have available to us in dog training or behaviour modification is useful.

They may not suit your application, they may not suit mine, but if you avoid making a blanket statement such as “clicker training doesn’t work” or “check chains are all bad“, you will certainly reduce the limits “you” are putting on your training.

Clicker training DOES work, I don’t use clickers for everything but I do use them for some things, almost exclusively. I don’t really use check chains much but when someone brings me a dog and that dog understands training through a check chain, I go with it, rather than try and reinvent the whole wheel.

I personally have never used no pull front attach harnesses to train a dog, I have tested a few though, but there are some people who won’t train their dog, can’t train their dog or something like that and they make good use of these tools, and that is perfectly OK!

The world doesn’t have to resound my thoughts or ideals. I have learned long ago that people with different ideas to me are not trying to prove me wrong, they probably don’t even know or consider me! 🙂

I have used this blog article to transport this message, “if you don’t like training tool, a dog breed, a trainer, a method or a belief, try taking a fresh look at it. The goal posts may have changed since you made that choice and those things you are against, might save you or a dog one day.

I have a great job because no two dogs are alike nor are the clients requests, for me its a new journey every day, so being trapped by a belief would only retract me, not help me.

We always welcome your comments, for or against, feel free to share your thoughts below or share this post where ever you like.

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2 comments

  1. A thought provoking post. Wish I had found your site back when our GR was a pup.

  2. Right on the money as usual Steve – great post.

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