Just because a product exists doesn’t necessarily mean you should buy it, right? That’s generally the sentiment from dog trainers and veterinarians when it comes to retractable leashes.
Also known as “flexi-leads” (from the brand that originally popularized them) retractable leashes are synonymous with any leash that retracts mechanically, typically by rolling into a plastic housing shaped like a handle. You may have seen them for sale at your local pet store, however despite their popularity, retractable leashes remain one of the most detested piece of gear among dog professionals...but does that mean you shouldn't use one with your dog, why or why not? Well, like most things in the dog world, the answer is, it depends.
With some products, their biggest benefit is also their biggest detraction, and this couldn’t be more true than in the case of the flexi-lead. Retractable leashes were originally designed as a convenient solution to give dogs the freedom to roam on a walk, without violating local leash laws or making dog owners have to deal with the 20’ of slack they would have with a long line, however all of this extra room on the leash allows (almost encourages) dogs to engage in bad behaviors like pulling, ignoring your commands, or worse, hurting themselves by running as fast as they can to the end of the line or getting tangled in it, which is partly how they got such a bad reputation in the first place.
Rope burns and neck injuries are by and large the biggest concern with using retractable leashes, and for that reason they shouldn’t be use on any untrained dogs. If your dog hasn’t been taught to respect voice commands like “No”, “Come”, or “Slow Down/Easy”, it’s unfair to think they will naturally understand where the leash ends, or that they should slow down on their own, and there’s a good chance they could inadvertently injure themselves.
Unlike a normal dog leash, which can drag if there is too much slack between you and your dog, flexible dog leashes use tension as a way to keep the leash from tangling, but this system isn’t perfect and dogs can still get the leash wrapped around their legs, body, or around another dogs leash, making it extremely difficult (even dangerous) to get free. For these reasons, flexible leashes shouldn’t be your only leash, and should really only be considered if your dog has good leash manners already, as a way to let them roam a little further while still being under your control.
If your dog trainer just told you to ditch your $70 retractable leash for a simple, cheap, 6’ rope leash, they’re not wrong. Flexible leashes are impossible to use for dog training — especially teaching your dog to walk politely on a loose leash! — because its not designed to keep slack in the leash while you walk.
Rewarding your dog for having slack in the leash (and stopping the walk when there is too much tension) is a core principle of loose-leash walking, and since flexi-leads are designed to always have tension, your dog can’t distinguish when they’re doing the right thing or not. If you think of the leash like a “communication line” between you and your dog, training your dog to walk without pulling relies on them being able to feel the slack of the leash, which is something flexible leashes aren’t well suited for.
Further, retractable leashes make it hard for your dog to distinguish where the natural end of the leash is. Most flexible leashes have buttons that will mechanically stop the leash from extending further, which may be convenient for you — but try to think about that from your dogs perspective. First they had 15’ of leash, then suddenly they had 5’ of leash with no warning. How are they supposed to know when to stop, if the length of the leash is always changing?
Flexi-lead’s are forbidden in most dog training classes because of the risks they create, including leashes getting entangled, dogs running out of control, and the chance of neck injuries, especially in small dogs.
Without saying a command like “Slow Down/Easy” before stopping the leash, neck and trachea injuries from the sudden jerking caused by flexible leashes increase significantly, and without knowing where the leash naturally ends, your dog will never figure out how to actually walk beside you in the first place.
With all of that being said, it's not surprising that retractable leashes are such an appealing tool. For many dogs that live in urban areas where off-leash walks aren't allowed, they are a great alternative to driving out into the country to let your dog burn off some energy, and fortunately with some precautions, flexible leashes can still make a great addition to your usual 4’ or 6’ lead.
The most important place to start if you want to use a flexible leash with your dog is training them to walk on a regular, 6’ loose leash without pulling, zig-zagging, or getting entangled in shrubbery/other dogs. Training your dog to walk on a loose leash can be easier said than done, but you should keep trying to establish good manners before giving your dog the freedom of a 15’ or 20’ flexible leash.
Even if your dog isn’t an obedience champion, they can still learn basic commands like “come”, which can really help avoid potential injury when using a retractable leash, as you can call your dog back to you instead of letting them run to the end of the leash. If your dog knows even a few basic obedience commands reliably, using a flexible leash will be much safer overall.
Arguably the best way to prevent neck and trachea injuries when using a flexible leash with your dog is to not use things that tie around your dogs neck when walking them. Although flat collars and training collars are great tools for training, if you’d like to use a flexible leash to simply take your dog on a relaxing walk without worrying too much about teaching them something new, a harness can give a trained dog more freedom and help protect against injuries by evenly distributing leash pressure around their chest and body instead of around their neck. By looking for a harness that offers back-clips for the leash (instead of front or side clips) you also greatly reduce the risk of your dog getting tangled up in the first place.
The super-thin design of flexible leashes is a bit of a double edged sword. While the thin “ribbon-like” design of the leash makes it lightweight enough to easily retract into plastic housing, its also easily chewed through, and when caught up under a dogs leg (or your own!), can cause seriously bad rope burns.
To mitigate against this, some dog owners use leash extenders, which are short attachments to the leash that are usually made of material that is chew-proof, or offers other protection like being made of shock-resistant bungee cord material, abosrbing the impact in case their dog unexpectedly runs to the end.
While it's true that retractable leashes have some inherent dangers, many dogs (including those owned by veterinarians and dog trainers) use them without coming to harm. The important thing is to be mindful of your individual dog's personality and existing training before picking up a retractable leash, and also, to be aware of why you're looking for a flexible leash in the first place. Is it to give your dog more freedom and to burn off energy? If you plan to use the flexi-leash with a harness and leash extender, then it's probably not an issue!
However if you're trying to train your dog to walk on a leash for the first time, or you're trying to fix your dogs existing leash walking behavior, then you should consider a regular 6' leash without any special addons, first.
The bottom line is, the leash you should use ultimately depends on your dogs level of training, but that's not to say you need to throw your existing flexi-lead away. It's totally acceptable to use both a 6' lead and a flexible leash, as long as you're realistic about your expectations and manage your dog's behavior in both cases. If you're using a flexible leash for long walks through the park without a lot of “heeling” involved, but switch to a regular leash for basic obedience training or walks through urban areas, your dog can have the best of both worlds without getting confused or developing bad habits.