Retractable leashes – what’s not to love? Plenty

Laurie Raymond

Who knew? Topping the list of veterinarians’ pet peeves on the Veterinary Information Network for years are: retractable leashes. I know why I hate them — if dog trainers had a similar network, their comments on the devices wouldn’t even be printable. But vets deal with the damage to dogs as well as witnessing the mayhem firsthand in their clinics. Yet we’re often asked why we don’t sell them at High Tails. Here’s why:

At High Tails, we hold our breath when dogs come into the store on a flexi, especially when the brake is off. Their excitement at being in a dog-friendly environment is a good thing. What isn’t so fun is when they move through the store at warp speed, and:

A. Hit the end of the leash and rear back, choking, or

B. Run up to a customer and wrap around his/her legs with that cord, or

C. Wrap the cord around a shelf or display, then upend it trying to extricate themselves, or

D. Run full-tilt into another dog emerging from the grooming room or play room, with the result that a dog fight starts or is narrowly averted, or the dogs get tangled in the cord while doing normal greeting behavior and one or both get scared or hurt when the cord tightens around a leg, or…

You get the picture, and it isn’t pretty. Sometimes the owner tries to shorten the leash by going hand-over-hand. News flash: This is how digital amputations happen. Rope burn is getting off easy. You can’t reel in a dog that is pulling the cord out because there’s no mechanism for that.

Why do owners buy the things, anyway? They are clunky to hold, vastly reduce the control you have over your dog when you need it, hide the cord or tape, concealing damage until it breaks (never at a good time), and they’re expensive.

As far as I can see, they are appropriate only where you wouldn’t need a leash at all: a wide open field, with nothing to get hung up on, no other people or animals, and no distractions for the handler. Under those conditions, the chief danger is to the dog. If he runs out his cord or tape and hits the end with full force, his trachea and cervical vertebrae can be permanently damaged. If the idea is to give the dog freedom to move about at his own chosen speed, why not remove the leash? If he isn’t reliable coming when called, the remedy is training and the interim solution is a fenced area.

Owners have told me they like flexis for casual strolls with their dog, when she can sniff and potter along. But if you are walking connected to your dog by anything, one of you is going to have to adjust her pace. For sidewalk strolls, a 4- or 6-foot leash is ideal, because it gives you enough control when you need it. There is no nearly-invisible cord stretching across the path for someone to walk unseeing into, knock a child off a bike, entangle a wheelchair or stroller or tip over an elderly person. Giving a dog freedom to set the pace gives handlers the illusion they are more independent of each other than they can safely be. Just Google “retractable leash injuries” if you don’t believe me — but you’d better have a strong stomach.

On the trail, you might think a flexi gives appropriate freedom and lets you stay connected, just in case. In case of what? Imagine your dog, 15 or 26 or 35 feet ahead of you, rounding a corner and coming face to face with a bear? Or a rider on a mountain bike or a horse, not seeing the cord, imagines she has plenty of room to maneuver between you and the dog.

Joring sports are the only activities (other than training with a long line) where it is appropriate to be connected to a dog by a tether more than 6 feet long. But joring requires training the dog to stop, slow down and turn left or right on cues, and the equipment includes a quick-release device for the tether. Flexis don’t have such a feature, and if you think simply letting go amounts to the same thing, consider this story:

This actually happened to a friend of mine, a longtime dog breeder and trainer with great handling skills and who usually errs on the side of caution. She took her puppy to his first dog show out of town, and put him on a flexi, heading for a grassy strip so he could stretch his legs and relieve himself. Something startled him and he jerked the clunky plastic handle out of her hand. Though the pup was well trained, he was in a strange environment – and quickly panicked at being “chased” by this loud object banging along at his heels. He raced into traffic, crossing a six lane highway and into a busy mall parking lot where disaster was averted by a kind person who saw the problem and stopped him. Worse than just dropping the leash of a scared dog is if the leash itself turns into a noisy pursuing monster he can’t escape no matter how fast he runs.

Why are retractables so bad from a training perspective? Well, first, you want dogs to learn that when they are on a leash, they adjust their pace to yours. Flexis reward them for pulling — until they reach the end, and get a throat-wrenching jolt. Also, they teach a dog to disregard the connection until it intrudes on his purpose. Seeing an attractive distant object, the dog forgets he is connected to his person until the jolt reminds him. By then, he’s focused on his objective and the reminder is a rude interference, leaving him off balance and at a disadvantage. Dogs recognize their regular leash’s distance limitation. Accepting it is what leash training accomplishes. Flexis are confusing, bestowing an illusion of autonomy by giving him full control — until he gets an uncomfortable jolt, or suffers some harm from which his owner is too removed to protect him.

So, that’s the long answer to the frequently asked question, “Why don’t you sell retractable leashes at High Tails?” Like Corvairs of old, they’re unsafe at any speed.

Laurie Raymond owns High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs.

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