Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A retractable leash can seem like a cure-all when walking your dog, but these tools are not all they're cracked up to be

People have a hard time understanding my disdain for retractable leashes. It's certainly understandable, considering how much the pet product industry has lauded them in an effort to sell.

In theory, they certainly do have attractive qualities: they allow a dog to remain tethered to its person while being able to get some distance so that the dog can try to find just the right spot to relieve itself, or while snooping around in a safe proximity to its human in an open area, like a field or a beach.

Another aspect of these leashes is that they come with a trigger lock that can be easily pushed with the thumb, to keep a pet from moving any further away from you, should the need arise (and if they're used correctly).

The use of retractable leashes have increased in the past few years, and it's understandable on the part of the dog owner. In a world full of leash laws, they appear to make everyone involved happy: the animal can stay safely tethered to its human while having a bit more freedom to be a dog.

In a perfect world of mindful dog owners and well-behaved dogs, this would be the case.

The problem is, I'm seeing these contraptions used in situations that are totally inappropriate and even border on dangerous.

I'm going to be blunt: Having a dog on a leash can be hazard if the situation is handled casually, no matter the size or breed.

As a professional pet sitter, I've been in many a situation with a client when we are approached by an exuberant (but rarely an aggressive) dog, on or off leash or when a squirrel comes into view that the dog just can't seem to resist. Walking in the winter can pose a special challenge: coming upon a particularly icy surface and having an animal that you cannot manage well on the other end of the leash.

The cords on retractable leashes have a reputation for snapping (one of the reasons that I refuse to use them), and biped legs are easily tangled by them and can be cut as if the cord were a knife — ditto for arms and hands (there's actually a warning label with regard to that on the packaging for these leashes).

Retractable leashes can even fail to lock. No one wants that when a car is passing by.

Unfortunate situations often arise in public places, like the vet's office, where I'm seeing a too-eager dog, because of their thoughtless human, get in each and every face in the waiting room — some of which, I might add, aren't feeling well and are understandably grumpy.

I often hear that besides affording a little space on walks, retractable leashes
do offer some middle ground for dog that that pulls on a traditional leash (even worse at times it's coupled with a head collar!). I find that this really isn't the case, as the dog really isn't learning not to pull and stay engaged with his person; he just has more freedom, and always palpates that bit of tension these leashes have.

My suggestion is to consider ditching the retractable leash, and instead utilize a much more sensible solution: a long training lead.

I use mine often when on out on walks with some clients, and always use it with a harness.

Available in 20-, 30-, or even 50-foot lengths, long training leads are a mindful approach in offering your dog the space that they crave, while keeping them safely tethered to you and offering more control over any situation. This tool does require you to have both hands free (yes, please put the smartphone away), and your attention on your pet.

Not only does your dog benefit from having a bit more autonomy when it's safe to offer it to them, but you have the sturdiness and unquestionable control that a traditional leash offers.

A secondary benefit that I invariably find when using this tool, is that because the leash will drape to the ground, your dog will have the feeling that they are actually off-lead; this simultaneously improves their loose leash walking skills and can help with training or proofing a recall.

(I trained and proofed these skills with my own dog, Gretchen, with a long training lead.)

One of my charges, a young Dalmatian who typically would be pulling non-stop on a six-foot leash, becomes a very different dog in her busy neighborhood while on a long training lead, as you'll see in a video that I taped last week. Click here to view it.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

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