Get out and enjoy the great outdoors this spring. Just leave the retractable leash at home!

Walking dog retractable leash

Springtime is the perfect time to get out in the fresh air and explore Loudoun County with our family and furry friends. But before you head out, take a look at your canine companion’s leash. Are you using a retractable leash? Retractable leashes are made out of a thin nylon cord attached to a spring-loaded plastic handle.  They have the ability to extend 15–25 feet as your pet walks away from you; as your pet gets closer, the cord retracts into the handle.  Retractable leashes are popular with many dog owners because they allow pets more freedom to roam and explore on walks.  However, there are many drawbacks and even dangers to using these types of leashes.  Learn why it may be time to trade in the retractable leash this spring season.

Retractable leashes hinder training.

For many pet owners, walks are a daily requirement to meet their dog’s bathroom and exercise needs. Routine walks are a great time to perfect leash training, creating a positive experience for both owner and canine. Dogs that are properly leash-trained should not pull their owner, but rather walk steadily with a little leash slack.  Retractable leashes counteract correct walking by allowing the dog to pull you to their desired location instead.  In a great article posted on AAHA’s blog, several veterinary behaviorists thoroughly explain the goals of positive leash walking and how retractable leashes prevent this.

Retractable leashes give dogs too much freedom.

Because retractable leashes can extend up to 25 feet, there is a greater chance for dogs to explore uninvited areas, people, or other animals with less owner control. Even the friendliest pets that have been properly trained to walk on a retractable leash can make other people or animals uncomfortable if they get too close.

Greater freedom can also pose a problem when taking pets to the veterinarian or to pet-friendly businesses. For example, the lobby area and waiting room at LVH was designed with extensive seating and partitions between bays to afford privacy and a stress-free experience for our patients.  Dogs that come in on retractable leashes can more easily wander to other bays and bother pets that may not want to be sociable or who are anxious because they are in an unfamiliar place. We’ve even had several instances where dogs have come out of an exam room and around the corner to check-out, while their owners were still in the room talking with the vet or assistant. In some cases, they were unexpectedly met by surprised clients or pets.

Dr. Leslie Sinn, LVH’s consulting veterinarian and behavioral specialist, suggests that it’s just plain inconsiderate to allow a dog to surge up to another dog without permission. All of her clients with fearful dogs dislike when they are approached by other dogs on retractable leashes because it usually makes their pets more anxious or fearful.

Some businesses prohibit the use of retractable leashes in their establishment; while this is not a rule at LVH, we do ask for these leashes to be locked at a controllable length (no longer than six feet).  We also have standard six foot leashes available for clients to borrow during their time at the hospital.

LVH's waiting area has lots of room for all of our patients.

LVH’s waiting area has lots of room for all of our patients. But please practice proper pet etiquette around other animals as some may get fearful or anxious around uninvited guests. Image source: Ellen Zangla Photography

 The design of retractable leashes does not give owners real control.

The hard, plastic handles on retractable leashes are awkward and cumbersome. They do not give owners enough room to get a tight grip, making them very easy to drop.  When this happens, the loud crash of the plastic can make dogs scared and run farther away from their owner. Dr. Sinn has treated several dogs who were traumatized after they pulled away from their owner and felt like they were being “chased” as the cord retracted into the plastic handle.

Retractable leashes also allow dogs to gain momentum very quickly, causing you to drop the handle or for the leash to snap and break. In high-traffic areas such as city sidewalks or bike trails (like the popular Washington and Old Dominion Trail here in Fairfax/Loudoun County), animals can bolt into oncoming car and bike traffic before owners have time to hit the leash’s brake button or retract the cord.

Jumping dog

Don’t let a retractable leash ruin your pet’s outdoor adventures! Stay safe and in control with a standard six-foot leash instead.

Retractable leashes can more easily cause pet and owner injuries.

Besides giving owners less control, the design of retractable leashes puts both owners and their pets at risk for injury. As dogs gain momentum, the cord extends until the owner hits the brake button. At high speeds, an abrupt jerk of the cord can cause muscular neck sprains, cervical disc herniation, and even tracheal tears. The thin nylon cord can also cause severe friction burns, cuts and strangulation to both owners and pets if they get tangled in a fast moving line. In several extreme cases, human fingers have been amputated!


Whether you’re just beginning leash training with a puppy or have been walking your dog for years, there are many reasons why choosing a standard leash is a more reliable and safer option for you and your pet. We recommend six-foot leather or nylon webbing leashes that attach directly to your dog’s collar. For greater control and less pull on your dog’s neck/trachea, try a no-pull harness or head-harness such as those made by Gentle Leader.   If your dog has already been trained to politely walk using a retractable leash we recommend sticking to the shorter length leashes (those extending only six feet) so you have greater control at all times.  For more information on the best leash or for training advice, please speak with your vet at your next appointment.  Knowing that all of our pets are unique, we’re here to help you figure out the best choice for your dog’s behavior and training needs.

Retractable Leash Dangers



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