There is a joke in the dog training world:
What can you get two dog trainers to agree on? What the third one is doing wrong.
That being said, you would be hard pressed to find a dog trainer that would recommend using a retractable leash as a training tool.
I know, I know, you may have been using one for years without problems. Well, except that your dog still pulls on the leash. And then there is that time that Fido saw a squirrel and yanked the handle out of your hand. Or maybe you have been the recipient of a rope burn or two while trying to reel your dog in from an off leash dog racing towards you.
Tools of the Trade
Dog training tools can be lumped into three categories: training, management, and convenience.
Many tools can be used for all three. It just depends on your intent. For example, let’s look at a standard, six foot leash:
- As a training tool, a standard leash allows you to communicate effectively with your dog what is expected of him/her.
- As a management tool, a standard leash can allow you to keep your dog close to you and under some control.
- As a convenience tool, a standard leash can allow you to tie your dog up outside the coffee shop while you run in for a cup of Joe.
Retractable leashes, on the other hand, do not serve as a training tool, rarely serve as a management tool, and are primarily a convenience—for the owner.
So, What’s Wrong with Retractables?
A training tool allows you to communicate effectively with your dog. When used properly, it creates a conversation between you and your dog about what is expected from the interaction.
If your dog pulls on a standard leash, she will reach the end and feel tension. That tension, when used in a training scenario, allows you to communicate to your dog that you want them to stay closer to you, within the leash’s range, and when she does this, the tension stops and good things happen. (Such as a treat or praise.)
With a retractable leash, the tension never stops. In fact, dogs are actually rewarded for creating more tension because the more that they pull, the more they get what they want – to sniff a tree, jump on someone, or, generally, ignore you.
As a training tool, the retractable leash fails because the line of communication between you and your dog is disrupted. Your dog learns how to work with the retractable leash and make it do her bidding instead of looking to you for direction.
As a management tool, the retractable fails for the most part as well. It may seem like you are attached, but in reality your dog may be 15 or more feet from you. Add to that the fact that most retractable leashes are a thin string and the truth is that you have little control over your dog, or his or her surroundings.
If another dog goes after your dog, or a squirrel runs by, it is going to be extremely difficult to control the situation.
Not Giving Up Your Retractable Leash?
I get it! There are reasons owners love retractable leashes:
- Your dog has the opportunity to get more exercise
- They allow some control in situations where your dog can’t be off leash
- Your dog may not pull as hard on the retractable leash
- You have an older dog who just saunters and sniffs
I want clients to use what they feel works best for them and their dogs, as long as they understand the limitations and potential consequences of their choices. Making an informed decision helps keep both you and your dog safe and will support your training goals.
Chris Pearcey is a Certified Behavior and Training Specialist working in Central Texas. She has worked with dogs and their owners to improve their relationships since 2006. Feel free to contact her at Christine.firstname.lastname@example.org.