Ditch the Retractable


Pet owners’ tastes are diverse, as the billions in annual pet supply sales will attest; but this means the market is full of poorly designed or cheaply made items. Consumers should research carefully before purchasing anything for their pet, including leashes which people pick by color more than function.

Leash sales surged as city-pet ownership grew in popularity. Before that, unfettered city dogs were seen as nuisances and hazards to public health. Eradication was standard policy until the mid-19th century when dogs became fashionable accessories. The ASPCA, humane standards, and leash laws quickly followed.

The retractable leash comes to us from Mary Delaney, patent 1908, Manhattan NY. Her goal was to limit the time women spent manipulating the leash while walking their dogs. She felt dogs needed freedom to roam, and owners needed freedom to ignore it – an opinion still popular today. The retractable leash underwent several variations, settling on the current hard-plastic case, rope-cord model of today.

And it’s still terrible.

A hard plastic case is a good idea for protecting eyeglasses, but not dogs; and especially not for controlling a large dog. People’s hands come in many sizes and shapes, and although it is easy enough to find a case with a comfortable-fitting handle, the way the hand grips the handle decreases the strength of the grip. A hard, unexpected jerk from a large dog is enough to yank the whole thing out of the hand.

Once the grip is lost, the case launches through the air while the retraction mechanism engages if the safety lock is off or gets disengaged during flight. Chaos ensues. Woe to anyone in the path of that hard case. Once that hard case connects to a dog’s face or small child, there may be at best a lot of screaming, at worst severe injury. This is the exact opposite of control, which is the whole point of a leash.

A leash provides control of a dog, but also gives the dog clues for expected behavior. This owner/dog communication is a source of assurance for both dog and owner. A dog’s anxiety lessens when it knows its owner is in control of a situation. People anthropomorphize dogs and give them all the room to run, “Be free, Fido!” but that freedom can also be an unsecure environment with cars, unfriendly people, diseases, or other animals. The world has many dangers.

A retractable leash allows a dog a lot of range, which is fine in a safe area; but in tight quarters or busy places, its lack of control is more trouble than it’s worth. A dog too far out front may not respond to recall commands when danger appears or when the dog appears as a danger to others. Retractable leash cases and handles are even harder to grip in cold weather. Cheaper models have cheap parts, so the cord may break or fray, the lock may fail, the case may come apart, or the collar hook may rust or fall off.

For a tea cup chihuahua or a one-pound yorkie, chances are good that any retractable leash will hold up under the pressure put on it, however, it cannot prevent a tiny dog from getting under foot or wheel. The lock stops the cord, but then the cord can get unwieldy and wrap around legs, tripping owners in the process.  They can also wrap around dogs’ and children’s legs and necks. If an owner forgets to lock it, there is no chance to pull the dog away from a hazard. Retractables cannot replace the security and strength of a standard leash, and it feels like fire when it zips across the back of a bare leg!

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