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A retractable leash can be a convenient way to give your dog more freedom on walks. But dog owners often use these leashes in the wrong circumstances or before the dog is ready. This guide will help you understand when and how to use a retractable leash.

How to Use a Retractable Leash

A retractable leash has a long spool of tape or cord coiled within the handle. When your dog pulls on the leash, the remaining length of tape unspools. You can use the lock or brake button to prevent further tape from unspooling; however, the leash will only retract if it’s slack. So, if your dog is pulling, you can’t reel your dog back without running to catch up or using verbal cues to entice your dog to return.

When using a retractable leash, only allow your dog to unspool as much leash as necessary. Too much slack is a hazard. And never let your dog run full tilt as the leash releases. When your dog hits the end of the leash, your dog can suffer injuries like a damaged trachea or spine.

young couple walking their beagle dog on a retractable leash down a path
©Nastya -

Training Your Dog for a Retractable Leash

One of the major complaints of dog owners is that their dog pulls on the leash. Unfortunately, a retractable leash rewards pulling. The more the dog pulls, the more leash and therefore the more freedom the dog receives. Until your dog understands how to walk politely using a standard six-foot leash, hold off on the retractable version.

To train polite walking skills, teach your dog that being next to you is far more worthwhile than wandering away. Frequent rewards, like praise or treats, will help your dog want to be close to you rather than dragging you down the street.

Additional training will make the use of a retractable leash safer and easier. Teach a “leave it” cue so you can prevent your dog from getting into garbage or other dangers. Also consider teaching “watch me” to gain your dog’s focus and “heel” to return your dog to your side. Finally, teach your dog to come when called. A strong recall is important in case your dog gets into trouble at the end of the leash or if the leash breaks and your dog runs free.

Dachshund waiting to cross the street on a walk.
©Javier brosch -

Choosing a Retractable Leash

Look for a retractable leash that fits your hand comfortably with a handle made of non-slip material to minimize accidentally dropping it. A dropped retractable leash can startle your dog causing them to run away in fear. The handle will “chase” your dog, following behind and banging along the ground, which may panic your dog further. That could result in your dog possibly running into the street, running away and getting lost, or developing anxiety over taking walks in the future.

The length of the leash is another important consideration. 26 feet is likely too long for most dogs, for example. At that distance, you’re unable to supervise your dog’s behavior. Your dog could eat something dangerous, get into a fight with a wild animal, or run into traffic, all before you can catch up. Look for shorter lengths that keep you within safety’s reach while still giving your dog freedom. Retractable leashes can generally be anywhere between 10 and 30 feet, but 16 feet is the most common length.

Look for a tape leash rather than a cord, preferably one that’s a bright color or has reflective markings. Thin cords are hard to see, particularly at night. A tape leash will help others realize your dog is leashed rather than wandering free. Plus, the thicker tape is less likely to snap if your dog pulls hard. Finally, cord leashes are more dangerous if they wrap around the dog or owner. The thinner cord can more easily burn, cut, or worse as it pulls across the skin. Regardless of the material, never grab hold of the leash while your dog is moving as you could be injured.

Woman entertaining colleagues at work with her Russel Terrier on Bring Your Dog to Work Day.

Appropriate Times to Use a Retractable Leash

Once your dog is leash trained, there are certain situations where a retractable leash is a perfect way to give your dog freedom while still maintaining control. These are the situations when a retractable leash can be beneficial:

  • An unfenced backyard. If your dog is not yet trained to stay within the boundaries of the yard, a retractable leash can give the necessary freedom for exploration and toilet behavior.
  • Large, open spaces like parks or fields. As long as there are no other dogs or people in the area, let your dog roam at the end of the retractable leash. Otherwise, keep your dog on a standard six-foot leash to allow others to enjoy the space.

When Not to Use a Retractable Leash

There are many situations where a retractable leash is inappropriate. These are the situations where you should opt for a standard six-foot leash:

  • When you need to keep your dog at your side. The pet store or your vet’s office aren’t the place to allow your dog to wander.
  • When there are crowds of people. Your dog can inadvertently wrap the leash around somebody’s legs causing injury.
  • When there are lots of other dogs. If two dogs interact, they can get tangled in the leash faster than you can react.
  • When you’re walking along the sidewalk. Your dog can easily tangle the leash around tree trunks or fire hydrants. It’s also too difficult to control your dog when pedestrians approach. Remember, not everybody is comfortable around dogs, so your dog shouldn’t be free to approach without permission.
Related article: Make Dog Training More Effective With These Basics
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