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Ask the Vet: Love-hate relationship encompasses retractable leashes

Dr. Amanda Bruce


Most dog owners are familiar with retractable leashes — long, recoiling cords in easily gripped plastic cases that allow pets to roam freely on a walk, at least for some distance.

When used properly, retractable leashes can be a great tool to give dogs freedom while still under their owners’ control. But when misused, they can cause injuries to dogs and people.

Those of us in the animal industry tend to have a love-hate relationship with retractable leashes. At the very least, pet owners need to follow commonsense etiquette and basic safety precautions if they plan to use these leashes without problems.

Retractable leashes require learning by the pet owner. The push-button mechanism has settings that allow the leash to extend and retract, as well as to lock in a set position. Owners should become familiar with all of the settings and features of a retractable leash before using one.

They also should understand the high speed at which the leash cord can extend, such as when being pulled by a running dog, can cause severe cuts and burns if the cord accidentally wraps around a leg or hand. In fact, Consumer Reports magazine goes so far as to recommend against using retractable leashes because of the high number of finger amputations associated with their use.

In 2007 across the country, 16,564 hospitalizations were associated with leash injuries. While not all were caused by retractable leashes, the numbers emphasize the importance of remaining in control of your dog while it is on a leash.

I love dogs, but that’s certainly not the case for every person that your animal is likely to encounter during a walk. I regularly witness dog owners who allow their pets to approach every unfamiliar person and dog along the way.

But this is dangerous because the strange dog being approached may not be nearly as friendly. It’s far better to ask other dog owners whether their animals are friendly and whether your pet can come close.

Many municipalities have regulations that require a leash of 6-feet or shorter in public areas. A shorter leash better enables an owner to control his or her pet. But many retractable leashes extend up to 26 feet, a distance that does not allow owners to maintain control.

A running dog that reaches the end of a retractable leash can jerk the leash from the hand of its owner. That can cause the hard plastic handle of most retractable leashes to bounce along on the pavement behind the running dog, causing a scary noise that only compels the dog to run ahead further and faster. As the handle crashes along behind the dog, the owner can struggle to calm his or her pet and regain control.

Retractable leashes are best reserved for use along trails or in less-traveled areas where a dog is less likely to encounter situations in which it becomes an uninvited guest. For the urban areas where most of us walk our dogs, a 6-foot standard leash remains the safest option.

Dr. Amanda Bruce of Superior is owner of PetCare of Duluth, 2701 W. Superior St., Suite 102, Duluth. You can reach her or ask questions for future columns at or 218-461-4400. For more information about this subject go to