The problem with retractable dog leads

Retractable dog leads have become a popular choice, particularly over recent years. But, very often they cause more problems than they solve. Here’s my take on them and why they are best avoided.

What is a retractable dog lead?

Sometimes called a stretchy or extendable lead; a retractable lead has a long line that is wound up neatly inside the handle. The dog is in control of making the lead longer by simply pulling on it and unraveling it from the handle. Although many can be locked to a chosen length to allow more, or less, control as desired.

Why do people use them?

Simply put, many people use them because they give the illusion of control. The longer lead allows their dog at least some freedom without risk of them getting lost or into a situation that might be dangerous. For many, the retractable lead eliminates the need to actually train the dog. It allows them to continue walking while their dog explores without pulling on the lead or getting into trouble!

a lady in sports shorts and a yellow t-shirt walking her dog on a retractable dog lead through a wooded area
Walking ahead an a retractable dog lead can encourage bad behaviour from your dog

Are there any pro’s to using one?

So far as I can see, there are only two reasons to own a retractable lead. One is because the handles are super comfy to hold. And the second is as an aid to recall training (although a standard long line is better).

The lead allows some freedom in a public place whilst recall is practiced. Using your long lead means you can work without fear of your best bud running off and getting into too much trouble. In fact long leads can be especially useful when teaching him to come back to you when there are distractions nearby. They can also help if he has already learned that not coming back is much more fun.

When the goal is a fully trained dog that can eventually be trusted off the lead in safe places; the lead has done its job and can be finally binned – unless you like the comfy handle!

In 2007, a survey in the USA recorded 16,564 accidents involving retractable leads. Injuries to people ranged from burns and cuts to full amputations, 10.5% involving children under the age of Ten.

What are the con’s?

There are a lot of cons to using a retractable dog lead though. Here are nine that I think pretty much cover all the bases:

  • The first con I want to talk about concerns general lead discipline. Many people purchase a retractable lead because their dog pulls on the lead and the retractable lead allows the handler a more comfortable walk. But actually, it will only reinforce the notion that your dog was right to pull on the lead. For him, pulling on the lead is encouraged and means even more freedom. Plus, if he hasn’t already, he will quickly become used to feeling tension around his harness or collar and will simply normalize the feeling as just being a part of walkies.
  • Another good reason to ditch the retractable lead is that it is quite simply bad psychology to let your dog charge on ahead of you. As his mentor, he should be looking to you for leadership and you can’t lead and guide him if you are lagging behind. He is also more likely to show territorial behavior if he thinks he is the scout party.
Take the lead – figuratively and literally, and walk together.
  • It sounds obvious but, the longer the lead, the further the dog is away from you. The further he is away the less control you have. If your dog is reactive to other dogs or people this could end in disaster. You should be right there standing beside him so you can quickly intervene the second anything happens. You are no good twenty, or more, feet away.
  • Also worth noting, is that in terms of safety, even manufacturers of these products don’t have much faith in them. Whilst the leads are supposed to withstand the weight of your dog, manufacturers of these products will accept no responsibility if the cord snaps or the handle breaks. Nor will they accept liability for any injury caused to your dog or you, even under proper use. Don’t believe me? You only have to read the disclaimer that comes with it.
a small terrier type dog running into a walled garden towards a walkway of arches and flowers
Dogs should be off lead or on a short lead

Off lead or short lead

  • If you need any further reasons to avoid these leads like the plague, lets talk about safety. Firstly, safety of your own dog. The retractable lead allows your dog to walk 20+ feet ahead of you, behind you, and to the side of you. That means that if you are walking along the road with the lead extended more than a couple of feet, there is nothing you can if he decides to dart out onto the road.
  • It is not uncommon for dogs to cause injuries to themselves while using the leads either. Mostly injuries are caused by sprinting away from you and getting a painful jolt to the neck as they suddenly find the end of the lead. Reports include injuries to neck, spine and trachea.
  • And what about safety to others? If your dog can run sideways into traffic, there is nothing to stop him from doing the same in front of a cyclist or runner. I’ve had to hurdle a great many extended leads as dogs have bolted across my own path. And a few times I’ve gone flying causing an ongoing issue with my shoulder! That’s nothing compared to what happened to poor Anthony Steel though… (hopefully the pet owner had decent pet insurance!)

In 2015, 59 year old Anthony Steel was awarded £65,000 in damages after suffering multiple injuries, including permanent hearing damage and fractured ribs, when his bicycle became entangled with a retractable lead.

Leader or Follower?

  • What if your dog gets in some bother with another dog? In this instance, the retractable dog lead might actually make matters worse. Just imagine a situation where another dog has approached to say hello. A couple of quick sniffs and both dogs could easily become entwined in the extended cord. Now unable to behave normally, the situation could (and does) quickly escalate and become dangerous. And not dangerous just to the dogs. What about the people that will be frantically trying to untangle and free them from each other.
  • And finally, as if you needed any more reasons, the retractable lead encourages lazy walking. The dog leads the way as the “walker” follows along behind. There is no discipline and the dog just pleases himself. It is not a good precedent to set with your dog. If he thinks he can lead you wherever he wants, then why should he listen to you in other situations?
small terrier dog in behaviour training looking up to their owner on a loose lead
Loose lead behaviour training!

What should you do instead?

  1. Walking the dog on a short lead is a great start. This gives the dog a boundary. It also instills a sense of calm and purpose to his walks, as well as an element of teamwork. No longer is he forging ahead, leading the way, and protecting his pack. Now, you are a team, facing the world together, with you as his trusted mentor. Beautiful!
  2. Second, address all the reasons that prevent your dog from being trustworthy off lead. If he is reactive to dogs or people, then he probably needs more controlled socialization. Maybe he gets distracted by smells or rubbish. If that’s the case, teach him to walk with his head up, paying proper attention to you. If he just won’t listen to you, then he probably needs more rules in his life.
  3. And then, teach him to respond reliably to the recall. For this there is no magic wand, it is just a case of having plenty of tasty treats, praise or toys (or all three) and practice, practice, practice. Start close up in the house and garden and gradually build up by adding more and more distractions and distance and you will have ditched the retractable lead in no time.


Now you can let him off his lead in safe places, the benefits are huge. He will get more exercise and more stimulation as he will be free to explore as you walk, and play to his heart’s content. Being off lead allows your dog to socialise more naturally with other dogs. He can enjoy places you probably don’t want to go such as into the sea for a splash and swim. And he can run and fetch a toy, all whilst you enjoy the freedom of walking without a lead.

As a final note, it is worth mentioning that some breeds of dog just do not do recall well. For them there are a growing number of secure dog parks opening up. Some are free, and some come with a small charge. Alternatively, learning to run or cycle with your dog might be better than a retractable dog lead, especially if they have a lot of energy to burn.

Happy and safe walks!

Are you struggling with your dogs behaviour?

Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area and beyond, or via zoom. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!


I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.

I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.

In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.

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