The dangers of using retractable leashes

More than 20 years ago retractable leashes became available to dog owners through pet supply stores and catalogs. This seemingly convenient dog-walking device has become immensely popular and has allowed dogs with more freedom to move when they are out and about with their owners. Unfortunately the use of these leashes has resulted in serious injuries for both dogs and their owners.

Despite the claims of owners, retractable leashes do not provide enough control and allow dogs to pull on the leash (which encourages unsafe and poor canine manners). This can result in injuries for owners falling and possible death when the dog breaks loose if the large, cumbersome handle is dropped.

The retractable cords vary in length depending on the style based on the dog's weight or size. A locking control button in the handle is supposed to act as a "brake" to stop the dog from pulling, but note that malfunctions have been reported. Also the owner's reaction time may not be quick enough to respond and gain control of the dog. This is a potentially dangerous situation when a dog encounters another dog or other animal.

The rapidly moving cord can inflict a burn or deep cut when it contacts human skin. The worst case scenario would be when the cord gets wrapped around a finger or a dog's limb, causing amputation. Children should never be allowed to hold a retractable leash. These warnings do appear on the packaging for retractable leashes and seem to be ignored after the leash is purchased.

Retractable leashes should never be used when a dog is brought into a confined indoor area such as veterinarians' offices, grooming shops and pet supply stores. A veterinary specialist shared a horrific story of an incident that occurred in his Annapolis office a few years ago. A dog on a retractable leash attacked another dog and inflicted serious bite wounds resulting in expensive, complicated and completely unexpected surgery for the victim. Many dogs are stressed enough when they arrive and wait in a vet's office and they certainly do not need another dog invading their space, which could escalate into a violent confrontation. Unfortunately I have witnessed so many dog owners in veterinary hospitals who are oblivious to their dogs' behavior or where they are within the hospital's reception and waiting areas. The use of retractable leashes has been banned from one of the Westminster area veterinary hospitals, and a professional groomer in Sykesville will be implementing this ban for her clients when they deliver and pick up their dogs for grooming services.

Although retractable leashes may appear to be safe to use in large outdoor areas, caution must be taken especially if children, other dogs or even wildlife are or might be present. During walks on trails retractable leashes can get tangled around trees, bushes and rocks. Dogs wearing retractable leashes also have more opportunities to ingest the feces of wildlife and drink from puddles and streams (all of which can harbor harmful bacteria and parasites). Dog parks are also not safest settings for the use of retractable leashes because of potential dog-on-dog confrontations or dogs and owners getting tangled and injured from a tightening web of retractable leash cords.

The American Kennel Club has banned the use of retractable leashes at many of its sanctioned events in order to maintain the safety of the dogs, their handlers and spectators.

If you are already using a retractable leash, please replace it with a four- to six-foot flat style nylon or cotton web leash. Choose a width, weight and metal clasp that best matches your dog's size. The loop of the leash may be slipped over a wrist and the length can be adjusted by simply "fanning" it in the other hand. If your dog is a "puller" please consider enrolling your dog in a basic obedience class with an instructor who uses positive training techniques, or read "The Power of Positive Dog Training" by Pat Miller.

As responsible dog owners, we must make every effort to keep our beloved canine companions safe when we are "out and about" with them.