Most cities, housing communities, and government-run parks currently have leash laws. They require any dogs (and sometimes, cats, too!) in a public space to be on a leash, in their handler’s control at all times. Most ordinances specify that the leash be no more than 6 feet long. I have seen some that allow 10 feet, but those aren’t common.
Just as there are many collar and harness choices for your dog, there are also many different types of leashes. Most are variations on the standard leash which has a buckle at one end and a loop for your hand at the other. These are made in many lengths, from 3 feet on up, and come in a variety of materials from nylon or cotton to leather, woven to be flat or round like a rope. Some have an extra loop several feet above the buckle to hold when keeping the dog at your side. But they all work the same way. You buckle the one end to the dog’s collar or harness and can give him more or less freedom depending on how much length you play out.
The second most common leash has become very popular because it makes “playing out” more or less leash automatic. Usually called a Retractable Leash, the rope is coiled up in a plastic holder with a grip for your hand and a “locking” button on top within easy reach of your thumb. A heavy spring makes the leash — usually 16 feet long — recoil back into the handle when the dog comes closer to you eliminating loops of tangling cord. In theory, the locking button allows the Retractable Leash to do the job of a standard leash by putting the brakes on the spring and fixing the leash at any length desired.
If the Retractable Leash sounds too good to be true – well I think it is! There have been many cases of dogs being hit by cars because of the locking button failed to engage — either equipment and/or operator error. Despite manufacturer claims, locking the leash off at 6 feet doesn’t give the flexibility and training opportunities of a standard leash. That big ole plastic grip really gets in the way, so the leash can’t be used to reinforce commands using only one hand – necessary to deal with treats and/or a clicker with the other! The necessarily thin rope used in them can quickly wrap around the dog’s leg or neck, other dogs’ legs/necks, (or yours or another handler’s) and do damage from rope burns to lacerations before you can untangle everybody. In addition, the springs inside (especially in those designed for the larger breeds) are of necessity very heavy-duty and if the buckle or collar loop should fail, the recoiling leash whipping back into the holder could also do damage!
Unfortunately, this means Retractable leashes despite their automatic leash-handling function aren’t ideal for “auto-pilot” walking. The handler really needs to focus on the dog and the leash and be aware of what’s going on, ready to engage the locking mechanism or avoid a tangling situation. In the Animal Planet documentary, GLORY HOUNDS, I noticed them being used in for Military Working Dogs on patrol overseas. This would be a great application, as the soldier-handler’s job is to be aware of what’s going on and anticipate problems. The recoil spring would take up slack in the leash allowing the soldier-handler to keep his other hand free, because the MWD is well-trained and the leash isn’t being used to reinforce commands.
Yes, a Retractable Leash works for military dogs because they’re already well-trained, but I don’t recommend them to my clients. The main reason is because it’s not a training leash and can’t be used as one — because it can only be used one way. And that brings up another BIG problem. The number one complaint clients make is that their dog pulls on the leash. With a Retractable Leash, the dog is REWARDED (by getting more line) whenever he pulls against the pressure of the heavy spring. So, those leashes actually TEACH a dog to PULL! In addition, if you attach one to a Gentle Leader or other head-collar, it creates constant pressure on the dog’s nose – totally sabotaging what the head-collar is designed to do — encourage a dog to stop pulling to RELIEVE pressure on his nose!
There’s really no substitute for a standard leash in training. They make a good taking-out-for-a-potty-break leash if you don’t have a fenced-in yard. After a dog has learned to walk nicely on leash, it usually doesn’t hurt to use a Retractable Leash on walks – though still not attached to a Gentle Leader or other head-collar! However, be aware that they also violate the letter of leash laws which restrict dogs to only 6 feet or so of freedom – not 16!