Safety of Retractable Leashes

It was three years ago this month that a small dog was run over in a nearby parking lot and killed. Making the tragedy worse, an extended family member was walking the dog while the owner was on vacation. The exact circumstances are still some what sketchy (it was a parking lot in daylight after all) but what is known is that the leash used was retractable.

Are retractable leashes safe? IMPS has observed many pet parents walking their dogs on retractable style leashes and for a brief while, one of us had personal experience using a retractable gifted by a departed dog friend. Before answering that question, perhaps it is best to start with a different question: why do pet parents use retractable leashes at all?


The primary advantage of a retractable leash is convenience. There is no need to keep a long leash for walks in more open terrain and another far shorter one for use in busy or confined locations. No need to wrap the length of the leash around a hand or arm to shorten it. One lead does it all at the flick of a button.

Storage, too, is more convenient as even a dirty lead retracts entirely into the handle mechanism for easy storage in a drawer or on a shelf. Some pet parents also find a retractable leash gives their dog a few more moments of sniff time before a taught leash forces them to move on.

So do those few advantages outweigh the safety concerns of retractable leads? Probably not.


There are four main safety concerns when using these types of leads: over extension, neck injuries, entanglement and burns or cuts.

Burns and cuts are a safety risk to both the user and the pet. These injuries can occur when the leash is retracted quickly or the leash lodges in a sensitive area. In the best case, the holder may get a mild rope burn across their exposed skin. In the worst, the leash may cut their skin or clothes. For the dog (or even cat) being walked, a fur coat may not provide much protection if the leash runs under the arm pit area where it can burn or cut sensitive skin.  For all those reason, a small child should not be allowed to use a retractable leash.

Unlike more traditional leashes, the very thin (often round) lead material is very prone to entanglements. This is especially true in areas with very small trees, suckers and briar or thorn bushes. The retractable lead has a knack for wrapping itself around these types of branches and once it does both dog and owner may come to an abrupt halt. The dog will inevitably make things worse trying to untangle itself and could wrap a portion of the lead around a leg or even its neck.  Though any lead can bring a human down when wrapped around the legs, the chances are even greater with a retractable leash as the thin composition of the lead wraps around legs far more tightly.

Neck injuries can happen when pet parents do not lock the lead length, instead allowing it to fluctuate with the motion of the dog. Poorly behaved or over exuberant dogs or puppies often will take advantage of the extra freedom of this leash to run wild…until the lead reaches its maximum extension and the dog comes to a very, very abrupt stop. IMPS has even seen some dogs stop so hard that their entire body rotates as the head and neck are pulled back towards the owner. Can you say doggy whiplash, or worse? And pet parents need to be aware they they, too, may suffer a shoulder injury, in particular when the dog takes off behind them.

Finally, the safety concern that led to the death of the dog mentioned earlier. IMPS suggests pet parents pay close attention to how others are walking their pets when using a retractable leash. Do they have control? Is the lead so over extended that they would be unable to take corrective or emergency action before their dog was put in harms way? Everyday IMPS sees dogs walking 10 to 20 feet away from their owner, often in the street, across a parking lot or far into yards. Cars have a difficult time in this type of situation - they may see the pet parent who stands 5 or 6 feet tall but do not see the thin retractable lead or the dog who is many feet away from the human. In this situation, small dogs are especially at risk of being hit and run over by a car. An equally frightening situation may occur if a car drives through a lead that is crossing its path. The lead can become caught on a bumper or wrap around an axle, the car then dragging the pet for who knows how far and at what speed.


IMPS feels strongly that retractable leads are products that trade a small amount of extra convenience for a large amount of additional risk that may put a pet in harms way. For that reason, IMPS does not recommend their use.

Instead, IMPS recommends traditional leashes for dogs and cats. For general walking, 6' is the recommended length.  This is long enough for most dogs to be comfortable walking and easy for the parent to shorten for use in training to heel or sit/stay. 

Depending on the dog and the training objective, an additional longer training lead can also be purchased - usually in 10', 15' and 20' lengths. Long training leads should never be used near city streets or other busy areas where there is car or truck traffic. However, they are  good to keep in the car for those locations and times where a bit more freedom for Fido is safe and acceptable.

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