Are retractable leashes bad? Should I use a Flexi lead?

Is it ever okay to use a retractable leash? Or is the answer always going to be no?

Are retractable leashes bad? Should I use a Flexi lead?

Controversial opinion warning, at least for my dog trainer colleagues and friends.

Retractable leashes (also known as Flexi leads) have had a bad rap in the dog professional world for a long time, and rightly so. Flexi leads, when used improperly, can get dogs and humans hurt. There have been many people injured by a Flexi lead getting wrapped around their legs, arms, and hands, and if a Flexi is thin enough with enough pressure they can cut people very deeply, or give very bad rug/rope burns. Retractable leashes also allow a dog to get very, very far ahead of their owner which can lead to unsafe scenarios like cars not seeing them. Lastly, when the retractable leash is dropped it’s not like a normal leash, instead the handle drops with a loud bang if you’re on concrete or asphalt, and as the dog moves forward the handle “chases” the dog, which can frighten many pups.

Red retractable Flexi leash

So, knowing all of that, it’s clear that flexileads can be a disaster waiting happen.

However.

I do think Flexi leads can be a valuable tool for some very specific purposes, and I think dismissing them entirely is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

First, I’ll go over situations where I don’t think these should be used, EVER.

1) Walking next to streets/traffic. I’ve seen flexi leads range anywhere from 12 feet to 30 feet, and that’s a LOT of distance for a dog to have from their owner in any area near traffic. It can be hard to tell if a car is backing out of their driveway, or if someone will come around the corner quickly to pull into their lot. It’s simply not worth the risk to use a retractable leash in areas with heavy traffic.

2) With completely untrained dogs. If your dog is going to be 15 feet out in front of you, they must have a basic foundation of training. They should be able to respond to their name, wait when asked, and ideally return to you although a flexi lead is one option you may choose to use to practice recalls. If your dog is unresponsive to their name and completely out of control, you really should be keeping them close to you so that you can physically manage them if needed and act quickly (also consider hiring a positive reinforcement trainer to help you out!).

Three Terriers on retractable leashes

3) With reactive dogs. If your dog is dog or human reactive, do not use a flexi lead unless you would bet your house that you will not see any potential triggers where you are walking. Giving your dog 30 feet of leash in an environment where they will be triggered is just too risky. Anecdotally speaking I’ll add that the extra leash length allows dogs to get more worked up/move more and may even cause the dog to feel they have more area they need to protect (this is just based off of what I seen, and the fact that the first thing I did with my formerly reactive dog was to change from a Flexi lead to a fixed length leash. Changing the leash alone improved his behavior a good deal).

4) Busy areas with lots of people. I’m not a fan of posting gross pictures, but if you go to google and search “injuries from Flexi leads” you will find hundred of graphic photos of cuts and other injuries from improperly used Flexi leads. Honestly, there have even been people who had their fingers amputated with improper use of a flexilead. So it’s a no brainer that in crowded areas with lots of people, Flexi leads should NOT be used. Going to the farmer’s market? The boardwalk? Downtown? Your vet’s office? Leave the Flexi lead at home, and use a fixed length 6 foot leash!

5) Dogs who are extremely fearful. This is so important. If your dog is very fearful, it may be tempting to use a flexi lead for walks as it allows your dog more choice and the ability to move at their pace. However, if your dog is fearful and you accidentally drop the leash handle (which happens to the best of us on our worst days!) That leash handle will CHASE your fearful dog. Dogs have gotten lost when the handle chased them, and some dogs have even run into traffic in these circumstances. If you have a fearful dog that panics when they hear loud noises or feel like they’re being chased, do not risk using a Flexi lead.

6) If you consider yourself a particularly distractible person. If you have a hard time not checking your phone on walks, if you "space out" and forget to check in with your dog regularly while walking, don’t use a flexi lead. A flexi lead should really only be used when you are prepared to attend to your dog and the environment you are in.

Alright, so there is definitely some risk to using a Flexi lead. But when do I think they are appropriate for use?

1) Walking in open fields/forested trails with few people and other dogs. If you are away from traffic, and in an area where you can easily manage your dog and their leash length ( i.e. you’ll see people and dogs coming towards you, it’s not likely that a fast runner or bike will surprise you from behind) , you can probably safely use a Flexi lead to give your dog some more freedom.

Two dogs greeting on a retractable leash

2) For quick potty breaks in and out, especially for travel. I have a secret…. I have two retractable leads by my back door! Why? I used to walk my dogs with them before I knew better and before I realized that Regis really needed to be closer to me on our walks so I could work with him; so I don't use them for regular walks now, but I do still use them! Now, if my dogs need to go outside at night and it smells like skunk, or if we know there are animals in our yard, I put their Flexi leads on, stand on our deck in my slippers (and yes, sometimes my bathrobe), and they have 16 feet to wander and sniff and do their business, but I don’t have to risk them getting skunked and I don’t have to put on my shoes and walk into the yard with them.

3) With dogs who won’t spook easily. If you have a confident, self assured dog that isn’t particularly sensitive to loud noises or the leash being dropped, you can try using a retractable leash.

4) As a long line alternative for people who cannot manage a line. This is an interesting one that I only recently learned about in some Facebook groups. Some folks that I consider knowledgeable and thatI highly respect use Flexi leads instead of long lines because they have limited mobility in their hands/arms that make wrangling a long line difficult for them, so they use a retractable leash instead without issue.

So, with all that risk why even use a Flexi lead? Honestly, it allows a dog to move more naturally, make more choices, and have more autonomy on their walks without having the deal with handling the slack of a long line. I LOVE my long lines and use them far more often then Flexi leads, but I totally get that handling the line is an acquired skill that takes practice, and that the Flexi lead is a often more convenient option. And as long as the person is using the Flexi lead thoughtfully there's nothing wrong with that!

Three happy dogs on leash

Before I close out this post, I wanted to go over a couple of safety tips:

  1. Do not allow your dog to move ahead of you at blind corners. If you have your dog on a retractable leash and they get to a corner ahead of you, do not let your dog turn the corner until you catch up to them. You MUST be aware of the environment you are working in so that you can manage your dog and reduce risk.
  2. Check your equipment regularly for wear and tear. Unlike a long line, where you can always see the entire thing, the Flexi lead lives inside of an opaque handle, so if there is any wear and tear on the leash you won’t see it until the leash is being pulled on by your dog. If you choose to use a flexilead, regularly examine the entire line before you go out to make sure that the line hasn’t been compromised.
  3. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again. Don’t use these with fearful dogs. So many dogs have gotten lost or hurt because they were fearful and these leashes set them up to be spooked and bolt. Just don’t do it unless you’re confident your dog won’t panic if the handle is dropped.

If you choose to use a retractable leash, know that you must be thoughtful about where, when, why, and how you use it for the sake of the general public, your dog's safety, and you!