Another Take on Retractable Leashes

Experts give their views
By Claudia Kawczynska, June 2015

I listened in on a webinar today held by the good people of the Animal Behavior Associates—it was their June CAAB  (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists) Chat, the general topic was Pet Behavior Wellness. Similar to a veterinarian wellness exam, but with the main focus on a dog’s behavior. Participants were Suzanne Hetts, PhD, Dan Estep, PhD and guest “chatter” Nancy Williams, MA, RVT, ACAAB.  Questions that they addressed included:

-  What is behavioral wellness and why should we be interested in it? 

-  What does it mean to have a behaviorally healthy pet and how do you get one? 

-  How do behaviorally healthy pets act?  What are the criteria for behavioral health?

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-  Is behavior wellness simply the absence of behavioral problems or something more? 

-  Does simply meeting an animal’s behavioral and physical needs put it in good behavioral health or is good behavioral health something more? 

As professional behaviorists they all were frustrated that oftentimes clients came to them for behavioral consultation as the “last resort” instead of being proactive about their dog’s behavioral health. Being proactive about this can reap benefits similar to preventive medicine. They discussed the characteristics of behaviorally sound and healthy dogs, and referenced a test you can take, see how your dog’s behavioral health measures up.

Among the list of behavioral needs that should be provided to our dogs besides the basic ones of food, care and shelter, are providing a dog with the “ability to control some aspects of the environment, opportunities for mental stimulation, and for pleasant social contact.”

When the discussion turned to how to fulfill those particular needs, much to my surprise, they brought up the controversial topic of retractable leashes. None of these veteran trainers had started out as fans of those devices because so few people seem to employ them properly, but all three are now advocates for their wise and limited use, again, something that surprised me. But that turn in the discussion definitely sparked my interest to learn more. They talked about how all dogs aren’t good candidates for dog parks or doggie day care, but the retractable leash was offered as an alternative to giving a dog both the mental stimulation and some control over their environment. As we know, dogs prefer to walk ahead of us, something that is really impossible at the end of a standard six-foot leash and the resulting pulling on the shorter leash can make a pleasant outing into an uncomfortable walk for those on both ends of the leash. These experts spelled out the characteristics of beneficial leash walks which can be obtained by use of retractable leashes: they "allow for ample sniffing, physical exercise, ability to control their own experience, and lack of restraint and pulling against something." The three of them agreed that using retractable leashes does not mean that a dog will learn to pull harder on a standard leash, or that a dog will think she is in charge because she is able to walk ahead of you. Dogs basically like to forge ahead of us, playing “scout” perhaps, and those who can do so with the flexibility provided by a retractable leash, usually, according to these trainers, do not venture that far ahead or pull to get even further ahead.

But they cautioned that these leashes are also not appropriate in many cases and many dog people do not have the skill to use them properly. Retractables should not be used on city streets, in confined areas, or on dogs who can be aggressive to other dogs or people, by kids, with people with physical disabilities, when walking more than one dog or when walking a dog for training and not for exercise. For many of us a trainer will need to show you how best to use one.

I have never been a fan of these leashes, having had a horrible experience with a woman who did not know how to use one and almost hogtied me when her pup tried to play with my dog, her leash quickly wound around my knees and cut into the back of my legs, she didn’t have the sense to just drop the leash! But then again, that woman should never have used such a leash without proper direction. What Hetts, Estep and Williams had to say about this, made me question my ingrained negative perspective on retractables. But I know that this is really hot button issue, so am curious to hear your opinion.

You can purchase a recorded copy of the CAAB webinar for a small fee if this topic interests you (the retractable leash part is towards the end of the hour and a half long webinar) and sign up for free their monthly chats, they are always interesting and informative.