Leash Training

How Does A Retractable Dog Leash Work?

by Alison Page

Life With Dogs is reader-supported. We may earn a small commission through products purchased using links on this page.

Sharing is caring!

How does a retractable dog leash work? You’ll need to know that if you’re considering buying one for your pup.

A retractable dog leash is an extendable leash that allows your dog much more freedom to roam around than a traditional nylon or leather leash.

But are retractable leashes such a great idea? And can using a retractable dog leash be used for loose leash training?

Read this guide to find out!

How Do Retractable Dog Leashes Work?

Blue retractable dog leash a beige background

A retractable dog leash is a length of thin cord that wraps around a spring-loaded spool contained inside a large plastic handle. The handle is usually ergonomically designed so that it fits snugly and comfortably in your hand.

The handle has a button that you use to control how much cord is extended. When the dog moves forward and the locking button on the handle is depressed, the cord extends, allowing your furry friend more freedom. A small winding device facilitates that with a ratchet that reels in, extending the cord smoothly. 

The end of the leash has a spring clip that you attach to a ring on the back of your dog’s harness.

Mechanical Problems

The lock or brake can be used to stop your dog from getting too far away from you. However, the leash will only retract when it’s loose. If the dog pulls away from you, you can’t reel him back in.

In addition, the mechanics of the locking and extension function of the leash can fail over time.

Sometimes, the leash extends unexpectedly, landing you and your dog in a potentially dangerous situation. The locking button can become jammed, preventing the leash from extending at all.

If you have a regular leash, you can clearly see any worn or damaged parts that might fail, enabling you to replace the leash before an accident happens. However, an extendable leash is stored inside the handle, preventing you from detecting a fault until it’s too late and the leash snaps.

When Should I Use a Retractable Leash?

black Staffordshire Bull Terrier with retractable leash

On the face of it, using a retractable leash rather than a standard leash allows your dog more freedom when you’re walking him in a park or location where local leash laws prevent off-leash exercising. That’s certainly true, but there are pros and cons.

  • If your backyard is unfenced, you can use a retractable leash to allow your dog to explore and for potty stops without fear that your pet might escape.
  • If you want to walk your dog in a large open space, you can use a retractable leash, provided that there are no other dog walkers around. However, keep your furry friend on a standard 6-foot leash if the area is busy.
  • If your dog is partially-sighted and it’s unsafe to allow him off-leash, a retractable leash can let your pet wander without fear of him getting into danger or becoming lost.

However, your dog must be fully leash-trained and well-mannered before you can safely use a high-quality retractable leash for walking him.

I began using a retractable leash for my elderly pup when her eyesight began to fail, and she had a few mobility issues, too. I found that she enjoyed wandering around and enjoying a good sniff while remaining safely on the leash.

When You Shouldn’t Use a Retractable Leash

There are quite a few situations where you shouldn’t use a retractable leash, and a standard 6-foot leash is more appropriate.

Confined Public Spaces

white dog at Cafe

A retractable dog leash should not be used when visiting a pet-friendly store, café, or restaurant. Also, many vet clinics prohibit using retractable leashes on their premises.

Those environments are not good places to permit your canine companion to go walkabout!

In Crowds

If you like to take your dog with you to the beach, for a stroll through a crowded park, or even down to your local shopping center, don’t use a retractable leash.

In crowds, your dog’s leash could easily get wrapped around someone’s legs, tripping them up or causing a nasty burn or laceration.

Around Other Dogs

Retractable leashes can cause chaos if two dogs meet and start playing or fighting.

Imagine the difficulties and dangers to you and your pet if their leashes become tangled and wrapped around your dog’s legs, his neck, or your fingers!

In addition, if you’re 20 feet away from your dog, you can’t get to him quickly enough to help him if another dog becomes aggressive.

On the Sidewalk

Dog walker strides with his pet on leash

If you live in a city, you’ll probably need to exercise your dog by walking him around your local neighborhood. But a retractable leash can cause problems if used on a sidewalk.

When you’re walking down the sidewalk, your dog can all too easily get his leash tangled around fire hydrants, tree trunks, and even newsstands. Not everyone likes or appreciates a dog’s attention, and it can be difficult to keep your dog under full control when passing other sidewalk users.

When Running or Cycling

Many dog owners like to take their dogs with them when they go running or biking. That can save you time, but you must remember that your dog needs to stop to relieve himself and enjoy a good sniff around while out on his walk. So, we urge caution unless you can jog in an off-leash area.

Using a retractable leash for taking your dog jogging is not appropriate. If the leash suddenly extends unexpectedly, there’s a real risk that you could trip over, or your dog could get tangled up in the leash cord and be injured. 


Here are a few questions most commonly asked about pet parents considering using a retractable leash.

Q: Are retractable leashes good for dogs?

Young girl is walking with her dog on a retractable leash

A: As described above, retractable leashes can be a good solution for some dogs.

A retractable leash can work well if your dog is fully leash trained and will walk calmly and obediently. In addition, your dog must come obediently and reliably to you when you call him. 

For those dogs, retractable leashes can be useful in areas where off-leash walking is not permitted.

Q: Do dog trainers recommend retractable leads?

A: No. Dog trainers don’t generally recommend retractable leashes, as that kind of leash can train a dog to pull.

When the dog pulls forward against the leash, he’s rewarded with more freedom. That can seriously hamper efforts to teach the dog to walk obediently and calmly on a regular leash.

Q: What is the extra piece that comes with a retractable leash?

A: Most retractable leashes come with a safety collar that prevents snap-back if the collar should break or if the retractable leash cord gets detached from the collar. 

However, we recommend using a harness rather than a collar, safety or otherwise.

Q: Why are retractable leashes controversial?

Barking dog on rectracble leash outdoors

A: Retractable dog leashes are controversial for two primary reasons:

  • Because of the way in which they work, retractable leashes can teach a dog to pull, as outlined above.
  • Retractable leashes can be dangerous to both dogs, their handlers, and to other people.

However, in the right circumstances, retractable leashes do have their place when used with fully leash-trained, obedient dogs.

Final Thoughts

Did you enjoy our guide to how a retractable dog leash works? If you found the article helpful, please take a moment to share it.

A retractable leash is essentially an extendable leash. You control the leash by pressing a locking button on the handle to restrict the length of the leash cord extended. Retractable leashes are unsuitable for dogs that pull and should not be used in crowded places or areas where other people and dogs are around.

Do you have any horror stories about the dangers of extendable leashes? Tell us in the comments box below.

Leave a Comment