Leash it or lose it

A leash is a training tool for your dog, and it is a method of giving you control so you can keep everyone safe — you, your dog, other people, other dogs.


Michelle Gerhard Jasny, V.M.D. has been practicing veterinary medicine on the Vineyard since 1982 and writing the Visiting Vet column for more than 25 years. She lives and works in West Tisbury. She can be reached at: drjasny@comcast.net.

Stopping at SBS for guinea pig bedding, I spotted a handwritten sign on the door. “Please keep your adorable dog on a leash…and please keep the leash in your hand.”  I had to laugh.

We have a similar policy at my office. All dogs must be on a leash. We see many interesting interpretations of what this means. There’s the client who lets Rover jump out of the car loose in my parking lot, then chases the dog through my budding crocuses, trying to connect the leash. Rule number one: attach the leash while you are both still in the car. Next comes Fido. His leash is attached to his collar, but the collar is two sizes too big. As soon as Fido realizes he’s at the vet, he puts on the brakes, backs up, and backs his head right out of the collar. The owner is left looking foolish, holding an empty collar dangling from the leash, while Fido books it, naked, down the drive. Then there’s Goofy, who has a well-fitted collar with a leash attached, but no one’s holding the leash. These clients obviously just came from shopping at SBS.

These may sound funny, but they can lead to serious consequences. Rover may head for the road. Being scared, and in unfamiliar territory, he may lose his street smarts and get hit by a car. Fido may not let us catch him. I remember a big, extremely shy malamute who was what we call a “fear biter.” After slipping his collar on my front steps, and bolting down the dirt road, he would not come to his owner nor let anyone get near him. We tempted him with treats, which he snatched eagerly, but if anyone, including his mom, tried get hold of him, he growled and snapped. Luckily, his dad arrived and persuaded him to jump into his truck before anyone got hurt.

Goofy, on the other hand, will let anyone grab him. Goofy loves everyone. “Oh, he’s very friendly,” his owners say when I admonish them about not holding the leash. Okay. That’s great. But let me tell you something. See Bluto, that big golden retriever, coming out of my office? The one Goofy is running over to greet?  Bluto was here for a behavior consult because he has aggression problems and almost killed another dog recently. If your “very friendly” Goofy runs up to very aggressive Bluto, we’ve got a problem.

A leash has several purposes. It is a training tool for your dog, and it is a method of giving you control so you can keep everyone safe — you, your dog, other people, other dogs. But certain types of leashes can actually be a liability. According to a 2009 article in Consumer Reports in 2007 there were more than 16,000 human injuries associated with leashes serious enough to require medical care. Burns and cuts were the most common injuries but there have also been reports of amputations when a leash got wrapped around a body part like a finger, and retractable leashes are thought to be responsible for many of these. Retractable leashes are extra long cords or sometimes web leashes that automatically retract into heavy plastic handles which have brake buttons and/or release buttons to lock or release them.  These leashes have become extremely popular and although there may be a time and a place for them if used correctly, they often can be bad for both dogs and people.

For dogs, retractable leashes do not foster desirable behavior. Instead of learning to heel and walk politely on his leash, Rover learns that he can pull on the leash, and pull, and pull.  Unless that leash is locked, it really doesn’t provide an owner with any control at all. If Rover decides to bolt, he can get up quite a head of steam before reaching the full length of the leash, at which point he may be suddenly jerked to a halt, sustaining back injuries as severe as intervertebral disc herniation. Or it may be the person on the other end of the retractable leash who bears the brunt of Rover’s momentum. I once had an energetic young Labrador bolt down my porch stairs on his retractable. The owner, an elderly man, stood on the porch holding that plastic handle. When the lab reached the end of her leash, she was going fast enough that instead of stopping, she pulled her owner right off his feet. He sailed down three stairs, landing on his side and breaking his hip. Not a happy day for any of us, and one of the reasons I am so cranky about clients controlling their pups on the porch. I don’t ever want to see you lying in my parking lot surrounded by EMTs.

Another danger is dropping that bulky plastic handle while the leash is still attached to the dog. A fearful dog may be scared by that handle clunking along behind him, leading him to panic, and increasing the risk of injury. In a recent article on the VIN News Service, behaviorist Dr. Laurie Bergman of Villanova, Penn., relates the story of a dog whose retractable leash was dropped in an apartment building stairway. The dog ran away from the handle that was “chasing” him up the stairs to the open roof, where he fell to his death. Admittedly, this is an extreme case, but there are many reported injuries to dogs from retractable leashes getting wrapped around their legs or even their necks.

Maybe a retractable leash is okay if you know how to use it properly, if your dog is already well-trained, and you want to take him for a semi-controlled romp on the beach. But if you are going for a walk in town, or working on obedience, or taking him to the vet, I highly recommend using a traditional nylon or leather leash, no more than six feet in length — and please hold the leash in your hand.