Animal care and behaviour: Dogs

Using Flexileads safely


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Flexileads are extendable and retractable leads that can either be played out to allow dogs a great deal of freedom, or shortened and put on lock to keep the lead short. They can be very useful if dog owners are careful, but they can also be lethal if used unwisely. Some trainers even believe they should be banned. So what is the fuss about?

The main problem is that they can diminish the amount of control a dog owner has over the dog - the opposite to what leads are meant to do! The leads themselves can also cause injuries, because they can become tangled up, around human fingers, or around dogs. More specifically, there are times when owners need to be especially alert when they use flexileads. Here is a guide to some of the key situations when you need  to be especially alert.

1) Around traffic. There is a serious risk of dogs causing fatal accidents or being killed themselves if the flexilead is not on lock when a dog is walking along the road, or in any area where there is traffic. Motorcycles and other loud vehicles can appear suddenly and startle dogs, and many dogs will rush towards the threat. It's much safer to swap your flexilead for a short lead if you are walking along a road, because it's very easy to forget to put the flexilead on lock.

2) Around other dogs. Flexileads may give dogs too much freedom to approach each other at times when control is needed, and worse than that, dogs and owners can get caught up in the lead. Dogs can dance about, chase each other, and scrap if the lead is too long. A long flexilead can allow them to tangle the cord or belt round owners' legs, and also get caught up in the lead, which can cause friction burns and cuts to dogs' legs, which can take a long time to heal. It's safer to keep your eyes peeled for other dogs, and shorten the lead if you approach any. The belt leads are also much safer than the leads that use cords, in terms of avoiding injuries.

3) Drawing in the lead. Inexpert users often cause themselves serious injuries trying to draw in the lead suddenly. Friction burns can be very serious, especially for children, and it's best never to allow young children to use a flexilead. Novice users need to practise drawing the dog in, when they are somewhere safe, like an enclosed back garden. It's a knack, which comes automatically after a while, and involves putting one's hand towards the dog, then locking the lead, an action repeated until the lead is short enough. Because this takes a little while, you need to stay alert and shorten the lead well before it's absolutely necessary. Otherwise, it's easy to panic and try to pull in the lead by grabbing the rope or belt, which can be dangerous.

4) The whiplash effect. A flexilead that has become detached from the dog can whip back suddenly and catch an owner or dog in an eye, or other vulnerable spot. There are safety loops that can be attached to collars to prevent this.

5) Pulling. Flexileads can encourage dogs to pull, because they exert a constant slight pressure, which means that the dog has to pull a little to go where he or she wants. Owners may also release the lock while the dog is pulling, which is effectively rewarding the dog for pulling, and reinforcing the habit. It helps to ensure that dogs are walked daily on a short lead, and aren't just walked on a flexilead all the time. Dogs should also be asked to sit before the lock is released, and before they're allowed off the lead, so that they're rewarded for good behaviour, rather than for pulling as hard as they can!

6) Walking more than one dog. Some owners can safely walk two dogs on flexileads, but this takes some skill, and is not recommended for novice owners, people with very lively dogs, or people walking dogs in the dark! It's very easy for the leads to become tangled, and virtually impossible for owners to disentangle flexileads in the dark. It's safer to have one dog on a flexilead, and the other(s) on a short lead.

7) Sudden tugs. It's far more difficult to control a dog which takes off after a cat or other interesting attraction if the flexilead is extended, It's especially difficult if the dog is large and powerful. If a dog does pull a flexilead from your hand, the handle can make scary clanking noises as it bounces on the ground, leading the dog to panic, and take no notice of your calls. It's really safer to restrict the use of flexileads to smaller dogs, and only extend the lead in safe places where there aren't likely to be serious consequences if the dog does jerk the lead out of your hand.

So why do people use flexileads if they can cause so many problems? They can be very useful in certain specific situations, mainly where owners need some control over their dogs, but there is little risk of skateboarders, cyclists, joggers, screaming children, or other hazards suddenly appearing. An example is a large playing field or park area where you have a good line of vision, so can anticipate any trouble, and can safely allow the dog some freedom. Some people also use their flexileads for training. This is a skill best learnt with the help of an experienced trainer. Flexileads can also be useful for letting a dog out for a wee at night, when there's a risk of the dog taking off through an insecure fence in the dark.

An alternative to a flexilead is learning to use a long line. Long lines don't exert pressure, so teach a dog to pull, and are less likely to cause injury.  You're also more likely to focus on what you're doing with a long line than you are with a flexilead. Short leads are safer if you're walking where there's traffic, and you can switch to a long line where it's safe to give your dog more freedom, while ensuring that he or she can't run off.

Flexileads and long lines are much safer if you can trust your dog to come back if there's a mishap. They can help when dogs are young and can't always be trusted to come back when called, but over the long term, a reliable recall is invaluable. Developing a reliable recall means repeating recall exercises in all sorts of situations, until your dog comes to you automatically, and then continuing training throughout the dog's life, so that he or she doesn't get out of practice.

It's easy to see why some trainers would love to ban flexileads. It's certainly true that careless use can cause serious problems, from injuries to teaching dogs to pull. However, flexileads can be a very useful supplement to a training programme, when used sensibly.