A small Shih Tzu was tragically mauled Thursday in Concord by a Rottweiler. The popular way to frame this story, of course, is one of David vs. Goliath - of innocent Shih Tzu vs. evil Rottweiler. The reality, as it so often is when dealing with animals, is much more complicated.
82-year-old Suzy Hudson lost her best friend Teddy in an accident that should have never happened. She and Teddy were on a routine morning walk when Teddy encountered a man and his Rottweiler. A fight ensued and Teddy died shortly after. The man blamed Hudson. The media is blaming the Rottweiler, and Contra Costa Animal Control is still investigating but leaning toward saying that Hudson is to blame because Teddy wasn't under control. Hudson was reportedly walking Teddy with a 20-foot retractable leash.
As someone who has both a big and small dog, this story breaks my heart. My big dog loves small dogs, but I've seen even the best-natured dogs turn into *well* dogs at the blink of an eye. Sometimes it's an unfortunately placed nose. Sometimes a dog is literally at the end of his leash while another, freer dog is harassing him. Sometimes it's a squabble over a toy or something edible. Dogs are unpredictable, which is why a dog owner should be aware and ready to react to any and all situations.
Obviously, I don't know exactly what happened with the Rottweiler and Teddy. Americans want each story to have a villain and a protagonist. Often, it's simply not that easy. And sometimes, the "villain" could be an inanimate object that is marketed as safe and is anything but.
While I understand the desire to let your dog roam a little freely while having some control, I have long been against retractable leashes. They are dangerous to dogs, dangerous to humans and horrible for training. The ASPCA lists some of the dangers to dogs:
1. The leash can get caught on you, your dog, a cyclist or jogger and cause tripping, rope burn, cuts and even strangulation.
2. You might have the best-behaved dog in the world, but what about that other dog down the block? When you use a retractable leash, you’re opening your dog up to all sorts of dangers, including those posed by less-friendly dogs, bikes and cars. You may not be able to hit the brakes in time.
3. Retractable leashes allow your dog to approach other dogs uninvited, and that’s just downright inconsiderate. Other pet parents may not want their dogs to greet your dogs for a variety of reasons, including your own dog’s health and safety.
4. Perhaps worst of all, should you drop the leash in an already-busy area, its sudden retraction and the noise the handle makes when dragging on pavement can terrify even the most even-keeled dogs. That means your dog is much more likely to bolt.
As Hudson noted in the story, she suffered injury to her hands because of the leash. That is unlikely to happen with a cloth leash, but the cable of a retractable leash can act as a razor blade cutting against skin when you are trying to regain fast control of your dog. I once knew a professional piano player who suffered nerve damage from a retractable leash. He no longer plays piano. While these might both sound like freak injuries, Consumer Reports writes that in 2007, over 16,000 humans went to the emergency room because of injuries caused by retractable leashes.
While many argue that their dog is perfectly well behaved on the retractable leash - and perhaps they are - it sends a confusing message to the dog about who exactly, is the leader. A truly well-behaved dog knows his place in the pack and by letting him walk ahead of you, you are telling him that he is in charge. Even if you are clearly the leader of the pack in all other circumstances, being allowed to walk several feet ahead of you is going to tell your dog that he is in charge under some circumstances. A dog who is confused about his place in the pack is more likely to lash out at other dogs or at small children.
I'm not saying that there's no place for a long leash. We sometimes put our small dog on a 50-foot cloth leash when we are relaxing in the unfenced front yard. He is supervised at all times and he's not able to reach dogs as they walk by on the street. If you are wandering through a field, sure, let your dog wander a bit too. But if you are walking around the neighborhood, please, limit your dog to six feet or less (I prefer four).