Thursday, February 23, 2012

Is a Flexi Leash Right for You?

There are a lot of horror stories out there about Flexis (and other brands of retractable leashes). Many of them are about irresponsible owners, which isn’t surprising; who hasn’t seen a dog on a Flexi in a different pet store aisle than their inattentive person? But others are about injuries like cuts and burns, or even more serious incidents like fractures and amputations. Despite this, Flexis remain wildly popular, and I even know of some responsible pet owners who really like them. So when I was contacted by a Flexi company rep with an offer to test one out for free, I welcomed the opportunity to decide for myself.

The Good
I can totally understand why people like retractable leashes. As someone with a short dog with even shorter legs, it’s not uncommon for her to step over the leash. In fact, it happens so often, that I taught her to lift her foot up on cue so that I could untangle her without having to bend over. Since Flexis retract into the handle, there is no slack for the dog to get tangled in.

I also really liked the length. The model I tested was 16 feet long (and they come up to 26 feet long). This meant my dog could move around more than a regular leash would allow her. When combined with the retractable feature, the result is something far more manageable to use than a long line, making Flexis an easy way to give significantly more freedom to dogs who aren’t reliable off-leash.

The Bad
Maisy didn’t like the Flexi. Since it’s a retractable leash, the dog does need to pull a bit to extend the length, something Maisy refused to do. While she usually roams and explores on her regular six-foot leash, with the Flexi, she ended up next to me, her movements slow and hesitant. The moment I put her regular leash back on, her normal behavior returned. I think this was because the Flexi puts a fair amount of pressure on the dog’s neck, which I assume she found uncomfortable. Take a look at these pictures to see just how much tension was put on her collar:

On the Flexi, her collar pulled away from her neck due to 
the pressure of the leash. Click to enlarge.

On the six-foot leash, you can barely see her collar
because there's no tension in the leash.

The Ugly
This tension in the leash actually increased Maisy’s reactivity on walks- not surprising considering that trainers often discuss how tightening up on the leash can cause a reactive outburst. Maisy was able to walk past a barking, snarling dog with barely a second glance while on her six-foot leash, but when on the Flexi, her body language became tighter and quicker. She fixated on some people she saw in the distance, her tail was high and tight, and she got taller and leaned forward- all signs that she’s about to react imminently.

Worse, I had far less control over her while she was on the Flexi. Although I was able to verbally call Maisy back, the increased freedom meant she could have gotten closer to the trigger than I would have liked. The Flexi does come with a braking mechanism, and I found it easy to use, but frankly my dog is much faster than I am. I would not have been able to use the brake fast enough to keep her within six feet of me. And if she’d hit the end of the leash, she would have had enough increased force that I could have either fallen or dropped the leash (and then retracting towards her, which would probably scare her, making the problem worse).

Is a Flexi Right for You?
Since many of my readers have reactive dogs, the answer is probably no. Although there may be some reactive dogs who do okay on a retractable leash, I would advise extreme caution. If you have a stable dog, the answer is maybe. The Flexi company itself recommends they only be used with obedient, controllable dogs.

If you choose to try one out, you need to be thoughtful about when and where you use it. I do not think they are appropriate for crowded or busy areas. Pet stores, popular walking paths, and crowded city streets all call for a six-foot leash; there are plenty of people and dogs alike that do not want your dog to approach them, and while the Flexi does have a braking mechanism, it’s not foolproof. Instead, use it only low-traffic areas where you expect to see very few (if any!) dogs and people. 

As an aside, before using the brake on the Flexi, I really think you should give your dog a warning. With a regular leash, your dog knows how much room he has before he hits the end of the leash, and can avoid the collar pressure if he wants. With a retractable, your dog has no idea where the end of the leash is because it keeps changing. This seems unfair to me.

I would also recommend attaching the Flexi to a back-attach harness in order to minimize any discomfort on the neck. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t use a prong or slip/choke collar, a head halter, or a front-attach harness with a Flexi. These devices are meant to stop a dog from pulling, and using a leash that by its very design requires the dog to pull seems counter-productive. The dog will also essentially self-correct with every step, running the risk that you will desensitize him to the collar/harness, making it less effective even when the dog is on a regular leash.

Some Notes on the Company
Despite the fact that the Flexi was not right for me or Maisy, I have nothing bad to say about the company itself. While there are some dangers inherent in the use of retractable leashes, the company is very upfront about this. Every leash comes with a safety guide (which is also available online by clicking here), and they have a very nice instructional video (available here).

Flexi also has a new product called the MyFlexi, which is a personalized retractable leash. You can choose the size and color, as well as a picture of your own for the housing. This was very easy to do, although it does require a high speed connection. You can even add words or phrases! I ended up choosing a stock design because I wasn’t sure if I would keep the leash (I won't- I plan to donate it). The result is very pretty, and while I haven’t used it enough to know for sure, it seems very durable. My leash also came very fast- within a week, which was impressive. I very much enjoyed the experience, even if I didn’t enjoy the product.

Finally, I do need to give the following FTC disclosure: I did receive a free product from Flexi in order to facilitate this review, but was not otherwise compensated for this review. My opinions are mine alone, and were not influenced by the company.


Jen said...

Glad to see a reasonable flexi lead review! They're not for me, personally, and Elka has never had one on. But I was happy to read your very detailed post on the matter!

Crystal Thompson said...

I really wanted to like it. I would have loved to be able to give her more freedom in areas that require a leash. But alas- it was not meant to be.

Susanna said...

I use a Flexi every morning with my reactive Alaskan malamute, 85-90 pounds. I love it. I think he does too. I use it with a Gentle Leader walking harness + regular collar -- I clip the leash to both the collar and the leash. This is so that if he bounds after a squirrel or rabbit, the pullback will be more on his shoulders than his neck.

The Flexi horror stories I've heard mostly deal with people who use the Flexi as a substitute for training. My guy knows loose-leash walking. He's got his RA and RL2 in Rally. He likes to explore, and he doesn't like to poop anywhere close to the trail. The Flexi works for us.

Anonymous said...

We use retractable leads most times we take our dogs out (not reactive). They are Samoyeds and as such don't object to pulling at all.
We find them most useful for when we know we are going somewhere that we will be sitting (cafe, local sports etc) and can tie the dogs up with the lead set to a fairly long length (our 'brake' can be set so that it stays at that length until you take the brake off). That way the dogs get a lot more freedom to explore while we are socialising or watching something without us needing to bring a separate long lead with us.

Sam said...

You totally stole my post! :P I was going to write about this within the next few days, as I just bought a flexi leash for agility trials (getting Marge some exercise around the trial sites, away from the rings, where are usually wide-open spaces).

My first reaction is that I really like the flexi. Marge usually does walk with some light pulling pressure forward (she does not pull; more like, just keeps the leash taut, if that makes sense), so there wasn't any adjustment period for her in that regard. The one thing that DOES worry me a little bit about the flexi is that should I ever drop it, I think Marge would be afraid of the big handle thingy.

By and large, I'm not a fan of them on sidewalks or in crowded places (which is where I think they get their bad rep), but I really enjoyed having it at the agility trial in lieu of my trusty old 20' leash, which would have gotten covered in mud from dragging on the ground.

Lauren said...

I LOVE my Flexi. And while I understand why many dogs behave worse with a Flexi, it has actually improved Frodo's reactivity (don't take this as my advocating Flexis for all reactive dogs, that's not what I'm saying!). When on a 6 foot leash he generally has an immediate reaction, but when he's on the Flexi he will trot forward, probably about 7 feet, stand there and survey the situation for a couple seconds, then come back to me and we go on our way. I think he feels less cornered into having a reaction when on the Flexi.

That being said I would never ever take him into a store on the Flexi. It is one of my biggest pet peeves when customers bring their dogs into my store on a Flexi. There have been multiple instances where I have had Frodo in a store and either had to ask the owner to control their dog, or we have had to leave the store because they refused to keep their dog near them.

The main reason why I use a Flexi is because I do not have access to a fenced in yard or a safe off-leash area on a regular basis. Using the Flexi allows Frodo to stretch his legs. Since beginning to use the Flexi he has been able to exercise a lot more every day, which makes both of us happy.

Also, blame Megan for my Flexi use, she's the one who gave it to me!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Crystal for your very thorough review. I agree, if the owner is thoughtful and has trained the dog, the flexi can be a useful tool in the toolbox, but in the hands of those who do not understand basic training it can be a nightmare and accident waiting to happen! I see way more of the second type of owners than the first in my town.

Andreja said...

I love using Flexi! I find it easier to hold and much easier to move from hand to hand with a secure grip. I need to hold regular leash much tighter or have it wrapped around my hand to have the same security.
I keep it locked on 3-4 foot length 95% of the time and in the 2.5 years that lock has never failed.
My dog has become reactive after an accident few months ago and I find that keeping leash at that length gives him more security than letting him roam around. I use the flat-lead Flexi, not the thin nylon one, and have never ben rope-burned by it.
So most of the time I use it as a regular leash with the added benefit of secure grip. Why do I use Flexi then? Because one of my dog's biggest rewards is exploring. When I get behavior that I want on 3-foot leash I let him have some more. If he can still walk nicely he gets more, if not he goes back to 3 feet. Eventually he gets to roam in 16 feet circle around me and is still responsive to my movement and verbal cues. It's a perfect reward, trading what he wants the most for what I want.
That said, regardless of how good his behavior was I would never walk him in urban area with Flexi unlocked, just as I wouldn't keep him on fully extended long leash.

Susanna said...

Dropping the Flexi can be a problem. I've heard of dogs freaking out at the handle bouncing behind them. This is a good reason to avoid using a Flexi in a high-stress situation with a nervous dog. My malamute once got away from me when a deer bounded out of a meadow and into the woods about 25 yards ahead of us on the bike path. He was in prey overdrive and totally oblivious to the bouncing handle. The Flexi did me a favor: it tangled in the undergrowth and stopped Travvy from continuing after the deer.

Crystal Thompson said...

So many interesting stories of how the Flexi has worked for others. Like I said- I see the appeal; it just wasn't right for us. Given how sensitive Maisy is to pressure in general (harnesses, clothing, bandages, being touched, etc.), I shouldn't have been surprised that she refused to pull on the Flexi.

Lauren- it would be you that has the one reactive dog that does even better on a Flexi! ;)

I also love that so many of you are using a Flexi RESPONSIBLY. That's refreshing to read. I'm especially impressed by Andreja, who is using the Flexi to Premack her dog's walking!

andrea said...

After seeing a dog hbc (hit by car) that died when on a flexi I really think they have no place on city streets no matter the dog on the end of them

I agree about the pressure - neither Brody nor Thea will walk happily on them

That said we use them on the bog guys on our county road - we hear and see cars miles before they are near us and let us all just relax as we walk .. the dogs can sniff and romp a bit and we can just steadily walk ...

Crysania said...

Thanks for the link to my blog post! I feel really honored. I imagine for a very sensitive dog that a Flexi's bit of pressure (which I generally don't think it a LOT of pressure) would be far too much. Dahlia seems pretty impervious to the pressure on it and like Lauren, I found it actually helped with her reactivity. Especially because locking the leash and letting it suddenly hang loose was a completely release of pressure. Doing that seemed to help her a lot with her reactivity!

Thanks for the good, balanced review. There are too many "omg I hate this thing" reviews out there and it was nice to see one that weighed the pros and cons and decided that while it's obviously not for you, it could be good for other people.

Shannon said...

Good, thoughtful post addressing both the good and bad points of flexis. I can sympathize with your sensitive dog. Sienna is the same way, she never pulls on the leash and is sensitive to the slightest pressure. Like you, I tried to teach her to walk on a flexi so she could run around a bit more. She wasn't having it, either on a collar or a harness. She looks miserable the entire time. It's quite amusing. :) So I just use the 6' leash as well. BTW, Maisy has the sweetest face!

Alexis said...

We live downtown Chicago, so I'd be happy if they were illegal. I can't tell you how many times I have had to step into the street to avoid a dog on a flexi who is reacting and an owner who can't/won't shorten the lead before their dog starts up. I realize it's bad owners, but with a different leash, my dog and I could stay safe/unannoyed by these dogs/owners more easily.

That being said, I do have a flexi. The tension is great to encourage the opposition reflex when working on stays with a dog who understands the basics of a stay but gets bored and fidgets.

So, IMO they have their uses, just NOT everyday walks in the city (now if only the owners I speak of would bother reading a blog like this and training/managing their dogs...).

lorac said...

Thank you for such well-made comments on the Flexi. Another danger of them is their use on shared bike/pedestrian paths. More than once, I've had to shout at a handler of a dog wandering across the path to rein in their dog. In my area, a bicyclist died from a fall after inadvertantly riding into a stretched out flexi. An unlikely and very unfortunate outcome, but falling is a likely outcome.