Put down your pitchforks for just a second! I know that retractable leads are often viewed as Public Enemy #1. I am just talking about using them when searching in nosework. There are several reasons to consider trying them out and a few things to consider if they seem like the right tool for your team.
In my opinion, the retractable lead has several advantages over a long line. First, it gives you a little more space. While most long lines are about 10 feet long, an average retractable leash gives you about 6 more feet. If you have a dog who likes room to run, the retractable gives you an edge.
A retractable lead also does a lot of the leash handling for you. It allows you to passively hold the handle while the lead feeds out and feeds back, all without effort on your part. If you have issues with coordination or limited use of your hands, it makes things much easier. It allows you to focus on the search without the distraction of line handling.
Finally, if you have a fast moving dog, the retractable has a better chance at keeping up with his darting.
Because I trial behind dogs who love space, leap off of the start line and dart around a lot, I use a Flexi. Add my fused finger (a dog/parrot accident) and limited hand mobility to the mix, and my choice became a bit of a no brainer.
If you decide to give a retractable lead a test drive, there are a few things to consider. First, if you have a strong puller, you might want to re-consider. The length of most retractable lines will likely assist your dog in pulling you off of your feet or yanking the handle out of your hand. A retractable lead works best for dogs who yield to harness pressure. I rarely use a Flexi when searching behind my headstrong dog. For safety reasons, I hesitate to put a retractable line on a collar due to the risk of essentially clothes-lining the dog if they hit the end of the line. Even without speed, hitting the end of a retractable lead on a collar would likely pull many dogs out of a search.
If your dog is bold, driven, and fearless and you want to give a Flexi a try, you can probably just slap it on and get on with training. However, if you have a sensitive dog or a partner who looks for ghosts, it’s probably best to proceed thoughtfully. Three of my dogs are prone to panic, so I introduced their Flexies with caution. First, I started them off by hiking on the retractables. My dogs learned about the length of the lines, the feel of the line, and the sounds that lines make, and they did all of this away from nosework. I also taught my dogs to stop if I dropped a Flexi. I did this in my yard where I could contain them even if they panicked. First, I locked the Flexi and let my dogs understand that it would chase them when dropped. Then, I stopped locking it and let them understand that the handle would fly at them like a weapon. They learned that standing still was the only way to end the terror. It is better to teach them this under controlled circumstances than in a search or on the road. I also taught my dogs to freeze if they got a leg over the line. This doesn’t happen often, but it’s a nice trick to teach to avoid burns if a body tangle happens. Once your dog has the skills and familiarity needed to be comfortable with the line, it’s safer to experiment with it in your searches. You will be much less likely to spook your dog now that he or she knows how it all feels, sounds, and works.
After some experimentation, I have discovered some strategies that work best for my dogs while searching. First, I don’t push the locking button when my dog is working and I try very hard to never let them hit the end of the line. I accomplish this by running after my dogs and calling them back to me if they are getting too far ahead. For my dogs, a sudden jerk from a stopped line is demotivating and distracts them from their work. I avoid it like the plague. If my dog is moving very fast and I think that hitting the end of the line is inevitable, I lower my flexi hand to my hip so that when my dog bumps the end, my arm will raise, thereby softening the impact and giving them a couple of feet to transition into the stop. I have not had to do this often. Abrupt stops should be avoided whenever possible because they are detrimental to effective searching. For softer dogs, they can actually be punishing enough to end their efforts.
I have found retractable leads to be very helpful in containers and exteriors. In those search elements in particular, there is usually enough uncluttered space to make the retractable an obvious consideration. In interiors and vehicles, the Flexi can be too much line and too much of a tangle risk. In the event of a tangle, it often works well to lock the line to minimize how much line you have to wrestle, and then untangle it before releasing the line. Having a standard leash in your pocket can be beneficial as well. You can transfer leashes if the tangle is a real mess. This has never happened to me in nosework, but it has happened to me while hiking.
In vehicles, a less obvious hazard is the length of the cord. Your dog can get around the corner of a vehicle and get out of sight. It’s pretty hard to watch for a change of behavior when you can’t see your dog at all! While I have completed every vehicle search with my whippets on a Flexi, it may not be the best tool for the job if you have functional hands and decent long-line coordination. Because I lack both, I am grateful to the organizations that allow me my retractable.
Finally, it is important to remember that even when organizations allow the use of retractables in the search area, none of them (that I am familiar with) allow their use anywhere else on show grounds. I walk my dogs to the search area with a standard 6 foot leash and I use the 6 foot leash when I walk back to my car. It is critical to be respectful about this rule because it is in place for safety reasons.
Should you try using a Flexi in nosework? Only you can know if its benefits outweigh its liabilities for your unique team. I have had wonderful results with mine. I love the freedom the lines give my dogs and the way the tool allows me to just happily concentrate on the search. However, they aren’t right for everyone and they aren’t right for every circumstance. Like with almost every dog training question, the answer is: It depends!