A long line is a leash that is significantly longer than a standard leash. It can be a variety of thicknesses, materials, and lengths. My preferred thickness is ½ inch. My preferred material is biothane - it’s lightweight and easy to clean. My preferred length depends on what I’m using it for - in a field or sprawling park I want 20 feet or more. On a trail I want less than 12 feet. Whatever options suit your preferences, a long line is definitely something that should be in your dog’s wardrobe. Always attach your long line to the back of a non-restrictive harness and never to a front clip harness, collar, head halter, or any type of choke/prong/pinch collar. Now why should you use one?
To many dogs, a walk looks like marching in a straight line down the middle of a concrete sidewalk, maybe getting to stop and relieve themselves, but mostly just moving at a human’s (read: snail’s) pace. It doesn’t have to be this way. A walk that allows for more natural movement, exploration, and sniffing is a far more beneficial type of exercise. Ideally, all dogs would get to walk, trot, and run off leash safely every day. In our society, with densely populated neighborhoods, busy roads, and leash laws, this isn’t always an option. Using a longer leash allows your dog access to this freedom while still allowing you security and control when necessary.
The benefits of longer leashes have actually been recorded in the scientific data. A study done in France compared the amount of time that 61 diverse dogs spent sniffing during a 5 minute walk when attached to a short leash, a long leash, and when off leash. The dogs spent 280% more time sniffing on a long line than on a short leash. Just by increasing the length of the leash you use, you can potentially double or even triple the amount of time your dog spends sniffing on a walk!
The benefits of sniffing for dogs are also well-known and documented. This study specifically measured the dog’s heart rate and showed how significantly it lowered while the dog was sniffing. Those results can be seen represented on a graph paired with video of the dog’s activity below.
The same amount of time spent exercising can have vastly different effects on a dog’s overall wellbeing. A 5 minute walk on a long leash is much more beneficial than a 5 minute walk on a short one. The very best way for a dog to walk is off leash, but if that is not an option then a long line is your best bet.
Not only does the length of the leash have an effect on what your dog will do during their walk, it may also have an effect on their actual leash walking skill. Fellow KPA CTP Kiki Yablon explained this very well in one of her blog posts. She wrote, “When we attach dogs to a 6-foot rope and march them down the middle of a sidewalk, 8-10 feet from what they find interesting, we are setting them up to learn to pull. Basically, we tempt them with treasure just out of reach, and then when they hit the end of the leash on the way there, they learn that a little extra oomph will get them closer. For some dogs, a strain-and-sniff on a tight leash, even on a painful collar, even with an owner barking orders at their back, is still worth it.” Using a long line in this scenario sets both ends of the leash up for success. It allows the dog to do what dogs do - sniff, and allows the handler to enjoy a dog who pulls less.
Long lines can be a great training tool to take your dog’s skills to the next level. Many dog guardians become frustrated at a certain point in their dog’s training. The dog listens great when they’re at home, but completely ignores all cues anywhere else. It’s probably time to do some training in a new environment to help the dog generalize the things you’ve taught them so well at home. Start somewhere that the dog will still be able to be successful - a mowed, low-traffic park for example. On a long line, allow the dog to check out all the smells that the new environment holds, then do a quick little training session with a high rate of reinforcement.
Here you can see me working on recalls and check ins with Kona on a long line. At this point, she had gotten 15 minutes to just sniff and wander around the park. I take full advantage of the length of the leash to practice recalls at a greater distance, but Kona is still safe in the event that she’s unable to respond to the recall cue.
I personally use long lines often when introducing new dogs to each other. Dogs communicate primarily through their body language, but that is very hard to do when your handler has a white-knuckle grip on a short rope. The added length allows the dog full access to their communication tools, gives them the option to leave the interaction if they so choose, and still gives me a way to intervene should it become necessary.
Note: if you are concerned about introducing a new dog to your household, this is a great time to reach out to a certified, force-free trainer.
Whether you’re going camping, picnicking, or just over to a friend’s yard that’s not fenced, having your dog on a long line will allow you to relax and enjoy your time and not worry about your pup wandering over to see what the next campsite’s having for dinner. Of course, do keep your dog in the corner of your eye, as other creatures can still wander into the radius of the long line’s reach.
A Retractable Leash Is Not a Long Line.
Some trainers will say that you should never use a retractable leash. If there’s one thing that this year has taught me, it’s that speaking in absolutes is rarely helpful (see how I did that?). While I do not recommend them, retractable leashes may have a time and a place in the hands of an experienced handler with a solid dog. Just know that they are not the same as long lines.
For one, retractable leashes are always taut. They teach the dog TO pull against the pressure that they feel in order to gain access to forward motion, so you do not get the benefit of improved loose leash walking skills that comes with a long line. Retractable leashes are also much harder to reel in should you need to, so they do not offer the same amount of safety and control that long lines do. You’ve probably seen it - the frantic pushbutton-yankarmbackasfaraspossible-letgoofbutton-flinghandtowardsdog-pushbutton-repeat attempts to get an unresponsive dog back from the end of a retractable leash. These types of leashes are also notorious for causing injuries, either from getting wrapped and caught around fingers/other body parts or from the heavy plastic handle being slingshot into a dog or human. They also require a high level of attention to be paid to the dog on the end of them, yet somehow tend to attract handlers who wish not to pay that attention. I recall once getting out of the car at a trailhead with Jack and Bruce, and suddenly being charged, growled, and snapped at by a fluffy white dog whose owners were still in the car, completely unaware of what was happening at the other end of their retractable leash. They didn’t so much as look up from their phones during the entire interaction as I quickly moved my dogs out of range of the angry fluff. Not ideal.
While I won’t go so far as to say NEVER use a retractable leash, they are not a tool that I recommend. Proceed with caution. Consider a long line instead, and enjoy all the benefits they bring!