I never liked the clumsiness of handling long lines, and since Mia had a pretty good recall since she was a puppy, I never used one with her. Zulu is a lot more independent, and she grew up outside of a city environment, so I ended up heavily utilizing a dragline with her for the first months.
There were situations when it was great, and some when I ended up removing it to keep everyone safe, and this made me realize that there are many more pros and cons to using long lines than I imagined.
I wanted to write about these different scenarios, go through each risk, and discuss how to decide when and how to use one!
The line featured in this article is a Biothane Long Line from Henry and Sadie. It is 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) wide, 15 foot (4.5 meter) long without a handle.
The long line is exactly what it sounds: a long leash that comes with or without a handle.
They are usually made of rope/fabric or, recently, of Biothane. Ropes are light, but they can cause severe rope burn if someone gets tangled in them while the dog is running - just like when using a retractable leash. Another con is that even strong ropes can be damaged by sand.
Biothane is waterproof, easy to clean, doesn’t get stinky, and is resistant to damages caused by sandy walks, making it a very popular choice.
Some people use long lines as long leashes holding their ends and managing the length because they prefer to use it over a flexi leash. We previously published an article on using retractable leashes and comparing them to long leads, so we will not discuss that topic here.
The leash choice will always depend on the environment, the dog, and the leash skill of the owner. While a calm dog can happily stroll along on a field with dragging some of the line, it can be a lot more challenging to walk a high-energy dog in a city environment while handling all the slack.
Retractable leashes are great because you don’t end up with slack, so it’s easier to react quickly. If you use a long lead, you constantly need to maintain the length of the leash to avoid getting tangled, and to maintain control. If you just hold the end and drag the middle of the line, the dog can shoot after an animal or start zooming suddenly and be yanked back while running at full speed when they reach the end of the leash, which can injure both the dog and the walker.
Having a long lead in an open field is great, while it can be impractical in a busy city environment. Another consideration is that simultaneously reeling back more than one dog from the end of a long line can get complicated, while you can handle a retractable leash with one hand each.
A dragline is a leash attached to the collar or the harness, and the dog just drags it around without the owner holding it. This provides safety for dogs who do not have a solid recall, giving you a chance to grab the leash or step on it if they want to play catch instead of coming all the way back.
Some people use draglines for dogs with a strong prey drive but in that case, keep in mind that you might not be able to grab the leash if the dog is just dragging it around before they take off, and they can end up tangled up deep in the woods unable to return to you and/or injuring themself.
These leashes ideally do not have a handle and are thin and lightweight to avoid adding too much leash pressure and minimize the chance of getting stuck on something. You can ruin a regular leash quickly if used as a dragline because they are not designed to be pulled around in mud and rocks and fray pretty fast.
Every year I see more and more people using a drag line when teaching off-leash skills to puppies or their new adult dogs. They are great tools, but we must be aware of their cons and dangers to decide when the pros and cons outweigh each other.
Many think long lines are a comfortable backup, not considering their adverse effects in the long run - or how to use them to eliminate or minimize these risks.
Although wider leashes and Biothane lines are less prone to cause rope burn, they still do, and it can get annoying to always jump to the side when a dog on the long line rushes by on the trail or if the dog is zigzagging around people. They can also get tangled or tangle another dog while playing, which can cause serious injuries when they start running and the leash janks a leg or tightens around the belly.
It can also create dangerous situations when a dragline is used in the water while swimming, kayaking, paddle boarding, or similar. If the line gets stuck on something underwater, it can trap the dog, which can be fatal if the dog is not wearing a life vest, especially if it’s a fast-moving river.
It is very easy to damage the dog’s neck if they hit the end of a long line when it is attached to the collar. This can happen if you are holding the end of the leash or if it just suddenly gets stuck on something in the woods or someone steps on the leash.
Another consideration is that the dragline will go under the dog, so they learn to “spread out” their legs or walk at an angle changing their stride/gait to avoid stepping on it. This can just be uncomfortable for some but can cause issues with young puppies with developing joints. Forcing an unnatural gait on them over a longer period can cause developmental problems that might not even show up for a while.
Attaching the line to the harness protects the dog’s neck when suddenly stopped by the leash, but it introduces different problems. Most soft harnesses (like the one in the photo) will rotate to one side when the line is attached since gravity will pull it to one side. This usually causes the part between the front legs to be pushed against the inside of the other leg. Some dogs don’t care about slight pressure like this. Still, for others, it can cause chafing, and on others (like on Zulu), it can cause a significant change in gait as she was walking sideways and somewhat hopping to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of an oddly fitting harness.
We have another article on the details of the well-fitting harness that you can check for more information on what to watch when checking if the harness restricts your dog’s natural gait.
Harnesses with a more rigid neck and back piece usually stay in place better when used with a long line. These are for example the Musher Freespirit Harness, the Non-stop Dogwear Line Harness and the CTC Dog Gear Shoulder Harness. Some harnesses also have a leash attachment point under the rib cage (like the Non-stop Dogwear short harnesses), so you can attach the leash under the dog, which prevents the harness from rotating, and usually causes less disruption with the dog’s movement.
Draglines are excellent tools, but if possible, one should aim to pair them with training and phasing them out or use them only in situations when they are genuinely needed. There are situations when this is not possible/realistic, but using a drag line should be a conscious decision based on its risks so one can take steps to make using it as safe as possible for everyone.