How we tested
When you take your dog out for a walk, the last thing you want to worry about, or even think about, is the leash. But how do you find the perfect one? The market is vast, curious, and confusing—hundreds upon hundreds of leashes exist, spanning a range of styles, materials, lengths, and prices. To narrow down the lineup for this testing, we consulted Tina Alderman, a dog trainer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who has 18 years of experience and is a member of the International Association of Canine Professionals, and Meredith O’Connor, a certified Canine Training Specialist in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, who has more than a decade of experience. While the trainers’ views diverged somewhat on leash material and other features, they agreed on two key recommendations. First, look for leashes measuring about 6 feet—the length they find universally optimal for both dogs and walkers, since it allows a dog freedom of movement without sacrificing too much human control. Second, avoid retractable leashes, which can telescope out as much as 26 feet when the dog pulls, resulting in the human having no control over the dog.
We also stuck with leashes that would work with either a collar or a harness, as dog owners today use both. We limited materials to nylon, polyester, and leather—the most commonly available types—and set a price cap of $30, as it seemed impractical to pay more for something that gets so much wear and tear or that you might lose or misplace. In the end, we reviewed nine leashes, priced from about $13 to about $30, using them in a battery of tests to evaluate how durable they were and how easy they were to use. We also sent separate copies of each leash home with staffers for long-term use and to see how the leashes worked with dogs of different ages, sizes, and temperaments.
A Good Leash Starts with a Good Clip
We first evaluated how easy it was to use the clip that attaches the leash to the dog’s harness or collar. All but one of the leashes we tested had bolt-style clips: To open them, you use your thumb to press down on the hinge. The other model had a lobster-claw or “scissor’’ clip, which must be squeezed in the middle to open. With both types, once the clip is attached to the D ring on the dog’s collar or harness, you release it, the mechanism closes securely, and you and your dog are good to go.
With both styles, testers preferred clips that had enough tension in the mechanism so that they stayed put when attached but were still easy to open with one hand. Those with too much tension were hard to open, especially during chilly walks, when our hands were less dexterous from being cold or covered in mittens. (Having to bear down on a clip with both hands in order to open it is no fun.)
Another minor factor that separated user-friendly clips from less optimal ones was weight: One heavy clip, with a clawlike hinge, proved cumbersome on the collar of a dog weighing less than 20 pounds. As it clanked uncomfortably against her little neck, we were sure that if she could speak, she would have been cursing. (Larger dogs, however, seemed unperturbed.)
We also considered how durable the clips were. If you walk your dog on a beach or hiking trail, then you already know about another hazard: sand. Once sand and grit get lodged in the mechanism of a leash’s clip, the clip either will not open easily or, once pried open, will not close. To see if any leashes would still work in suboptimal conditions, we dragged them clip side down on a sandy hiking trail for a mile. All but three of the clips jammed. While we appreciated the two clips we could still open, we didn’t ultimately find this problem to be a deal breaker, since there is a solution to this common woe: A simple application of WD-40 greased the stuck mechanisms back into working order.
Fabric Leashes Are Better Than Leather Leashes
As for the body of the leash, we wondered at first if the choice of material—fabric or leather—wasn’t just a matter of personal preference. But in testing these, we found key differences and clear preferences. Leather is stylish and can be very strong, and its texture can also make it easy to grip: The handle on one leather leash had a nubby interior that helped keep it from slipping in our grasp. But leather needs to be handled with care. The leather dye can leach out, especially if it gets wet: One of our walkers found brown marks on the wall where she hung the brown leather leash after both rainy and dry walks. And when we soaked all the leashes for 90 minutes in a rough analogue of dog urine (ammonia, salt water, and uric acid) to see whether the leashes retained odors, the tanning dye on that leash leached out even more into the tub. Leather leashes also can’t be cleaned in the washing machine. We tried it; while the wash cycle removed the odors, it ruined the leashes, which warped and cracked. So if leather leashes get peed on, you’ll need to spot-clean or condition them with saddle soap, and even this may not be sufficient to remove odors. By contrast, fabric leashes were easy to clean and weren’t damaged in the process, requiring just one cycle in our washing machine to remove any odors.
Leather has one more potential drawback: It’s well known that leather is practically irresistible to puppies and dogs who like to chew. Pounding on the body of all the leashes with a meat mallet to simulate a puppy’s chew marks left noticeable dents on only the two leather models.
We much preferred the nylon and polyester leashes, which were left unscathed. They didn’t get dented, withstood soaking and washing, and air-dried quickly. (They can take a spin in the dryer, too.) Better yet, many of the fabric leashes come in bright colors that raise the visibility of both dog and walker, making us feel safer on streets and trails. Some of the fabric models also have reflective stitching along their entire length, making them even easier to see in different levels of light.
A Padded Handle Is a Welcome Upgrade
After many daily rounds of walking and jogging with our dogs, we formed some strong opinions about leash handles. One leash lacked any handle at all, forcing us to loop the end of the leash around our hands, a makeshift solution that was awkward and less secure to hold. Another leash required attaching a clip to a D ring to form a handle “loop’’ that just felt loose and flimsy to hold. At the very least, we think a leash should have a proper handle. But what we came to love the most were leashes with padded handles (there were five in our lineup). Even a little padding went a long way with testers, since they found these models more comfortable and secure to hold than leashes that lacked padding.
Traffic Handles Are Useful—When Positioned in the Right Place
Many of our testers were satisfied with simple, no-frills leashes that came with padded handles and easy-to-open clips. But some testers also liked leashes that came with an innovative feature: a second handle located closer to the clip. While crossing an intersection or moving to one side of a sidewalk, you need to keep your dog moving with you; the second handle, or “traffic” handle, aids greatly in this function. It gives you extra leverage and control of your dog, since it allows you to grip both handles to steer your dog out of harm’s way or to wrangle an eager pup who has just seen a chipmunk.
We liked some traffic handles more than others, and the key to this feature was placement. Traffic handles located right next to the dog’s collar somewhat defeat the purpose, since you might as well be grabbing the collar itself, which isn’t safe for you or your dog. Handles that were positioned 6 to 9 inches from the clip or collar also had us bending over to reach them. Instead, we preferred traffic handles that were about 12 inches away from the dog's collar; we found these easiest to grab in a hurry. Then, with a handle in each hand, you have enough leverage to control your dog as you walk or stand close to them—without having to bend over too far.
However, not all testers found the traffic handle necessary; some testers actively preferred the more streamlined design of the simple leashes. Traffic handles do make the leash bulkier, so they aren’t ideal if you’re traveling with your dog and want to keep your luggage light.
Other Innovations Aren’t Always Useful
Although we liked traffic handles, we had mixed feelings about the three leashes we tested that reinvented their overall design. One leash had extra clips and D rings so that you could walk two dogs on the same leash like a team of horses or attach the leash to both a harness and collar on one very strong dog. It worked to a limited degree, as long as both dogs were pulling in equal measure as they walked. And when we used this leash to clip a big dog at his harness and collar, those dual points of connection gave us more control. Ultimately we didn’t love this leash, as it lacked a handle, making it hard to grip in any configuration.
Two other leashes could be looped around a dog walker’s waist so that they could walk with the dog hands-free. Both could be configured as traditional leashes, and they worked reasonably well when used that way. But we didn't like either when we tried using them in the hands-free format. Once wrapped around our middles, one leash was simply too short (3 feet) to give the dogs enough of a lead. More generally, with the leash around our midsections, it felt like a setup for being pulled straight down, especially when walking large, strong dogs, since it would have been impossible to let go of the leash if that drastic step became necessary. Though none of our testers got pulled down while using these leashes, the risk was clear enough as we walked in different landscapes and weather.
We did like one innovation that we found on a few of the leashes: D rings embedded near their handles that allowed us to make a leash into a shorter loop. This helpful feature makes it easy and more secure to tether your dog outside when you are popping into a store or other venue where dogs aren’t allowed. We also liked that we could tie extra poop bags to these D rings.
The Best Dog Leashes: The Lupine 6’ Leash with Padded Handle and the Primal Pet Gear Dog Leash 6 Ft.
In the end, we had two favorite leashes. If you want a simple, no-frills leash, we like the Lupine 6’ Leash with Padded Handle. Its single padded handle was comfortable to hold, and the leash comes in bright neon orange so that you and your dog will stay visible. It’s made of lightweight, easy-to-wash nylon and can be rolled up into a compact, space-saving ball, making it great for travel.
Our other favorite is the Primal Pet Gear Dog Leash 6 Ft., which has all the innovations we actually liked: Made from durable nylon, it has both a conventional padded handle and a padded, easy-to-grab traffic handle. It also has a D ring near the handle that makes it a breeze to tether your dog to a pole or table. It held up through all our walks and all our tests and became the one we reached for even when we didn’t have any official leash testing to do. And at about $14, it was one of the least expensive leashes in our lineup. The Primal leash also has visibility-enhancing reflective stitching and comes in an array of jewel tones. We liked the royal purple leash since, after all, dogs rule.
- Test nine leashes of different materials and styles, priced from about $13 to about $30
- Use the leashes on walks with different dogs
- Tether the leashes to stationary objects
- Soak all the leashes in an ammonia solution and then wash and evaluate odor retention
- Pound the leashes with a meat mallet to simulate dog chewing; observe damage
- Drag the leashes through sand to test clip durability
- Have different users walk and run with dogs of different ages, sizes, and temperaments in a variety of settings for three weeks
Ease of Use: We examined how easy it was to attach and detach each leash and how comfortable it was to hold its handle.
Durability: We evaluated how well each leash withstood typical types of damage.