Every now and then you'll run across a product that seems so useful that before long you don't know how you ever lived without it. The retractable, reel-type leash (the Flexi is probably the most popular brand) is one such product.
I love my Flexi leashes. When I was driving cross-country last year, the product allowed me to give my dogs up to 30 feet of leash to stretch their legs at roadside rest stops, while keeping them safe from 80 mph traffic that barreled by not 100 yards away. My dogs are responsive to voice commands, but I don't risk them being off-leash in any but the safest areas -- which means I use the Flexi a great deal.
But every piece of equipment has its limits and its rules for safety that can result in great peril if they are disregarded. These leashes are no exception, and lately I've been getting a lot of sad reports from people who relied on the product for more than it was designed to do.
The Flexi is not designed for use with an untrained dog. A dog who pulls at the leash or refuses to come when called back from the end of the leash is at risk for injuring himself, his owner or an innocent bystander. This is not the fault of either the leash or the dog. It's an error on the part of the dog's owner in choosing the wrong piece of equipment.
How can a dog get in trouble on a leash? You'd be surprised. Some dogs have hurt themselves hitting the end of the long leash at full speed, and not having it give way (which is also pretty tough on the human holding the handle). Other dogs have bitten people or other pets, or hurt themselves, after getting too far away on the leash before the handler has time to reel them in, or by pulling the leash out of the owner's hand when reaching the end of the line.
Trainers have been sounding the alarm about the first problem for a while now, especially when the reel-type leash is paired with another recent development in canine control, the head halter. Although reports of injuries are anecdotal, it's not difficult to imagine the problems that can result if a large, strong dog is stopped suddenly by pressure on his neck, or by having his head whipped around by a halter around his muzzle.
As for the other problem -- a dog getting into trouble while at the end of the leash -- I've received a number of such reports in just the last few weeks. I witnessed this at a park once, when a boisterous young shepherd mix hit the end of the line so hard she jerked the handle out of her owner's hand. The reel then retracted the line close behind her, the handle bouncing on the pavement behind the dog and frightening her into a full-fledged panic run that ended with a sickening thud when she was hit by a car.
Perhaps the strangest case I've heard involves a Welsh corgi who ran out of an elevator just as the doors where closing. The elevator went up two flights before the dog's owner got it to stop. In the meantime, the retractable leash extended to its maximum length and then pulled the dog up to the top of the elevator door, suspending him by his neck until someone could get him disconnected. Amazingly, he suffered nothing more than a bruising.
The company that makes the Flexi is aware of the potential problems, and highlights cautionary information in its packages and on its Web site (www.flexiusa.com). If you own this product, you'd do well to read the manufacturer's advice before using it again.
If your dog is out of control, you need a trainer, not a retractable leash. Don't risk injury to yourself or your dog by using this otherwise marvelous product in a way for which it wasn't designed.
PETS ON THE WEB
I've always found appeal in the Abyssinian, a lovely cat with large eyes and a distinctive ticked coat in which each hair is banded with colors. The breed's elegant and graceful physical appearance, combined with a friendly and outgoing personality that's sometimes described as "dog-like," makes the Aby one cat who'll always catch my eye. The Cat Fanciers' Association offers a good overview of the breed, with a page (www.cfainc.org/breeds/profiles/abyssinian.html) that reveals the breed's history, plus links to recommended reading on this gorgeous cat.
Years ago I was visiting a friend's house when she complained how disobedient her dog was. The dog, a sweet-natured cocker spaniel, was sitting on the couch beside me when her owner commanded her, "Down!" The dog immediately dropped into a down and was yelled at for her obedience. By "down," the owner didn't mean for the dog to lie down, but rather to get off the couch.
This is why I prefer to teach the command "off" when asking dogs to remove their furry fannies from furniture or beds. It's less confusing and more effective to teach the dog different commands. It's hard for a dog to understand English at all, much less find shades of meaning in different contexts.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I have two 2-year-old cats, a brother and sister, and I am thinking of getting a Border-collie puppy. Is this a good idea? I don't want the cats to be hiding under the bed or not being social anymore. I don't want to get the puppy, then realize I made a mistake later. -- J.D. , via e-mail
A: While your cats almost certainly would not vote for adding a puppy to the household, they're young enough that they probably will adjust in time.
Before you add any puppy or dog, be sure to set up a separate area where the cats can feel safe, a no-dogs-allowed room with food, water, litter box, scratching post and more. You may have to keep the cats shut up in that area for a week or two after bringing home the dog, and then put a baby-gate over the door to allow the cats to be away from the dog when they want to be.
Locking the cats up doesn't seem fair to many people, since the cats were there first. But feline behavior experts say cats adjust better to change if provided with a small, quiet area that's just for them during social upheavals such as moving or adding new people or pets to the household.
Now, about that puppy.
The Border collie -- an intense, athletic and highly intelligent animal -- is really not well-suited for the average pet home. They have high requirements when it comes to keeping their mind and body working, and if you don't keep them busy, they'll not be happy campers.
An ideal situation for a Border collie would be a farm with sheep. Close second would be an active partnership with someone who's seriously involved in the sports of canine agility or obedience, where these bright, driven dogs really shine. I do know of people who keep BCs in suburban homes and even urban apartments, but those who do so successfully dedicate a lot of time and effort to meeting the needs of their dogs.
If you are not prepared to train and work your Border collie daily -- yes, daily! -- for an hour or so, then you're really better off with a breed or mix better suited to a less active lifestyle.
Q: We have purchased one of those cat feeders that allows you to fill it with a lot of food. Does this type of feeder promote overeating in our cat? She has put on a couple of pounds since we adopted her from the SPCA. -- T.W., via e-mail
A: I don't recommend free-feeding for most pets, not only because of the propensity of some pets to overeat, but also because free-feeding deprives pet-lovers of the ability to spot changes in eating patterns that can be indicative of health problems. My recommendation would be to feed your cat a measured amount twice a day.
That said, I'm also a firm believer in "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The weight gain you report may well be fine for your cat, considering that she might have been on the thin side before you got her. If she has a little padding over her ribs, but not a lot, she's fine. If you're not sure, consult your veterinarian. A healthy, normal cat should weigh between 8 and 10 pounds (although some breeds are considerably larger or smaller).
If you and your veterinarian agree your cat is maintaining a proper weight and if you remain alert to changes in her health, then free-feeding may be an acceptable option.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600