You will find a marvelous variety of dog leashes in the patent stacks. The evil-sounding electronic training leash (for those unable to bridle their pooch with a real electric eel?) administers corrective shocks. The gentle stop retractable leash reduces yanking by gradually braking the line as it unspools. There are two-dog leashes and harnesses with handles and quick-release harnesses and a no-tangle retractable multidog lead with flashlight. There is, in the corner of the patent warehouse reserved for physically connecting dogs to their owners, evidence galore of both American ingenuity and something wackier: American pet obsession? A fetish for control?
I was talking it over in the park with my dog. He was wearing a leash (simple black strap, choke chain) because in Washington, as in many urban spaces across the country, walking your dog off-leash in public is against the law. Though only Michigan and Pennsylvania mandate on the state level that owners put leads on their pets, most municipalities regulate loose animals in some form or another. Impound laws allow unfettered dogs (called “dogs at large”) to be collected or even killed on sight. More granular ordinances further restrict the movement of female dogs in heat, or all dogs between the hours of sunset and sunrise, or dogs in specific locations like beaches, parks, schools, and protected national areas.
If we are living in a golden age of leashes—and the pet industry’s profit margins support this claim—we can partially thank our contemporary expectation that dog owners put a lead on it. “The laws are much stricter today,” says Katherine Grier, author of Pets in America: A History. “And communities are also much more aggressive about complaining and demanding that they be enforced.” While farm dogs and village dogs still roam free, in 2014 you are almost as likely to encounter an escaped Egyptian cobra on the streets of New York City as a hound unbound.
Yet leashes themselves are an ancient technology, winding back at least to the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian dog owners who sought a way to control their pets without physically gripping their skin. “Along with collars, leashes are the obvious first step in domestication,” says Grier, “and the oldest pieces of material culture to be associated with dogs.” Portraits from the 17th century show well-heeled pet parents flaunting their status via dainty dog chains and glittering neckbands. Lower on the economic ladder, working mutts were kept in line with a plain leather strap ending in a loop for the human to grasp. (You might ask your local harness-maker to fashion you one when you came in to saddle your horse, Grier explains.)
The first dog leash patent hit the books in the United States in 1908. Called simply a “leading device,” the plan promised “certain new and useful improvements,” such as a drum and spring allowing the chain to be paid out in stages. The filer, a woman named Mary A. Delaney, remains something of a mystery—a New Yorker who appears nowhere in the obituary sections of the local papers, and whom the handful of historians I consulted for this article had never heard of. Yet her invention is cited by eight subsequent patents, including the 1940 blueprint for an adjustable leash most frequently referenced by lead-dreaming posterity.
Delaney arrived on the scene during a fraught moment for American dogdom. By 1908, with industrialization in full swing, dogs had become a focal point for cultural anxieties about urban existence—its filth, disease, brutality, madness, and unpredictability. New York City had leash laws, but they were spottily enforced; one turn-of-the-century poll estimated the number of strays citywide at 155,000 while the more than 200,000 pooches with homes often wandered the streets unsupervised. To many, these “curs”—dirty, vicious creatures that fought, bit, and thieved—represented the menace of the city itself. Newspapers ran fear-mongering stories (“Three Children Bitten by a Dog in Brooklyn”) and weighed the merits of filing down the canines of the “whole four-footed race.” “Can you tell me what dogs are good for in a city?” inveighed NYC health commissioner Sigismund S. Goldwater soon before Delaney filed her patent.
Public health officials had particular reason to fear and hate dogs: rabies. Hydrophobia—or more accurately, given the low incidence of the disease, hydrophobia-phobia—haunted the Northeast, driving calls for muzzle ordinances and shoot-to-kill laws. As historian and University of British Columbia professor Jessica Wang writes in her wonderfully thorough account of the time period, New York had long depended on a ring of vigilantes to catch dogs during the summer months for a 50-cent bounty. In 1850, the establishment of a Dog Bureau helped supplement the volunteer efforts. (It also authorized employees to club unmuzzled pets to death.) But the bureau did not provide an instant solution to the problem: Dogs “swarm in all the streets, obstruct the pavements, make night hideous with their howls, and have a worse name than Aldermen in New York,” complained the New York Daily Times in 1856.