He held his dog on a lead


He held his dog on a leash

Both of these are acceptable English sentences. The words 'lead' and 'leash' in this context are synonymous. But what's the difference between them? Some say there's no difference at all; others say it's a British/American difference; yet others say it's a dog-lover/'layman' difference. I hope the experts at ELU.SE can settle this issue once and for all!

  • Using lead for the sense of leash is a neologism: the earliest OED citation for this use is 1893, whereas using leash for this sense antedates that by nearly six centuries.
    – tchrist
    Sep 12, 2015 at 2:46
  • 4
    I think it really depends on how you use it. A “lead” is used to lead someone while a leash is used to restrain someone. This is why dog handlers refer to it as a “lead” and ordinary pet owners refer to it as a leash.
    – Jim
    Sep 12, 2015 at 5:39
  • @Jim and tchrist - wanna make answers out of that? Sep 12, 2015 at 9:50
  • @tchrist How old does a word have to be before we stop calling it a neologism? I wouldn't consider "television" to be a neologism these days, yet it's much newer than your example.
    – Barmar
    Sep 12, 2015 at 20:17
  • @Barmar, it is when 'lead' is compared to 'leash' that 'lead' is a neologism.
    – JEL
    Sep 13, 2015 at 7:15

2 Answers 2


Other than the differences in spelling, different nuances of sense are expressed to those aware of the historical application of the terms, or simply those sensitive to the different uses of the words. These nuances, connotations that go along with the words, are meaningful, and to some people, very meaningful.

First, observe that 'lead' in this sense may indicate the dog is in the lead, not that the holder of the lead is in front of the dog. In the case of coursing hounds, for example, three to a leash perhaps, chasing a hunted animal, the hounds are leading the hunter toward the animal.

Observe these differences. Under the headword lead, n. in the OED, we find this

  1. concr. Something that leads.


d. A leash or string for leading a dog.

["lead, n.2". OED Online. September 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/106585?rskey=M5Br57&result=3&isAdvanced=false (accessed September 13, 2015).]

With the definition are two historical quotes exampling that sense of 'lead' in 1893 and 1898.

Under the headword leash, n., however, we find this wealth of meaning:


a. The thong or line in which hounds or coursing-dogs are held. ....


  1. A set of three; originally in Hunting, used of hounds, hawks, foxes, hares, deer, etc.; hence gen.


  1. Hawking. The thong or string which is passed through the varvels of the jesses to secure the hawk.


  1. fig. (with allusion to senses 1, 3); esp. in phrases, to hold or have in leash, to have control over, keep in bondage.

["leash, n.". OED Online. September 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/106745?rskey=VIzxKU&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed September 13, 2015).]

With the definitions are examples of uses dating back to before 1300 for 1a, around 1330 for sense 2, 1497 for sense 3, and around 1430 for sense 4.

As you can see from the different senses, the use of 'leash' may carry along with it many connotations which the use of 'lead' does not. While it is probable that many, if not most, people hearing the terms will be unaware of the differences, many people will be aware of them. Those people who are aware of the differences, and especially those who use 'leash' in the more specialized senses, may find the general use of 'lead' to mean 'leash' in its more specialized senses distasteful or simply imprecise.

  • 3
    I don’t agree that lead implies that the dog is in the lead, rather than the holder of the lead, and the OED entry specifically says under the “something that leads” entry that this sense is a leash for leading a dog (not for a dog to lead you). Hounds and coursing dogs do indeed lead the hunter, in fact often so enthusiastically that they would outrun the hunter if not restrained. Which is why they’re usually said to be on a leash, rather than a lead. Sep 14, 2015 at 9:52
  • @JanusBahsJacquet, I didn't say "lead implies" etc.; "may indicate" doesn't mean "implies". The word 'lead' in this sense implies nothing about the positions of the person and the dog. To cut to the chase: for the concrete sense of 'lead' the primary sense is 'something that leads', the secondary sense is 'a leash or string'--the string is the "something that leads". Whether the person or the dog is in front is irrelevant.
    – JEL
    Sep 15, 2015 at 6:23

There is no difference between the two nouns. You can lead a dog on a lead (BrE) or on a leash (AmE, BrE) as OALD says in no. 6.

  • 1
    Lead is perfectly fine in American English as well but maybe more common amongst dog training enthusiasts.
    – Preston
    Sep 12, 2015 at 2:56
  • The trivial difference is spelling. Along with that difference are different nuances of sense, both historical and contemporary.
    – JEL
    Sep 12, 2015 at 6:13

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