When it’s time for adventure, you know who wants to join. Whether or not your pup is a natural water dog, a canine life jacket is a wise choice. Not all dogs are natural-born swimmers, and even good swimmers can get tired. A PFD promises peace of mind and can keep an accident from turning into a tragedy.
Do dogs need life jackets?
While many dogs are great swimmers, even the best doggy paddlers can’t swim forever. A dog who ends up in the water during an upset may panic, especially in current, waves or cold water, or just become exhausted trying to swim back to shore. Dogs can get tired and drown just like people—each year, thousands of dogs drown in pools in the United States, according to PetMD.
While even water-loving dogs should be equipped with life jackets, flotation is even more important for young puppies and senior dogs, flat-nosed breeds like pugs and bulldogs, and short-legged breeds like dachshunds, as well as dogs with health or mobility issues.
What to look for when buying a dog life jacket
There is no official coast guard standard for dog PFDs, so buyers need to research and opt for a reputable brand. One essential feature to look for is a handle on the top of the life jacket to hoist the dog back on board if they jump or fall off. A foam panel or thick straps under the chest and belly will help support the dog while lifting them.
High-viz colors help your dog stay visible to motorboaters in the water and some vests feature reflective material for even more visibility. For a dog more prone to sinking than floating, choose a life jacket with a chin float feature to help keep his head above water.
How to measure a dog for a life jacket
As with humans, the best life jacket is the one you wear. A dog’s life jacket needs to be functional, fit well, and comfortable to wear in and around the water.
First, weigh your dog to ensure they are within the weight ratings of a given size and brand of life jacket. Next, measure the circumference of your dog’s neck and the widest part of their chest and match those measurements with the appropriate size PFD. A properly fitting life jacket may look a little smaller than expected on your dog—ideally, the foam stops at the end of the pup’s rib cage or has a high cut at the rear.
“A common pitfall we see a lot is owners buy vests too large. It’s fine when the dog is standing, but when they sit down, it jabs into their hindquarters and the dog can’t sit back comfortably,” advises Steve Wagner, owner of Salus Marine Wear. He recommends the sit test when trying on a vest to ensure there’s space between the end of the vest and the dog’s hips so the dog can sit on the board or in the boat. A dog should also be able to lay down comfortably and relieve himself while wearing the life jacket.
Best dog life jackets
This budget-friendly and simple design fits snug and secure without interfering with the dog’s normal activities. NRS uses their heaviest 1000-denier Cordura shell on the Canine Flotation Device (CFD), so it’s tough enough to withstand years of abuse. Features five adjustment points at the waist and neck, supportive belly straps, grab handle and a rugged leash ring, so you can use the vest as a walking harness or attach a strobe light. Includes reflective safety tape for extra visibility and a zippered pocket to stow a leash or poop bags.
$44.95 USD | nrs.com
The Skippy stands apart for its flotation placement—it wraps the belly, chest and sides in buoyancy where it can do the most good at and under the waterline, and puts mesh on the back of the life jacket for better breathability. Salus also added two grab handles on their larger vests so paddlers can lift their larger pooches back on board with both hands—necessary for a waterlogged Newfoundlander. Reflective trim, a mesh stash pocket, and tummy-saver padding will help protect active dogs.
$89 CAD | salusmarine.com
Fashionable and functional, Ruffwear’s recently updated and brightly colored Float Coats will make your pup the belle of the beach. Soft, flexible foam provides excellent flotation and a plush, comfortable fit, while dirt and dog grime wipes off easily. Includes thoughtful details like a solid handle to lift dogs out of the water, a leash clip-in point under the handle and reflective trim to boost visibility in low-light conditions.
$89.95 USD | ruffwear.com
This trendy style is sold by a least a dozen brands on Amazon. While the shark-dog gag is a hit at the poolside cabana, in real life, the dorsal fin is prone to flopping over like a captive orca’s in Free Willy. This full-coverage style tends to hit the dog’s hindquarters and dig in when sitting. However, it does offer warmth during cool and blustery paddles.
$30 USD | Amazon.com
The Granby Jacket’s chin float is perfect for a new swimmer still figuring out how to keep his head above water. This full-coverage jacket from Outward Hound offers top dual grab handles, neoprene belly band, three adjustable straps and reflective accents for better visibility. Outward Hound also makes a neoprene jacket with more insulation and less foam for strong swimmers in cold water environments.
$40 USD | outwardhound.com
This article was first published in Paddling Magazine Issue 64. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions here, or download the Paddling Magazine app and browse the digital archives here.
Waterdog mode activate! | Photo: Kaydi Pyette