The Best Life Jackets for Dogs
If your dog sails, canoes, or rafts with you, he ought to wear a PFD.
[Updated March 4, 2016]
When someone first mentioned doggie life jackets to me, I’ll admit, I giggled. Dogs can swim just fine, for goodness sake.
But then I started thinking about it. Actually, I’ve known some awful canine swimmers. F.B., my sister’s Hound-mix, was one of those dogs. When I was a teenager, I used to take F.B. and my dog (F.B.’s son) to the Yuba River. She liked going with us, and she waded in willingly, but we had to swim alongside her and push and pull her across the river, or she’d bob in place, kind of like a cork. She wouldn’t sink, exactly, but she never quite figured out how to go anywhere, either.
Then there was Bhakti, a genial Lab-mix belonging to a friend. No matter how much he swam, Bhakti looked like he was trying to climb out of the water. He kept his eyes squinted almost shut as a defense from the splashing his front paws made.
A life jacket, or “personal flotation device” (PFD) as the products are more accurately described today, would have undoubtedly helped F.B. and Bhakti. But poor swimmers are a rarity in the canine world. There are far more great swimmers who should be wearing lifejackets, too.
Any dog who accompanies humans on a water craft would benefit from a canine PFD. Dogs on sail boats, fishing boats, ski or race boats, and even canoes and whitewater rafts absolutely should have a life jacket on, for the same reason that even people who know how to swim should be wearing one – namely, that the conditions that caused the dog (or person) to fall into the water may also impair his swimming ability, or prevent his boating companions from getting him out of the water.
Accidents happen! And when a boat turns over, a dog can get hit on the head, injured by the boat, swept downstream, or knocked into rocks. If he’s wearing a life jacket, he’ll be kept floating long enough for someone to rescue him, even if he lost consciousness or the ability to swim.
Also, in the case of serious water accidents, any able person will surely be preoccupied with first rescuing the other human victims. A canine PFD gives a dog his best chance of surviving any maritime disaster.
What We Looked For
We rounded up every PFD for dogs we could find, including one that it was painful to spend money on, given its obvious inadequacies. We selected jackets in the “medium” size range, intending to use the same two 55-pound dogs to test each product. (Note: Tiny dogs – a group that might have greatest need of help in the water – are terrifically underserved by this product category.)
Our test dogs for this venture weigh the same amount, but are built quite differently. Paws, a Yellow Lab, is tall and lean, but with a deep chest. Jessie, a “shelter-mix,” is short and stocky, with a shorter body than Paws.
We were looking for products that were easy to put on even wet, wiggly dogs, and quick and easy to adjust for a secure fit. As the dogs walked around in the jackets, we also began to appreciate the designs that permitted easy and free movement, and were comfortable for the dogs whether they were swimming, running, sitting, or lying down.
As is often the case when buying specialty products, we were not terribly concerned about the price of the jackets. We figure, if a person needs one for her dog, she needs a good one, and will be willing to pay for a product that works long and well.
We tested each jacket on two dogs, necessitating several adjustments to fit. Paws was the only swim-tester, but he did his job thoroughly, jumping into a lake and swimming extensively with each jacket. All of the products but one helped hold him higher in the water than he was when swimming naked. He quickly learned that he could just relax and float in place when wearing a PFD!
RuffWear’s K-9 Float Coat was one of our top two selections. An exceedingly well-made product, it was also easy to put on the dogs quickly, and easy to adjust. A three-inch by two-inch tab of Velcro on the buoyant chest strap holds the jacket in place while you clip the plastic buckles together – one across the dog’s front and two around the girth.
At first, we were concerned for the dogs’ comfort when lying down, since the plastic buckles on the girth straps fasten underneath the dog. However, the flaps that go under the dog are padded, so even if he’s lying on a lumpy buckle, it shouldn’t bother him; it didn’t seem to bother our dogs.
All the lifejackets we tested had handles on the back for lifting the dog out of the water if need be. The handle on the K-9 Float Coat was easy to grab and lift the dog with, and positioned far enough forward that when we lifted the dog out of the water, he didn’t tip nose-down. A plastic d-ring is sewn under the handle for attaching a dog’s leash.
The handle on our other top selection, Outward Hound’s Pet Saver Lifejacket, is positioned slightly too far back on the coat. When you lift the dog out of the water, his nose tips downward and, if he’s anything like our test Lab, he’ll start to struggle. The leash d-ring on this coat is easier to clip a leash onto, however.
As with all our recommended PFDs, the chest strap on the Pet Saver is filled with buoyant material, to help keep the dog’s chin out of the water. This strap also has Velcro and buckle fasteners on the chest strap.
The section of the jacket that wraps underneath the dog also has a wide swath of Velcro, which not only helps keep the coat in place while you are adjusting the straps, but also helps keep the coat fitting snugly while the dog is in the water. One of our “not recommended” products had a similar design but lacked the Velcro, making the coat float off the dog in the water.
A final nice touch: two thin strips of reflective material along the back of the coat would make it much easier to find the dog if you were conducting a night rescue.
We found this jacket in numerous retail and online pet supply stores, for a very low price in some places ($10 - $20 at www.petguys.com).
As its name suggests, Northwest River Supplies specializes in river rafting and kayaking equipment, so we had high hopes for its “CFD” (canine flotation device). Some of its features were clearly inspired by human PFD technology. The coat had a handy zippered pocket on the back, large enough to hold a dog’s leash or some other small amount of supplies. Reflective tape on the straps would assist rescuers at night. And each of the plastic buckles has a “keeper” strap sewn in such a way as to prevent accidental release of the buckles.
Unfortunately, that keeper strap also makes it somewhat difficult to unfasten the buckles when you want to. On a person’s PFD, this might be a great safety feature; on the dog’s jacket, it makes things harder.
We found the handle to be a bit small, and harder to grasp when lifting the dog out of the water. Also, this jacket has no buoyancy material under the dog at all; only the straps pass underneath. Our test dogs seemed to appreciate the fact that this jacket was easier to walk, sit, and lie down in, but it doesn’t seem to provide quite as much flotation as our top picks.
On the plus side, the leash ring is quite large and easy to clip onto. Also, NRS includes a figure for the amount of flotation that is provided by each size of its jacket, something that we don’t quite get, but expect experienced boaters to appreciate.
It’s clear that a lot of thought went into creating the Fido Float, and its designers chose to do pretty much everything different from other products in this category. We appreciated some of its innovations, but had other nits to pick.
The good news: This jacket provides lots of under-the-neck flotation, without interfering with the dog’s movement on land or in the water. Also, the part that goes under the dog is a strong net-like material, so the dog can lie down comfortably, without pads underneath him. Handles are positioned at the dog’s nape and near his tail, for easy removal from the water.
What we didn’t like: Having to put the dog’s paws through the jacket’s armholes, and then zip it up the dog’s back. It was much harder to get the dogs to cooperate with this design. Once on, however, it was easy to adjust the fit. Speaking of fit, these jackets are all very long. This would be problematic for short-bodied dogs.
Lotus Designs is another maker of whitewater rafting equipment, but its handsome Critter PFD was a disappointment. An elastic loop is supposed to hold the jacket’s belly band in place, but this came loose within moments of swimming. Thanks to the straps, the jacket stayed on, but with the belly band floating alongside the dog – not how it’s meant to work.
The Fido Pet Safety Vest is altogether mystifying. A minimal design provides almost no flotation, none under the dog’s chin, and not even a single strap across the front of the dog’s chest to keep it in place. Since the hind ends of dogs naturally sink lower in the water than their front ends, the vest stayed in place in the water . . . but slipped toward the dog’s rear end every time he got out of the water and walked around. In other words, a waste of money, with no safety to offer.