As we ride out the dog days of summer, many of us are enjoying water-based activities with our dogs. Whether at the shore, in the family pool, or on a boat, kayak, or paddleboard, it’s important to ensure your dog’s safety with a good-quality, well-fitted personal flotation device (PFD) for your dog.
Even though most dogs instinctively “dog paddle” when they find themselves in water, that alone won’t always keep them safe when away from dry land. Some dogs dislike water and are prone to panicking. Dogs with significant muscle mass or very little body fat are less buoyant and must work harder to stay afloat, as do older dogs who tire easily, or arthritic dogs. Some dogs are just poor swimmers, bobbing vertically in the water, splashing so much with their front paws that they can’t see where they’re going.
Even athletic, accomplished swimmers can struggle in the water when fatigue sets in after a full day of water play. What about in the case of a watercraft accident, where the dog might be injured or rescue is delayed?
In each of these examples, a well-fitting dog life jacket can potentially mean the difference between a day filled with happy memories or a day that ends in tragedy.
ATTRIBUTES OF A GOOD CANINE LIFE JACKET
A life jacket should be bright, making it easy to see, and should have a snug fit. If it’s too loose, it can entangle the dog or come off, or it will float above the dog while the dog bobs along in the water. If it’s too tight, it can chafe and become uncomfortable, making it unlikely the dog will enjoy wearing it. A properly fitting life jacket should not restrict the dog’s movement in or out of the water.
Just as with flotation devices for children, there are dozens of low-quality canine flotation devices on the market. From our past reviews and experience, we are aware that a life jacket should be well constructed with sturdy materials and an adequate amount of buoyant material inside. When gathering products to review, we rejected dozens of products that appeared to be made with narrow straps, flimsy buckles, shoddy or inadequate stitching, uncomfortable-looking design, and/or minimal amounts of buoyant material.
That initial cut left us with six products with dog-friendly designs and good-quality workmanship and materials. We put them to the test with the help of two water-loving retrievers: Saber, a 55-pound, 9-year-old Golden; and Finley, a 58-pound, 1-year-old Labrador.
One canine life jacket rose to the top as our all-around pick based on its impressive buoyancy, overall design, and affordable price: EzyDog’s DFD.
The body of the DFD is comprised of the thickest internal foam of any of the jackets in our test, measuring ¾ inches thick compared to the ½-inch thickness of the other jackets we reviewed. The fit of the jacket reminded us of a turtle shell; its thickness gives it an overall higher profile than most of the other models we tested.
The DFD jacket is secured at the chest with a quick-release buckle and along the dog’s body via two additional wide straps and heavy-duty, quick-release buckles. The straps slide through nylon loops along the side of the jacket, which keeps them from sliding out of place.
We especially appreciate how the body straps expand into 3-inch-wide neoprene strips that pass under the dog. The width and placement of these strips help keep the jacket securely in place. This prevents chafing, and we imagine the soft, wider straps are far more comfortable for the dog when being lifted in the jacket than the narrower nylon straps found in the other products.
Our one criticism of this jacket is minor: The handle on top of the size medium jacket is only 4½ inches long, potentially making it difficult for those with larger hands to get a deep grip when lifting a dog out of the water (especially if the smaller sized jackets have even smaller handles).
Saber appeared to ride higher in the water than usual as he swam in this jacket. He also sprang to the surface very quickly after leaping off the dock into the lake, and was happy to run around wearing the jacket.
The added thickness of this jacket gives it the potential to be warm, especially on a dry dog in the sun. Fortunately, the DFD comes in both red and yellow. The bright yellow should reflect a bit more heat than the darker red color; it might be the better choice to help keep the dog safe and comfortable on hot days.
When it comes to serious open-water activities, Bay Dog’s Monterey Bay Offshore Canine Life Jacket is in a class of its own for its unique design, maximum flotation, and ability to keep a dog upright in rough water. Like many of the canine life jackets we tested, the Bay Dog’s internal foam layer measures approximately ½-inch thick over much of the jacket. But it also offers added buoyancy with two 1½-inch-thick foam pontoon rails along the top of the jacket – and a 1-inch-thick pentagon of foam at the dog’s chest. Our test dog, Saber, practically walked on water with this life jacket!
The Offshore Canine Life Jacket slips over the dog’s head with an adjustable, telescoping neck hole. The belly section and top section get connected by a 3-inch x 5½-inch strip of hook-and-loop fastener and are further secured with two sturdy quick-release buckles. It took some work to perfect the fit and properly secure the various adjustment points, and we were grateful for Saber’s willingness to stand patiently as we tinkered with the jacket; this would be challenging on a wiggly dog. Once it was well adjusted, however, the fit was terrific.
Saber reminded us of a pontoon boat as he wore the Offshore jacket, and with good reason. The placement of the pontoon rails keeps the wearer upright in rough water, making it our top pick for boaters, where an accidental dog overboard or other incident would be especially dangerous.
We particularly like how the Offshore jacket features two reinforced perpendicular handles along the back by which the dog can be lifted out of the water.
The jacket is sturdy and appears well-made, and while we think it may be overkill for daily and weekend water adventures, the effect of the stabilizing pontoons could prove useful in teaching a reluctant swimmer to find their sea legs – or, of course, actually saving a sea dog’s life.
If they were for humans, the remaining four products in our test pool (no pun intended!) would likely be rated as “flotation aids” versus “life jackets.” They are less bulky than our top picks, and best used in calm water where quick rescue is expected.
They are also so similar that we struggled to offer a competitive ranking. (They’re all good jackets, Brent!) Each offers about the same thickness of internal foam; it was difficult to observe any increase in Saber or Finley’s in-water body elevation, as they are both hard-charging, accomplished swimmers. (Again, here’s where a scientific test of the amount of flotation provided by the jackets would be beneficial.)
It was a struggle, but for basic assistive support for novice swimmers or additional safety for accomplished swimmers, we gave a slight edge – a half-paw advantage – to two of the four remaining products that we’d recommend.
3 1/2-PAW SELECTIONS
EzyDog, the manufacturer of our top overall pick, makes another appearance with the DFD X2 Boost Canine Life Jacket. The DFD has an overall thickness of approximately ¼ inch. The jacket slips over the dog’s head and fits close to the body, connecting with two straps and quick-release buckles under the belly.
Unique to this jacket is how the chest fit is adjusted via a buckle on the back of the dog’s neck. This arrangement made that aspect of the jacket much easier to adjust (you pull up rather than to the side). It also makes for a much wider opening as the jacket goes over the head, making it a good choice for head-shy dogs who are learning to be comfortable with gear being passed over their heads.
We also like that fitting instructions, including a diagram, are printed directly on the inside of the jacket, offering a reminder of how the jacket should fit each time it is used.
The rescue handle is thick, sturdy, and roomy enough to accommodate hands of all sizes. The top of the jacket features a high-strength alloy D-ring, and reflective piping for added visibility (a necessity for nighttime water rescues).
Our other 3½-paw rating goes to Ruffwear’s Float Coat, which features a telescoping chest piece and belly panels secured by two quick-release buckles.
Ruffwear recently redesigned the Float Coat, and, in addition to being very different aesthetically, the belly panels on the current Float Coat are about one inch shorter than on the original model, to which we gave top honors in a 2016 review. As a result, the belly panels didn’t quite meet or overlap, leaving about an inch of Saber’s belly exposed and subject to direct contact by the nylon straps.
With this development, I’d be a little concerned about chafing from the straps, or that they’d dig into his body if I needed to lift him out of the water by the handle. His girth measurement is at the top of the suggested range for the medium jacket, but the website recommends sizing down when between sizes. It’s possible this just isn’t the best-fitting jacket for Saber’s body type.
The telescoping nature of the chest piece makes it less bulky than models where the chest pieces overlap and are secured with hook-and-loop fasteners and a buckle, but this also makes for a closer fit as the jacket goes over the dog’s head.
The Float Coat’s handle is sturdy, and the top of the vest has a plastic attachment for the leash and an attachment point for The Beacon, Ruffwear’s watertight LED light (sold separately).
The current Float Coat appears to be made from a finer-weave material, making it more flexible than its previous incarnation. Instead of reflective piping, it now features a same-color reflective screen print to improve visibility in low light.
Consumer comments on a Ruffwear-related Facebook page reveal mixed opinions about the new design, with many people commenting about the shorter belly panels and some suggesting they don’t think the current model is as buoyant as the original.
Kurgo’s Surf N Turf Coat is similar in overall shape to the Ruffwear Float Coat and EzyDog DFD X2 Boost, but there are many differences between the two products.
The top of the jacket features two sturdy handles, sewn at right angles, potentially making it easier to hoist the dog out of the water from any angle. There’s a metal ring for attaching a leash, and a second, concealed attachment point that doubles as a bottle opener – a fun touch, especially if you’ve trained your dog to fetch beverages from the cooler!
The Surf N Turf Coat is secured by two straps with quick-release buckles under the dog’s belly; the adjustable front piece overlaps at the dog’s chest, where it’s secured with hook-and-loop fastener and a buckle. The fact that the chest piece overlaps, rather than telescopes, allows for maximum variability in size, potentially making the Surf N Turf a superior choice for broad-chested breeds.
It seems the belly panels on the Surf N Turf are not designed to meet or overlap, as the size medium, recommended for dogs with a chest measurement of 24 to 32 inches, left a gap of about three inches on Saber (his chest measures 29 inches). Once again, we’d worry about the potential for discomfort with that much strap in contact with his skin.
This jacket is longer than our top two picks, potentially adding additional support in the water, and making it worth an extra look for dogs with longer backs.
Kurgo markets the Surf N Turf as a both a life jacket and a simple shell coat; a zipper along the base of the jacket allows removal of the inner flotation layer.
We were initially unsure of this feature, thinking maybe it was the product trying to be too many things at once, but ultimately decided it does potentially give consumers more opportunity to use the jacket, and, given that dog life jackets aren’t cheap, maybe that’s a good thing? Also notable is Kurgo’s lifetime guarantee, protecting purchases for life against manufacturing defects.
The Kong Sport AquaPro is similar in overall design to its higher-rated competitors. The jacket is secured at the chest with hook-and-loop fastener and a quick-release buckle, with two straps that pass under the dog’s belly. Here, too, the belly panels failed to meet or overlap, leaving part of Saber’s belly exposed directly to the nylon straps.
The Sport AquaPro looks and feels slightly less sturdy than the other jackets we tried, though it’s much improved over the similar Kong Sport Aqua Float, which we tested in 2016. It was difficult to notice any difference in Saber’s in-water appearance, but the jacket feels flimsy in comparison, making it difficult to rank higher.
One feature we appreciate – and wish other manufacturers would emulate – is the elastic band used for excess strap management. Tucking the “tails” of the excess strap length under a band of elastic is much easier than rolling them up and securing the roll with hook-and-loop fasteners, as is common on some of the other jackets we tested.
WDJ’S TOP PICKS IN CANINE LIFE JACKETS
|WDJ Rating||Product Name/Maker Information||Price||Sizes||Comments|
|4 out 4 Paws||EZY dog DFD|
EzyDog LLC, Ponderay, ID
|$55 to $67 from Amazon||5 sizes. Smallest (XS) fits a dog with a 19- to 32-inch girth; largest (XL) fits a dog with a 30- to 48-inch girth.||Two colors (red or yellow). Top honors for buoyancy, comfort-minded features, and affordability. Very thick buoyancy foam used in this jacket. Under-body straps are especially wide for comfort. Small complaint: handle (for extracting dog from water) is on the small side.|
|4 out of 4 paws||Montery Bay Offshore Dog Life Jacket|
Bay Dog, Annapolis, MD
|$65 to $75 from West Marine||5 sizes. Smallest (X Small) fits a dog with a 7- to 10-inch neck and a 12- to 16-inch girth; largest (X Large) fits a dog with a 21- to 27-inch neck and a 34- to 46-inch girth.||Two colors (orange or yellow). Our pick for maximum safety in open water; excellent choice for boaters or in situations where rescue might be delayed. Jacket contains unique pentagon of buoyant foam in the chest section and two more “pontoons” of foam along the sides for a high ride in the water; this would be especially helpful for a dog negotiating waves in an ocean environment.|
|3.5 out of 4 Paws||EZY dog DFD X2 Boost|
EzyDog LLC, Ponderay, ID
|$79 from Amazon||5 sizes. Smallest (XS) fits a dog with a 18- to 21.5-inch girth; largest (XL) fits a dog with a 34- to 41-inch girth.||Two colors (red or yellow). Innovative adjustment point at the back of the dog’s neck helps ensure a proper fit. (The fit on this jacket was especially good with our deep-chested, small-waisted test dogs.)|
|3.5 out of 4 Paws||Float coat dog Life Jacket|
Ruffwear, Bend, OR
|$90 from Amazon||6 sizes. Smallest (X-Small) fits a dog with a 13- to 17-inch girth; largest (XL) fits a dog with a 36- to 42-inch girth.||Three colors (blue, red, orange). A recent redesign has been met with mixed reviews from users of the previous design, but our test dogs found it to be flexible and comfortable. We’d prefer wider straps under the dog (if another redesign happens).|
|3 out of 4 Paws||Surf N Turf Coat|
Kurgo, Knoxville, TN
|$46 to $70 from Amazon||5 sizes. Smallest (X-Small) fits a dog with a 9- to 13-inch neck and a 14- to 20-inch girth; largest (X Large) fits a dog with a 28- to 36-inch neck and a 28- to 44-inch girth.||One color (red). Versatile design; converts from a life jacket to a lightweight shell coat when the swimming season is over; nice! Shorter belly flaps potentially expose dog’s undercarriage to nylon straps.|
|3 out of 4 Paws||Kong Sport AquaPro|
(The Kong name seems to have been licensed for this product; jacket not sold by Kong Company.)
|$60 to $80 from West Marine||5 sizes. Smallest (XS) fits a dog with a 16- to 20-inch girth; largest (XL) fits a dog with a 33- to 41-inch girth.||One color (green/gray). Similar in concept to others in our test, but feels less durable overall. As with the Ruffwear and Kurgo designs, the side flaps don’t meet under the dog, so the narrowness of the under-belly straps gives us pause.|