How To Get Your Dog To Wear A Life Jacket

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Summer is in full swing, and with the hot weather comes swimming and boating – activities often mutually enjoyed by dogs and humans. Despite the swimming prowess of many canines, dogs can drown; it is estimated that thousands of dogs die in the water every year.

Dogs drown for many reasons. Some breeds, especially brachycephalics like Bulldogs and Boston Terriers, are physically maladapted to swimming. Many of them, even if they try to swim, simply sink like rocks to the bottom of a pool. Even competent canine swimmers tire quickly, and if they fall into a swimming pool unsupervised, may be unable to find the steps that allow them to climb out. In open waters dogs also tire quickly. A boating accident, or lack of human attentiveness, can put a dog at high risk for drowning.

Keep your dog safe in the water

Take the time to find out if your dog can swim. Maybe give him swimming lessons! Teach him how to locate and use a pool ramp to reduce his risk of drowning. To prevent accidental fall-in drowning tragedies, provide close adult supervision and/or a solid fence around the pool with no dog-access unless accompanied by a responsible human. Always have your dog wear a flotation device if he’s hanging out around the pool, actually playing in the wet stuff, or joining you on boat rides.

Canine life vests come in a variety of styles, ranging in price from $15 to as much as $80. Quality is important, so Google “dog, life jacket” and read all the information for the various brands before buying, rather than just opting for “cheap.” You don’t want buckles to fail when you are counting on the vest to save your dog’s life. Look for one with a sturdy handle on the back, so you can lift him out of the water when you need to save him!

dog life jacket
Photo: Ирина Мещерякова/Getty Images

How to get your dog to wear a life jacket

You’ve done your research, purchased the life jacket – now it’s time to toss it over your dog’s head and go for a test swim, right? Wait a minute… slow down!!

You want your dog to love his vest. Even if he’s a resilient soul who tolerates just about anything, take time to make sure he isn’t spooked by the bulky thing going over his head, with all the straps and buckles that have to be adjusted and snapped closed. Here’s how to ensure your dog loves his swimming gear:

1.     Fit the vest carefully before even approaching your dog. There will still be some adjustments needed, but minimize them.

2.     Show him the vest. While he’s looking at it, feed him a high-value treat. (Boiled or baked chicken is good!)

3.     Hide the vest, pause, then present it again, and feed chicken.

4.     Repeat several times until the appearance of the vest causes your dog to get happy and look for the chicken.

5.     Now (super-important!) hold up the vest by the handle with the straps unbuckled and invite him (with a treat) to walk under it. He’s choosing to put it on himself, rather than you putting it on him. If this part worries him, go slow – one step at a time – until he’s happy to have the vest resting on his back. (Or – leave the chest strap buckled and invite your dog to step forward and put his head through the opening. Do not just plop it over his head – be sure he volunteers to move through the opening.)

6.     Now take some time to pair the sound of the buckles with chicken, so he also thinks that “snap!” equals chicken!

7.     When he’s comfortable putting himself into the vest and hearing the “snap!” sound, you can buckle him in. Have someone feed high-value treats while you snap the buckles closed, or use Lickimats to keep him happily occupied with peanut butter, squeeze cheese or yogurt mashed into the grooves. (See Play With Your Food, April 2019). Alternatively, you can smear gooey foods on your refrigerator door or vinyl floor while you buckle.

8.     At first, keep the vest on for short periods – 10 to 15 seconds. Gradually increase the length of time he wears the vest, until it’s clear he isn’t bothered by it.

9.     Now you’re ready for the water! Again, take it slow. Even if your dog is an accomplished swimmer, it may feel strange to him to be more buoyant. Introduce him slowly to the water and convince him that swimming with a life jacket is fun.

This might seem like a lot of effort just to get your dog to wear a life vest. It will all be well worth it someday when it saves his life.

Top photograph: marekuliasz/Getty Images

Read Next: Swimming is Great Exercise for Dogs

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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.