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After a long winter and wet spring spent cooped up indoors, you aren’t the only one in your household feeling more than a touch of cabin fever. At my house, I don’t have just a toddler clamoring to get outside, but also two dogs who love nothing more than lying in sunny spots soaking up the rays.
Where I live, we are surrounded by water, so being outside often means being at a lakeside beach, heading out in a kayak, or taking a boat out into open waters. And while we aren’t the sportiest family, our summer adventures often include boating, camping trips, and long hikes along rivers and around mountain lakes.
Of course, our dogs often come with us. So I wondered about whether or not we needed to be strapping them into life jackets. After doing some research, I discovered I should be protecting them with good doggy life jackets and bought two immediately. Here’s why and also a list of the very best dog life jackets I found.
Why Should I Use a Dog Life Jacket?
The simplest answer to why you should use a dog life jacket is because it’s your job as a dog owner to keep your dog safe. Every parent knows that the only way to keep their children protected when boating or swimming in open water is to stick a life jacket on, no matter how strong of swimmers they might be and no matter how much they dislike it. As dog owners, we have that same responsibility to keep our dogs safe just in case of a worst-case scenario.
Furthermore, even if your dog is a great swimmer, wearing a life jacket can help make your dog more readily visible in case you’re separated on the water. In cold water or water with strong currents, even a few seconds can make a big difference in guaranteeing your dog’s safety.
There are also some dogs who just aren’t built to be swimmers. Dogs who have naturally low body fat, for example, like a Whippet or Greyhound can have a lot of difficulty staying buoyant and keeping warm in cooler water. Older dogs or out-of-shape pooches might lack the stamina they need to keep doggy paddling. Or short-legged dogs might use up all of their energy because they need to paddle more to keep themselves afloat.
When Do I Need a Dog Life Vest or a Dog Life Jacket?
Some dogs might only need a life jacket when they’re on a boat while for others it might be a good idea to wear one when they’re even just walking along the shore of a lake. Others still might need to wear one to swim in a pool.
A good rule of thumb is to assess the swimming skills of your dog and size up what the worst-case scenario might be in any situation. If it’s something you could handle easily on your own, perhaps your dog would be alright without safety gear.
However, if there’s a chance that you’d be unable to respond to an emergency quickly and effectively, you might want to err on the side of caution and keep your dog safe with a life jacket.
If you’re boating, it’s a good idea for all dogs (and humans, for that matter!) to wear a life jacket at all times. 80% of human boating fatalities are caused by drowning, and in 83% of those cases, the victim wasn’t wearing a life jacket. Though this statistic related to humans, we can reasonably infer it holds true for dogs because most of those people knew how to swim. With boating accidents, there are other dangerous factors like hypothermia, fatigue, injuries, or strong currents to contend with.
Conversely, if you’re swimming in a shallow pool and could without a doubt save your dog if she suddenly found herself in trouble, you can probably forgo the dog life vest.
Even if My Dog is a Strong Swimmer?
First, a quick reminder that, despite conventional wisdom, not all dogs naturally know how to swim. But even with dogs who were bred to love water, like Labrador retrievers or Portuguese water dogs, accidents happen, so even they can benefit from the extra protection they get from wearing a dog life vest.
If a dog falls overboard or a canoe suddenly capsizes, the panic of the moment, as well as undertows, currents, waves, or frigid temperatures can quickly overwhelm even the strongest swimmers. If the dog was injured in the fall or there are large waves to contend with, it’s easy to see why relying on a dog’s own swimming skills might not be enough.
Additionally, even the best swimmers can suffer from fatigue in open water. A buoyant life jacket can help keep a dog’s head up above the water in emergencies, but can also allow a dog to use less energy while playing and swimming, extending the amount of time you can both have fun in the sun.
How Should a Dog Life Vest or Jacket Fit?
Having a dog life jacket is the first step, but if it doesn’t fit well, it might not do much good. In order to ensure that your dog’s life vest fits correctly, you’ll need to start with accurate measurements.
First, weigh your dog to make sure that she is within the weight ratings of a given size and brand of life jacket. Secondly, measure your dog’s length from the neck all the way back to the base of the tail. Finally, measure your dog’s girth around the widest part of the neck and the widest part of the chest.
When ordering your dog’s life jacket, make certain that your dog’s measurements stay comfortably within the manufacturer’s recommendations.
When your life jacket arrives, follow these steps to get started.
- Unclip and loosen all buckles and straps
- Put the life jacket in place
- Connect the neck clip
- Tighten it until it’s snug, but still allows your dog some room to move around
Connect, adjust, and tighten chest straps until snug. The chest straps do more of the work holding the life jacket in place, so just be sure your dog is comfortable and can easily breathe.
Before using the life jacket in the water, have your dog run around a bit and check to see if your life jacket stays in place and that your dog seems comfortable and happy.
Must-Have Dog Life Jacket Features
Most dog life jackets look pretty similar, so choosing one can feel a bit overwhelming. Here are a few features that you’ll want to look for when you’re browsing for the best dog life vest options.
- The first thing you’ll notice when looking for dog life jackets is that they come in a plethora of colors and patterns. Choose one in a bright color that will help keep your dog as visible as possible.
- A durable top handle will help you to grab onto and lift your dog out of the water or even just when loading and unloading from a boat.
- Look for a D-ring or leash attachment, this will allow you more flexibility when using the vest out of the water and can help give you another place to connect to if your dog does get into trouble in the water.
- Reflective strips can also increase the visibility factor for your dog, especially if you’re swimming at dawn, dusk, or nighttime.
- Especially if your dog isn’t a strong swimmer, is a brachycephalic breed (i.e. short snout), or tires easily, you’ll want to look for a life vest with an attachable front flotation pad that can help keep your dog’s head out of the water, even if she’s otherwise incapacitated.
- Finally, look for dog life jackets that have extra flotation material around the sides and middle to ensure as much extra buoyancy as possible.
Best Dog Life Jackets of 2019
To figure out what the best dog life vest options are, I checked out a ton of brands for both the must-have features and for actual user experiences and reviews. Here are the best of the best:
With plenty of thick padding and extra buoyancy materials around the belly and chest, the Hurtta Life Savior PFD Life Jacket is made for sporty use and durability. We also like the bright color options—yellow, orange, and purple—as well as the super thick top handle and extra stitching around the straps. With the higher price point, this is a good option for anyone hoping to get a lot of use and longevity out of their dog life jacket.
Available sizes: 0-160 lbs.
Helpful Review: The fit is fantastic. Conforming, but not restrictive. My dog hates wearing anything but doesn’t run when I pull this out. My dog isn’t large, so I didn’t think the handle would be of use, but it’s brilliant for lifting him into and out of a kayak or the water, etc… Much simpler for you and your dog, and also well balanced.”Buy Now on Amazon for $85.00
For a more economical option, our choice is the Outward Hound Granby Dog Life Jacket. It features a double top handle that can make hauling up a heavier or extraordinarily feisty dog a fair amount easier. Extra fabric for comfort around the belly and four bright colors—including one with a really cute fish design—round out this choice.
The one thing it’s missing is a D-ring, but for this price, it could be a good choice for anyone who will only get occasional use out of a life jacket.
Available sizes: XS-XL
Helpful Review: There are three fairly standard buckles, which you can actually see in the product photo. You adjust the straps to fit and the male part of the buckle clips into the female part. You squeeze the two “springy” sides of the male part to release. You can put the life jacket on the dog while still leashed, an important feature when getting ready to go onto the water from a boat launch or other public area.”Buy Now on Amazon for $21.28
The first thing that drew our attention to this EzyDog life vest was the style—this jacket just looks good. But it also has the elements we’re looking for in solidly made jacket.
Featuring a D-ring to clip on a leash and 50% more flotation materials than other jackets, as well as plenty of reflective stripping to really increase a pup’s visibility in the water, this is a good choice for an all-around solid life jacket. The con of this jacket, however, is that it’s only available in two colors and doesn’t have an XL size available for the bigger dogs.
Available sizes: XS-L
Helpful Review: My German shepherd and I just moved to the lake in North Carolina. I purchased an EzyDog life vest for her. I was careful to understand the sizing and it fits her perfect. There are several areas in the straps where adjustments can be made and she’s comfortable in it. She’s getting used to the lake but in the meantime, she fell into the water from the pier with her vest on and although she kind of panicked, the vest did its job. She dog-paddled to the pier steps and all was fine.
There are a lot of vests to choose from online but I’d recommend EzyDog to anyone.”
This life jacket option is a bit lighter and has less bulk, but still retains some of our favorite features like a D-ring for leash attachment, durable lift handles, and a comfortable fit for your dog.
Many of the reviewers swear that this PlayaPup jacket offers superb durability and we love the fun colors it comes in and the sizing options that will even work for a Great Dane.
Available Sizes: XX-Small-XX-Large
Helpful Review: “I’ve tried six, yes six, different dog life jackets. Nothing seems to withstand my pity’s rough playing. This life jacket is by far the best out of all the ones I’ve tried so far. The neoprene dries quickly and is much less stiff than most life jackets. The floaty foam is thin and flexible but all around, not in big stiff blocks like some jackets. The stiff jackets are fine if your dog is sitting on a boat, but mine is running around like the Tasmanian devil with all her friends playing tug of war and fetch (in and out of the water) constantly…This life jacket is very high quality and I recommend it to everyone. … I honestly think that this is the best jacket on the market.”Buy Now on Amazon for $30
This styling life jacket by Outward Hound is a great choice if your dog is just learning to swim or just doesn’t get into the water very often. With extra insulation to keep your dog warm, dual-grab top handle for more mobility when moving your dog, and extra-thick side foam panels to increase the buoyancy, this is a good choice for novice swimmers.
We wish they’d add a D-ring and offer more colors, but this is a good overall value.
Available Sizes: XS-XL
Helpful Review: “This neoprene version works great. We have an 80-pound black lab and the sizing says large goes up to 85 and so the sizing was perfect as well. Our dog loves the water but he has a lot of muscle and so sometimes although probably not, in reality, he appears to have trouble swimming … and I worried that he would choke or something would happen as he loves to fetch anything and everything in the water, this completely resolved that … by far the best product that I have used in the dog flotation category.”Buy Now on Amazon for $17.36
The two things we love best about this life jacket are the funky fabric options—although we’d still recommend a bright color for visibility—and the versatility in fit. It features extra fabric below the belly straps for comfort, a leash clip, and extra padding in the front to support the head.
Though it has a top handle, it’s a bit thinner and might not be a durable choice for picking up heavy dogs.
Available Sizes: XS-XL
Helpful Review: “My dog is a Doberman so he has a thick chest and a pretty small waist. This makes it hard to find life jackets that will fit him well. This jacket is good because it allows for a small waist and large chest with the adjustments available in the fit, not perfectly but pretty well. I also like that it is neoprene and the color scheme looks good and is easy to spot from a bit of a distance. My dog was a horrible swimmer at first, and this really helped keep him afloat and build his confidence. Now I like that it helps him when he becomes tired, and makes me feel much better about his safety.”Buy Now on Amazon for $21.98
Let me start by saying the shark fin styling on this dog life jacket is CUTE! Like, so cute. BUT this life vest is only available in two sizes, so big dog and toy dog owners, this jacket is not for you.
The Sea Squirts life vest has most of the features we’re looking for: D-ring, comfy clips, and durable straps. We wish this jacket offered a front flotation pad for little swimmers, though.
Available Sizes: Small, Medium
Helpful Review: “Bought this for my Boston Terrier, I’m in the process of teaching her to enjoy water and learning to kayak/paddle board with me. She doesn’t love it but doesn’t mind either, UNLESS I put her in the deeper water. That scares her, but this vest is amazing! She’s 19 lbs and it keeps her afloat wonderfully. Plus its absolutely adorable, everyone loves my little shark!”Buy Now on Amazon for $26.99
- How to Teach Your Dog to Swim
- When Is it Too Cold for my Dog to Go Swimming?
- Boat Safety with Dogs: Everything You Need to Know