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Life Jackets For Dogs

The last thing we want is for Fido to fall overboard, creating panic onboard, and a potential safety nightmare. Fitting him for a life jacket is easy — really! — if you follow a few simple tips.

Stella in a life jacket

Stella models the Kurgo Surf N'Turf life jacket.

"Some of the most important safety items on any boat are the life jackets — for you, your passengers, and of course your "best friend." Since our last report on this topic 12 years ago, the canine life jacket market has taken off by leaps and hounds. Back in 2000, we came up with four viable canine life jacket models. This time, we were easily able to double the number of jackets tested. West Marine has many in regular stock, and so do some of the big-box stores.

While it might seem as if all dogs have an innate ability to swim, many dogs simply don't take well to water. Dogs with low body fat, such as Greyhounds, or dogs with age or health issues may have trouble. Jackets are a good idea even for dogs that love the water. A long day in the water can get tiring, even for the best swimmers — a fact that was proven on our day of testing.

Most of our test jackets came in a variety of sizes, so we were able to try them out on a variety of dogs — from a 12-pound rat terrier, to a 130-pound Newfoundland, and six other dogs in between. There are also different types of foam and construction materials in use today, as well as an inflatable model. With prices ranging from about $20 to more than $100, there's a vibrant dog-PFD market, and a jacket for every budget.

Dog Life Jackets Advice for a Friend

Some Things To Consider Before Purchasing

Is the dog likely to jump in the water? Is the dog heavy? Will the dog want to lie down, or will it be active? If you can, take your dog to the store to try on the jacket, or at least make sure you can take it back. See how the jacket fits, and how hard it is to adjust for a good fit. Check where the straps hit — you don't want the straps or buckles rubbing sensitive parts. Also, you'll want to check the way the foam padding rides on the dog — too much foam in the wrong place will make it uncomfortable, if not impossible, for the dog to sit or lie comfortably.

One feature that testers found universally important: a lifting strap/handle. If you've ever tried to pick up a swimming dog, you'll agree that having a lifting handle makes getting the dog back into the boat much easier. If your pet needs to be on a leash, having a ring on the collar is another important feature. Safety features to consider include having reflective tape and a jacket made of bright colors to make it easier to spot the dog in the water in adverse conditions. And keep in mind, if the jacket has Velcro-style closures, your dog's shedding might clog it up, and necessitate frequent cleaning.

Small dog with life jacket

Spring, the rat terrier, models his elaborate life jacket.

Small Dogs

Our small dogs, a 12-pound rat terrier (Spring), and a 20-pound Jack Russell (Skipper), neither of which are "water" dogs, had decidedly negative outlooks on taking a plunge. Because they were small, active dogs, there was less wiggle room for a poorly fitting jacket. Everything from strap and buckle location to amount and placement of the foam had to be just right for the dog to be comfortable. The jacket that best suited both dogs was the West Marine neoprene jacket, which just edged out the Outward Hound. The West Marine jacket is a good value as well, coming in at a price of $34.99.

Medium Dogs

Our medium dogs, a 36-pound border collie (Zip), and a 40-pound golden retriever pup (Stella), seemed to be much more willing to take a swim than our small dogs — not much of a surprise, especially for Stella. There's a substantial size difference between a small and medium jacket, and the fitting was easier for Stella and Zip than it was for Skipper and Spring. The jacket that best suited both dogs was the Outward Hound priced at $29.99, which just edged out a foam jacket from West Marine called the Pet Flotation Device, or cleverly called the "PFD."

Outward Hound life jacket

Here's Jackie, wearing an Outward Hound jacket.

Large Dogs

Our large dogs, a 62-pound golden (Jackie) and a 70-pound golden (Guinness), were more at home in the water than they were on the shore. The large jackets tested had a greater amount of surface area, which is one thing to keep in mind on a hot summer day, especially for our friends that sport a little more fur. The jacket that best suited our large dogs was the Outward Hound, because of overall performance for active dogs in the water. That was followed by the economical $24.99 West Marine Pet Flotation Device — the same results as for the medium-sized dogs.

 A closer shot of a black newfoundland dog smiling while standing in the water with a red lifejacket and the number 16 labeled on it.

Murphy, the extra-large Newfoundland, wearing a Krugo Surf N' Turf.

Extra-Large Dogs

Our biggest dogs, a 90-pound Chesapeake Bay retriever and a 130-pound Newfoundland, were very comfortable in the water. Jackets for these dogs seemed to be the most forgiving for getting a good fit. Adjustments, when needed, were made easily, and the price for the jackets averaged around $50. The jacket that best suited both dogs was the Outward Hound, just beating out the MTI Adventure Wear Underdog and the Kurgo Surf n' Turf, which were tied for second place. All three of these jackets did an exceptional job at keeping these heavy dogs' hind section afloat, leading to a more horizontal and natural swimming posture while in the water, which greatly reduced fatigue.

Top Choices

The jackets we tested performed differently based, in part, on the size of the dog, so we broke down our test results on jacket size, rather than brand. We rated on a 1-5 point scale, with 5 being the best score. The six scores for each jacket were then averaged for the final score. Jackets were rated on the following factors:

  • Ease of fit and adjustment
  • Comfort when worn dry
  • Adjustment needed when wet
  • Swimming characteristics and water performance (how well the jacket floated the dog or helped its ability to swim)
  • Observations from the dog's owner

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Chris Edmonston

President, BoatUS Foundation & VP Government Affairs, BoatUS

Chris Edmonston is president of the BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety & Clean Water, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, independently funded by donations from BoatUS Members and by grants.