We’re Trail Testers for @dogsthathike! We get a quarterly box of goodies to test out, and we report back with what’s great and what isn’t. We got this Outward Hound Orange Neoprene Life Vest last fall after the cool weather set in, and since then it was re-released as the Dawson Swim Life Jacket in bright red. After this review went live, Dogs That Hike and Outward Hound sent us the updated version to review the changes.
Price: The last-season orange model is selling for $23.99 – $35.99, while the new red color is priced $39.99 – $59.99.
Sizing and colors: XS (5-15lb) – XL (85-100lb) in red (new “Dawson” model) and orange (old).
We received the updated “Dawson” (red) version of this life jacket after this review was published. See the note at the bottom for our thoughts on the update!
Why does your dog even need a life jacket? Read all about that here, and also learn about the life jackets we’ve tried so far and how they stack up based on our reviewing criteria. We’ve tried quite a lineup and we were excited to try this Outward Hound model because I was pleasantly surprised by the Outward Hound bowl we reviewed recently! Outward Hound considers this their “sleek and sporty” model and it’s their only full-neoprene life jacket (and the only neoprene one we’ve tried, as well).
I’ll be real here. A life jacket, more so than almost all the other gear we might use, is a safety item. Design flaws that might just be inconvenient or ugly in other gear could actually compromise your dog’s safety in a life vest. If you don’t care about safety, then you don’t need a life vest for your dog – just toss him in the water and have at it.
The Outward Hound Neoprene life vest is not a safe vest, and that’s too bad because it’s actually pretty well made otherwise.
The good: The materials that went into this vest are solid for the price point. It features two “bubbles” of flotation foam on either side, encased in a squishy, flexible orange neoprene vest with reflectors (granted, oversized logo reflectors). The neoprene backs up the foam and improves the buoyancy somewhat without a lot of bulk. The vest has a generous, lightly padded grab handle that’s box-stitched on either end, decent quality, snappy side release buckles, good quality straps. The exposed stitching around the foam, while not perfect and not my favorite aesthetically, is tight and snag-free. While I initially thought the box-stitching on the strap attachment points looked a bit flimsy, when comparing to our other life jackets they’re not too different.
The bad: The belly support is abysmal. Our other life jackets (excluding discontinued Ruffwear) all feature a wide, integrated belly panel that wraps fully around the belly, secures with velcro, and is backed up by side-release buckles, usually with one full-circumference girth strap for total security. Outward Hound’s other models even have the same design. This vest instead features a small square of neoprene that floats under the belly based on the adjustment of four straps (two buckles on the left side, two sliders on the right). There’s nothing backing up either the buckles or the sliders, and the strap is a little thin for the plastic hardware, so it slips easily. It’s already designed to sit on the mid belly rather than the strongest point right behind the front legs, but worse, the flexible strap attachment points allow the panel to slip backward when the dog is lifted. On Robin, it cuts painfully into the lower rib/groin area. Even during swimming, a minimal belly panel is a concern because if the dog isn’t held snugly into the life vest, its buoyancy isn’t being put to full use since the dog is basically hanging in the straps.
The discomfort caused by the belly panel slippage is compounded by the lack of support in the life jacket’s spine during lifting. All the other life jackets we’ve tried were structured in the spine, so that the back portion of the life jacket stays straight and provides support. The Neoprene Life Vest is very flexible, so the back of the jacket goes concave during lifting, which puts extra strain on the handle attachment points, increases tension on the neck and the groin area, and reduces response time when the dog is lifted, since the jacket has to extend and stretch fully before the dog is actually lifted. The handle is also low-profile and designed to sit flush with the jacket, which makes it harder to snag if you need to snatch your dog out of the water away from a danger.
Finally, the already tiny chest/chin pad is forced to the side by the design of the front buckle. Most life jackets use thick wraparound foam panels that velcro and buckle together for extra padding and comfort in this area. That tiny pad is so small it does nothing to help with front flotation or protect the dog’s neck from the strap.
One point for decent materials, one for adequate flotation and half a point for a sturdy grab handle, but half a point lost for the lack of support in the spine and two full points lost for inadequate retainment system and poor belly panel design.
It’s hard to judge fit accurately, since I don’t think the life jacket works as intended for water activities, but just for moving around, the life jacket is very comfortable for Robin. He runs and jumps as normal, the minimal structure and flexible construction don’t impede him, and he doesn’t get fussy about wearing it.
However, Robin weighs 18lb and he’s wearing the S for 15-30lb. I do not think this size jacket would be suitable for a 30lb dog, either in flotation or size. Judging by the size of the belly panel, it would be more appropriate for 10-15lb dogs. When trying to sink it manually, it feels comparable in flotation to Robin’s 10-20lb Hurtta life jackets, which makes the weight rating extremely generous. If I did recommend purchasing the Outward Hound, I would say to go by fit and consider sizing up, but since I don’t believe it’s sufficient for basic safety, this point is pretty much moot.
On the beach, Robin did not want to actually swim in this jacket (though he swam naked, and he swam in his other one). For whatever reason, he just didn’t feel comfortable and was willing to let the waves claim his toy.
After seeing how the Neoprene Life Vest worked on the beach, I was not comfortable using it for paddleboarding the next morning. With the handle’s slow response time and the uncomfortable/dangerous position of the belly panel, I wasn’t confident that I could quickly and reliably hoist Robin back onto the board if he slipped off. Safety aside, paddleboarding is a new activity for us and one that I want to be as comfortable and fun for him as possible, so struggling with substandard gear was not an option. I was extremely glad I opted to bring along a better life jacket because he did actually slip off the board this trip, and I was able to immediately hoist him right back on before he even realized and reacted.
I’m disappointed in the shortcomings of the design, because the construction and materials are actually decent otherwise, and the neoprene despite its absorbency has one HUGE benefit that even our new favorite Hurtta life jacket falls short on – it does not hold sand at all, and shakes clean after a beach romp.
If this life vest had wraparound belly panels backed up by side release buckles (the industry standard, and one that Outward Hound appears to use on their five other life jacket styles), this jacket would be a good value at its discounted price, though the floppy spine would still be a concern. However, without functional belly support, and with an unreliable restraint system, this is solidly in the “don’t buy” category. For reference, while our favorite life jacket costs $75 and is clearly in a different class of design, we were also happy with our $26.99 – $34.99 Alcott Mariner life jacket for its safety, comfort and design features at that price point, so there’s no need to settle for an unsafe safety item.
Unfortunately, while the Outward Hound Neoprene Life Vest uses an interesting construction and material, I can’t get behind a safety product that is lacking in 2.5 of 4 critical areas for safety. I do not believe this is a good buy.
Best for: Not recommended due to poor belly panel and retention system.
Not ideal for: Dog safety in the water.
Update: Dawson Life Vest
After reading our review, @dogsthathike and Outward Hound opted to send us the Dawson update to this life vest, which comes in red. They also sent an extremely amusing clownfish life vest which we’ll be reviewing later this summer.
The Dawson IS a little bit better. The chest pad is a little bigger, the four straps that hold the belly pad in place are all equipped with velcro roll-back closures that keep the straps from slipping, and the handle is slightly offset from the back of the life vest and features reflectors to make it more visible.
With non-slipping straps, the life jacket technically becomes “safer” since at least the dog isn’t likely to fall out of the bottom when the straps loosen up, but because the side release buckles are still not backed up by a wider velcro panel, I don’t want to be on the record for calling this one safe, so I’m going to leave ratings as is.