Why Your Dog Needs a Life Jacket, and which one you should try

All dogs can swim, right? Well, not necessarily, and even those that swim well can panic if they slide off a paddleboard involuntarily. Here are a few reasons to use a dog life jacket for water adventures, especially for paddling or boating where the shore may not be easily reachable.

  • Most pet dogs don’t swim regularly, so they can quickly tire out, especially if they are “panic swimming” and there’s no shore or accessible boat nearby.
  • Certain breeds actually CAN’T swim- some bulldogs and pugs just sink; their large heads, short legs and brachycephalic faces make swimming a struggle..
  • If you both fall in, your dog may try to climb you out of fear, and the extra buoyancy of a PFD will help reduce his weight.
  • The assistance handle will help you lift your pup back onto the boat in case of a spill and stabilize him if you go over rough water. (Note: a handle is not a substitute for proper, gentle introduction of new activities!)

A good dog life jacket must meet 4 key criteria:

  • adequate flotation
  • a sturdy grab handle, preferably one that’s easy to snag in a hurry
  • proper belly support (both for support during lifting, and to keep the dog well anchored into the life jacket, since generally the back panel is the most buoyant part- no point in a a floaty jacket if the dog sinks below it)
  • reliable retainment system (standard seems to be a velcro-closure belly panel backed up by two side release buckles)

Comfort, flexibility and style are all also important (in that order) but less critical to basic safety.

Here’s a list of life jackets we’ve tried and how they stack up with the above criteria. We’ll be referencing these in our individual reviews; those that have been reviewed already have clickable links below.


Alcott Mariner Life Jacket:
$26.99 – 34.99, blue and yellow
Flotation: Yes, plenty of foam on back panels (Robin’s in a Medium, which is pretty long for him, so he has extra flotation power)
Grab handle: Yes, slightly elevated above back for easy grabbing, though I’d prefer that it connect to full-girth straps for better response/extra strength when lifting.
Belly support: Yes, more than adequate since Robin was slightly small for his jacket. A soft neoprene belly panel is secured with velcro and backed up by two side-release buckles.
Reliable retainment: Yes, though I’d prefer higher-quality buckles for better reliability and at least one strap that goes the full circumference around the dog to really anchor the top handle.
Other factors: Comfortable belly panel but less flexible in general because of the flat foam panels and the sizing issue for Robin. No leash attachment ring. Plenty of reflectors, attractive design.
Overall: A
 great budget option with adequate flotation and retainment and no red flags, but better for occasional use due to material quality.

Carlos's surprise birthday party 143.JPG

Ruffwear Portage Float Coat:
Discontinued model; Sunset Orange and Fern Green
Flotation: Yes, the entire jacket is made of foam (sides and belly included).
Grab handle: Yes, slightly elevated above back for grabbing but not padded; features a leash ring
Belly support: No – there’s no actual belly panel to wrap under the belly, so depending on your dog’s size relative to the life jacket’s girth range, his belly might be supported just by two thin webbing straps.
Reliable retainment: Yes, Ruffwear uses good buckles and full-circumference girth straps for reliability.
Other factors: Flat sided design is stiff and uncomfortable for Robin. Nice looking and sturdy. A good option for dogs that are slim enough to fit.
Overall: This is an old model and not one really worth hunting down, but be careful you don’t end up with this when buying a Float Coat on eBay. 



Outward Hound Neoprene and Dawson Life Vest
Orange is a discontinued model; the red “Dawson” version is very similar
Flotation: Neoprene construction plus a few foam bubbles. Neoprene isn’t a particularly buoyant material but it does seem to have enough flotation.
Grab handle: Yes, but it lies flat against the back so it’s not easy to grab, and there’s no structure along the spine to keep the life jacket from buckling during lifting. 
Belly support: No – there’s a little neoprene square under the belly, but when the dog is lifted it slides backward into the delicate areas rather than strongly supporting the chest.
Reliable retainment: No – the dog is held in by only quick-release buckles, with no wraparound belly support to back them up. The buckles on the old orange model also slip easily; the new model does have velcro keepers that prevent slippage.
Other factors: It’s comfortable for running around on the beach and Robin doesn’t mind it, but I wouldn’t trust this for safe lifting of Robin when I really need it.
Overall: Avoid! A life jacket that doesn’t keep your dog safe is not a life jacket, it’s just an outfit. 


Outward Hound Clownfish
Flotation: Yes, big foam panels with good/excessive back coverage.
Grab handle: Yes, but it lies close to the back so it’s not easy to grab. However, compared to the other two Outward Hound jackets we tried, the structure in the back panel is great and assists with lifting. 
Belly support: Yes, comfortable wraparound neoprene belly panels backed up by two side release buckles (no full girth strap).
Reliable retainment: Yes, for most activities – while neither girth strap is a full circumference around the body, the buckles are decent quality and back up plenty of velcro on the belly panel.
Other factors: The fit isn’t quite right for Robin, but this is the best fit and best quality we’ve seen in a life jacket at this price point.
Overall: Worth it; best we’ve tried in the low-end price bracket and the most flotation of all the jackets we currently have (since it’s rated for a higher weight max). For more regular use or more dangerous water activities, look for a better fitting jacket with a full girth strap. 


Hurtta Life Jacket:
Discontinued model; still widely available in pink, yellow and orange
Flotation: Yes, full foam back/side panels
Grab handle: Yes, elevated above back with rubber gripper for easier grabbing and more comfortable lifting; front end sewn under full girth strap for security
Belly support: Yes, comfortable wraparound neoprene belly panels backed up by one full circumference girth strap and one partial.
Reliable retainment: Yes, Hurtta uses really sturdy buckles and one girth strap is a full circumference.
Other factors: Trim, athletic cut so it’s comfortable and plenty buoyant, without excess bulk. This was previously our favorite life jacket. 


Hurtta Life Savior:
Flotation: Yes, made of flexible, low-bulk foam struts (Robin actually bobs immediately to the surface when jumping in)
Grab handle: Yes, highly offset from life jacket for easy grabbing (but be careful of snags if you’re passing through branches) with a leash ring; front end sewn under girth strap and back end securely anchored.
Belly support: Yes, thin low-bulk no-stretch panels. They’re non-neoprene so possibly a little less comfortable, but they also dry much faster.
Reliable retainment: Yes, Hurtta uses really sturdy buckles and one girth strap is a full circumference.
Other factors: Lighter and much more flexible than our older Hurtta jacket, plus it has less bulk – Robin was very comfortable running around in it. Our new favorite. 

This page will be updated as we finish reviews and try more life jackets (one more is in testing currently).


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Lulu says:

    Wow this was so informative! We’re trying to teach Lulu how to swim, she hates it so far, but hopefully a lifejacket will convince her otherwise! Lulu’s the exact same size as Robin and I will definitely be looking into the Hurtta ones! They’re a bit pricey but maybe I can find an older model somewhere online…


    1. Sierra Trading Post has a few sizes of the older (pink/yellow/orange) Hurtta life jackets on sale for cheap! Definitely snap one up if you can, they are great. Robin got more confident about jumping off our paddleboard once he had a life jacket, but motivation was key – he wanted to get to shore or to someone on a different paddleboard. Practice is everything though!


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