Should Your Dog Wear a Life Jacket?

Have you ever stopped to wonder why we stress the importance of flotation devices for our own safety when boating, but rarely address our furry companions? If you’re taking your dog out on the water, safety should be a top priority, and this includes recognizing when to have your dog wear a life jacket.

Whether this is a new concept to you entirely, or you feel like you don’t have enough information to make an educated decision, we have you covered! In this article, we’re going to look at the reasons why you should consider using a dog life jacket, how to choose the best life jacket for your dog, and tips for introducing this important safety gear to your pup.  

three dogs laying on shore wearing life jackets | Should Your Dog Wear a Life Jacket?
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Do Dogs Need Life Jackets?

The biggest misconception when spending time on the water with a dog is that your dog is 100% safe if he knows how to swim. But there a few emergency scenarios that you may want to consider. Even the strongest swimmer may end up in a situation where they need assistance.

For example, when the canoe capsizes, your dog may hit his head on a rock in the water knocking him unconscious. He could injure a leg, preventing him from swimming like he usually does, or the stress of the situation may cause him to panic. It’s the same reason that all people are required to have a life jacket when on the water regardless of their swimming experience!

Of course, the importance of a life jacket is even greater if your dog doesn’t know how to swim, isn’t a strong swimmer, or feels anxious around the water.

When Should I Put a Life Jacket on My Dog?

The biggest question when it comes to the use of flotation devices is when to have a dog wear a life jacket, and when it’s not necessary. While this is going to vary slightly from dog to dog, here are a few situations where it is recommended.

Young Puppies and Senior Dogs

There are stages in your dog’s life when his endurance may not be as strong. Young puppies may have bursts of crazy energy, but they also wear out quickly. This is why they sleep so much in those early days. On the other end of the spectrum, dogs tend to slow down slightly as they enter their golden years. Senior dogs are a little slower moving, they may be faced with joint pain or mobility issues, and this can all impact their ability to get to safety if a canoe were to capsize. During these periods of your dog’s life, take extra precautions to make his safety a top priority.

Don’t Can’t Swim/Isn’t a Strong Swimmer

The fact that your dog isn’t a strong swimmer, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want to spend time around the water. We learned quickly that our little man Lucifer couldn’t swim at all but that didn’t stop him from wanting to learn how to swim and splashing around like a crazy pup in the process! Like a human child, a life jacket can be used for safety anytime your dog is around the water. This includes dog breeds that can’t swim, dogs that are afraid of the water, dogs that are learning to swim, and dogs that may be uncomfortable in or around water.

Brachycephalic Breeds

Short-nosed breeds like French Bulldogs, Pugs, Boxers, and Boston Terriers are physically built in a way that makes swimming difficult. With shorter snouts and flat faces, they have a harder time breathing during physical activity on dry land. This is only made more challenging in the water where they will easily get water up their noses.

Deep or Rough Waters

If you are hanging out on a paddle boat or stand-up paddle board near the shore in calm water, you may not feel the need to put a life jacket on your dog. After all, they can easily make their way to safety if they were to fall in (or jump in). However, if you plan on heading out into deeper water, it’s a good time to take extra precautions. Waterways that are rough, have a strong current, or are known to have a dangerous undertow also call for this added safety measure.

Unknown Bodies of Water

Another situation that is often overlooked is exploring new areas or unknown bodies of water. If you’ve never been out on this body of water before, you may be unsure of what you could run into in terms of undertow, debris in the water, and other risk factors. Furthermore, a new location can easily add stress or anxiety to an emergency. This may hinder your dog’s ability to get to safety, putting him in danger even in calm, shallow waters.   

Do Dogs Have to Wear Life Jackets on Boats?

There are strict rules and regulations when it comes to the need for personal flotation devices when humans are out on a boat, but what about our dogs? At this time, there are no firm rules or laws that address the need for a dog to wear a life jacket. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seriously consider the using a life jacket on dog passengers when heading out on the water. We strongly recommend that you follow the same laws that are in place for children when taking your dog out.

dog laying in canoe wearing a life jacket | Should Your Dog Wear a Life Jacket?
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Where to Buy Dog Life Jackets

The most challenging part of purchasing a dog float coat or life jacket is often finding them available for sale. This is a seasonal item that many pet stores will carry only for a limited time. If something happens that you need to replace it later in the season or into the off-season, you may find yourself out of luck. The good news is that pet stores aren’t the only place where you can find this key safety gear.

While on the search for a life jacket, try checking your local sports stores or marine stores. While these retailers often focus on human gear, they may bring in some dog life jackets to allow families to purchase everything they need for the family.

Of course, there is always the option to shop online. Most major brands have their own websites where they offer online sales. You can also find a variety of different life jackets on Amazon. The perk of online shopping is that you can have your gear delivered right to your door. But, you need to pay careful attention to sizing charts because you can’t try it on your dog before making a purchase.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Dog Life Jacket

If you’re shopping for the best life jacket for dogs, there are a few factors you will need to consider. This ranges from points to help you find the best value for your investment and identify the doggie life vest that will be the most comfortable and reliable for your furry friend.


The purpose of a life jacket is to help your dog stay above water, especially in an emergency. But not all life jackets are created equally. This is especially important to address if you plan on canoeing with a dog that isn’t as skilled at swimming. Life jackets that prioritize flotation are designed with the highest level of buoyancy in mind. They may also include features like a neck flat to make sure that your dog’s head is always safely above the water.

Bulk/Ease of Movement

A dog life jacket with higher buoyancy is often going to be bulkier in size. In some situations, that extra bulk may restrict your dog’s movement and become a hindrance. Sport life jackets are designed with a more minimalistic silhouette. These are ideal for dogs that are participating in physically demanding activities where they need to be able to move freely.

Rescue Handles

If you have ever needed to lift a dog back into a canoe or kayak after they decided to dive in for a swim, then you know first-hand how important rescue handles can be! These are handles that are built into the jacket to make it easier to lift your dog or restrain him if needed. While some life jackets will come with a single handle, as owners of larger dogs, we prefer a dual handle design.  

Sizing and Fit

One of the most important factors to consider when shopping for a life jacket is the way that it fits your dog. Many life jackets offer multiple adjustment points to accommodate a wide variety of body shapes and sizes. If your dog wears a life jacket that doesn’t fit properly, it may fail to keep him afloat in an emergency.

Measure your dog’s girth (the distance around the widest part of his rib cage) and consult the dog life jacket size chart offered by the brand you are considering. You should also consider the recommended weights to make sure that it can support your dog’s weight if he is unconscious or unable to swim for any reason.  

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How Do I Get My Dog Used to a Life Jacket?

If you have never used a life jacket with your dog before, he may not respond the way that you hope to wearing one. Especially if he has never worn a coat, sweater or jacket-style harness that fits in a similar way to a life jacket. We recommended slowly introducing the idea rather than just putting a life jacket on a dog and hoping for the best. This will give you the opportunity to establish a positive connection with the life jacket, making it easier to put it on your dog in the future and helping him to feel calm and confident when it’s on.

After you have purchased the best dog life jacket for your pup based on his size, body shape, and needs (as mentioned above), you can start the introduction at home. Place the new life jacket on the ground in your usual living space and allow him to sniff and explore it at his own pace.

When you notice that he’s comfortable with the presence of the life jacket, you can then take the steps to start putting it on. During this process, move slowly. Don’t be afraid to pause, give him space, or even take a break before returning to it. Forcing your dog into wearing the life jacket as soon as possible will only add stress and anxiety, turning it into a negative experience that your dog will try to avoid. Of course, include plenty of praise and treats!

Allow your dog to wear the life jacket around the house while going about his daily routine including eating, napping, or playing with toys. Eventually he will be so comfortable wearing it, that he won’t even acknowledge that it’s there. It is at this point that you can move to him wearing it outside as part of your outdoor adventures.

The timeline needed for this adjustment phase will be different from dog to dog. When we first put Indiana in his life jacket, he froze up and was clearly uncomfortable wearing it. After plenty of praise and encouragement at home, he learned that it wasn’t something to be afraid of. On the other hand, we put Lucifer’s life jacket on the first time, and he didn’t think twice about it. But he also wears coats in the winter due to his thinner fur.  Watch for your dog’s body language and allow his comfort level to guide the pace every step of the way.

Does your dog wear a life jacket? If so, we’d love to hear about when you use it and how you decided on the best dog life jacket for your canine companion!


  1. I was aware that brachycephalic breeds are susceptible to health problems because of their “squished” nose, but I never considered how it affects their swimming safety/capabilities! Thank you for the insightful post on the safety and importance of pet life jackets. I’ll check out the options at my local pet store and follow your tips for picking out a good fit!

    Jordan | http://www.brewandletbe.com

    1. Their little squished faces make it even easier for the water to get up into their faces. It’s definitely something that owners of any of those breeds should be cautious about.

  2. Great summary of why it’s so important to have a dog life vest when you’re around the water. The points about puppies and senior pups maybe needing a life vest more are important points to consider. Icy is 12 and a half, and I got a life vest for her from Outward Hound. Amazon has a bunch of brands to choose from too. You’re right about them not being available in pet stores all year long, I had to buy online.

    1. Dav girl is 14 and she’s still a strong swimmer, but she definitely wears out a little faster than she used to. Not that she seems to realize it… That’s why we take extra precautions with her.

  3. This post totally reminded me that I need to get one of my dogs a new life jacket, lol! I had one for him that I got when I *thought* he was finished growing, but he ended up bulking up a bit and outgrowing his life jacket, along with a lot of his other gear too! Oops…that was an expensive mistake, but at least I get the fun of shopping for new stuff for him.

    1. We held off for a while on getting a nice one for Lucifer for that exact reason – we had an older puppy-sized jacket from a friend that served its purpose until we were comfortable buying him a new one. It’s hard, though, knowing when they are done growing! Sometimes they surprise us.

  4. Great details and information about life vests for dogs. I remember when I was a child I had a Jack Russel terrier, Tag. He did not like the water and couldn’t swim. Back in the day, they didn’t have life vests for dogs. So, my parents, realizing that Tag would be in danger when we went out boating, got him a small child-size life vest. I still have photos of him in the boat proudly wearing that vest. If he got in the water he was completely safe because that vest supported him and was very buoyant. I think he actually felt more secure with it on. I have yet to take Henry to a waterway where he’d need a life vest. It’s on my to-do list. I’ll definitely get him a life vest, even though I know he can swim. I agree with you that anything can happen and it’s best to be safe. It’s the same reason why humans are required to wear life vests and safety belts. It’s good to be safe. Superb details! I’m sharing this article with all my dog parents!

    1. I love that they did that for him! It’s so important to make sure that they are safe and comfortable. Luckily, there are a lot of great options available now for our pups. I’m sure Henry will have one that keeps him safe and looking fly lol

  5. I know a lot of adventure cats here in New Zealand wear life jackets. They always seem confident and after they get used to the jacket (that can be the hard part) and I would not take a dog out on the water without one.

    1. That is so true! I have seen the change of confidence in Lucifer after he got used to wearing his. We strongly believe that if people need to be waring a life jacket in any situation, so too should our dogs.

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