Dogs know how to swim, right? It’s in their nature! You pop them in the water and, boom! They take off. Well…that’s not quite true. First of all, some dog breeds simply aren’t designed for water. Those with wide chests tend to flop forward and even sink; those with short muzzles can’t keep their heads above the water like dogs with long snouts can, and therefore it’s unsafe for them to be in the water for long periods of time — and they always require life vests. Examples of these breeds are bulldogs, Dachshunds, and pugs.
Other dogs — think labrador retrievers, spaniels, and shepherds — are built more water-friendly. Instincts in these dogs (the dog-paddling that can keep them afloat) kicks in pretty quickly, but they still require practice and supervision until they’re competent swimmers.
My first dog, a German shepherd named Clancy, had to learn how to swim as a puppy. We happened to be camping next to a lake with a large, shallow lagoon off the main body of water, and we took Clancy — about three months old at the time — out into the lake every day. We held onto her belly and let her claws scratch us as she fumbled through the water, learning to swim. Eventually, she got the hang of it.
Once, though, I got too comfortable with Clancy’s apparent swimming skills. I was about ten years old, and Clancy was approaching one year old. She’d been swimming confidently for several months, so I took her to a creek behind my house to play. The creek was swollen with melted snow runoff, and Clancy jumped in as usual — but the current was too strong. It sucked her under. My heart nearly stopped beating. I was about to rush into the water myself when Clancy resurfaced and managed to claw her way back to shore.
Clancy at the Missouri River in Montana as a middle-aged dog.
I wish she’d been wearing a life jacket! The incident scared me enough to keep a careful, close eye on her around water for life, and it instilled in me the importance of keeping dogs safe around water at all times.
The incident didn’t keep Clancy from loving water: By the time she passed away, she had logged hundreds of hours fetching sticks in rivers, lakes, oceans, and creeks.
Clancy’s daughter, Bella, also loved water. But it took longer for her to get comfortable with it — she was around three years old before she became an aqua-dog like her mother. Now I live in Alaska, with Eira, an Alaskan shepherd who isn’t as keen to get in the water as my German shepherds were. We happen to live near dozens (maybe even hundreds) of lakes and two huge rivers, as well as smaller rivers and even the ocean. There’s a lot of water around Eira, and we like to have fun in it.
Eira gets ready to swim!
So we decided to try to get Eira used to the water, but with the added security of a life jacket made especially for dogs. It took a lot of research before we found the one we like, but we stumbled upon lots of fantastic jackets along the way.
Read on to find out which life jacket we chose for Eira — and to see what she thought of her first real water experience!
Ruffwear Float Coat Dog Life Jacket
If you’ve got a dog who really struggles in the water and needs maximum protection, try this life jacket from Ruffwear. It comes in a wide range of sizes — from XX-Small to X-Large — so it fits just about any dog who needs its lifesaving protection. This life jacket is pricier than the others on our list, but it’s built from extremely durable fabric material, contains foam padding that goes all around your dog’s belly and chest, and is designed to help a dog who’s on his back to flip over to safety. The life jacket is also surprisingly small, allowing your dog plenty of legroom for natural swimming.
If you live in an area where your dog will be swimming or canoeing in lots of fast-moving rivers and creeks with trees and branches nearby that could snag the material, this is the life jacket for you. It won’t rip — and it will keep your dog safe.
This life jacket has a lot of sweet details, too, such as a handle on the spine to help your dog in and out of the water; reflective trim so you can see your dog in murky light; a clip for your dog’s leash; easy-adjustment buckles; a light loop to attach Ruffwear’s Beacon Light, which is sold separately. The float coat comes in three different, bright colors: Blue Atoll, Sockeye Red, and Wave Orange.
ASENKU Dog Life Jacket — Mermaid and Shark
If you’ve got a bigger dog that wants to look stylish in the water, this life jacket from ASENKU does the trick. Your dog can either look like a sleek gray shark, complete with a fin poking out above the water, or a glittering mermaid with a scaly tail. I say this life jacket is for “bigger” dogs because they offer sizes from XS to 2XL. A smaller dog would be fine with it, but probably not a tiny dog like a Maltese or Yorkie.
The life jacket features the same adjustable clips and belts as other life jackets, as well as a sturdy chest strap made from floatation material, designed to keep your pet’s head out of the water in case of an emergency. The shark fin is just a fin touch on the shark-themed jacket, but it also helps you see your dog! The mermaid tail on the mermaid-styled jacket adds extra buoyancy for your dog’s hindquarters.
The life jacket is waterproof, and because of that it’s marketed as being a perfect winter or rain coat for your dog in addition to a life jacket. It can also be a fantastic Halloween costume.
Outward Hound Granby Splash Life Jacket
Made with ripstop material, as well as neoprene, this extra-bright life jacket features TWO rescue handles, which is why we chose it for Eira. She’s a bigger dog, and we didn’t feel one handle was enough if something went wrong in the water. We’re planning a canoe trip in a couple of weeks, but we decided to get Eira in the water before that so she could get accustomed to her new life jacket — and the water itself. We took her to a lake with a long, shallow wading area and an open beach.
The lake we took Eira to for her first swimming experience at 10 months old. Note the long, pebbly beach that extends into the water, providing a firm and shallow (knee-length on a human) swimming area.
It took some fumbling before we figured out how to get the life jacket on Eira, but she waited patiently for us to finish. We ended up leaving her car harness on because unlike some of the other choices, including the Ruffwear life jacket and the ASENKU dog jacket, the Outward Hound life jacket does not have a D-ring for clipping a leash. This is its only downside so far.
Once Eira had her life jacket on, I walked with her at the edge of the water so she could sniff at it. She’d seen water twice before but never really swam in it, so I told her that we were going to try swimming today, and to get comfortable with the lovely liquid under her nose.
Eira found a shallow cove to splash around in just off the main beach.
She took a nice drink from the lake and then hesitantly walked toward me as I waded farther and farther into the lake. I showered her with praise for her bravery!
She got far enough out that she started needing to doggy paddle. I gently led her just a little bit farther than her comfort point so that she’d have to swim a little (with the help of her life jacket, of course). Then she turned around in the water and swam a few feet before stepping onto the lake bottom and walking to shore.
See it in the video below:
She was pretty proud of herself at the end, there, for braving the water! And honestly, she did most of the hard work. The life jacket just made us both feel more at ease — in fact, she’s never been as interested to go in the water as when she had her life jacket on. She’s a smart dog, and I truly believe she knows that it’s there to keep her safe.
Will we ever take her into the water without it? Probably, when she’s older and a stronger swimmer. But when we’re on boats of any kind or near rapid currents or undertows, you can bet she’ll be wearing her life jacket. I’d rather be safe than sorry. And this life jacket should still fit: we got her a large size (it comes in sizes from XS to XL) and it’s adjustable so she has room to grow.
Vivaglory Neoprene Dog Life Jacket
Does your dog hate the bulkiness of most life jackets? The Vivaglory Neoprene Life Jacket might be the best fit for her if so. Instead of bulky foam and nylon, this sleek jacket is made from neoprene with slim pieces of foam sewn in, which makes it seem like your dog’s wearing a light jacket. But make no mistake: it floats just as well as other life jackets! It comes in sizes from XS to XL with five colors to choose from, and each life jacket comes emblazoned with the Vivaglory logo and logline in reflective letters on the side. It includes a D-ring and a rescue handle and is gentler on a dog’s skin than a bulkier life jacket.
HAOCOO Dog Life Jacket
Fitting dogs as tiny as .5 pound, this life jacket is ideal for those with toy dogs. It comes in a cute polka-dot style that I think would look darling on my in-laws’ Maltese puppy, Rosemary. It’s a simple, inexpensive life jacket with one handle and adjustable straps, but it does its job — especially for little dogs who aren’t necessarily going swimming but just need the extra protection while riding a boat, canoe, or ferry.
When in Doubt, Put a Life Jacket on Your Pup!
It might seem silly to you, the idea of putting a life jacket on a dog. But trust me: it’s worth it. Especially when dogs are just getting to know water, it’s important to help them stay as safe as possible, as you would a child. Strangely enough, I didn’t bring my toddler’s life jacket to the lake that day; only Eira’s! My toddler has more experience in water than Eira does, but that’s not the reason I didn’t bring his floatation device: I didn’t expect him to get in the water. But he did, so while I got Eira comfortable with water, my husband went wading with my son. Then, we switched. The bottom line is that an adult with strong swimming skills was always stuck like glue on dog or child to keep them safe.
When it comes to water, you can never be too safe — whether your children are human or canine (or both).
Lake fun (and safety) with Eira and my toddler.
Jen Jones is a professional dog trainer and behavior specialist with more than 25 years of experience. As the founder of ‘Your Dog Advisor’ and the ‘Canine Connection’ rehabilitation center, she applies a holistic, empathetic approach, aiming to address root causes rather than merely treating symptoms.
Well known for her intuitive and compassionate approach, Jen adopts scientifically-proven, reward-based methods, encouraging positive reinforcement over punishment. Jen specializes in obedience training, behavior modification, and puppy socialization. Her innovative methods, particularly in addressing anxiety and aggression issues, have been widely recognized. Jen has worked with many of the world’s leading dog behaviorists and in her free time volunteers with local animal shelters and rescue groups.