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Better Safe Than Sorry With A Dog Life Jacket

Updated on June 9, 2009

Summer is closing in on us and the weather has already started to warm up nicely. Despite the economy, many people will still be spending a lot of time near the water this summer, though that body of water may be a bit closer to home than summers past… And for those dog lovers among us, there’s little doubt that the pooch will be accompanying you to the waters’ edge and beyond.

We want to make sure everyone enjoys themselves, and most importantly, that everyone who goes to the beach comes back from the beach.

Although many dogs absolutely love the water and feel completely at home in it, a lot of people make the assumption that this is true for all dogs. That is simply not the case. In fact, there are certain breeds such as greyhound, whippets, boxers etc who have very low body fat, giving them a lot less natural personal flotation than other breeds (‘personal flotation doesn’t seem to be an issue for me. In fact, I seem to be able to ‘float’ more and more easily every single year!...)

The above mentioned breeds with naturally low body fat have another disadvantage regarding the water, especially cold water; they have a more difficult time regulating their core body temperature. Again, less ‘insulation’ than some of the rest of us, or our other dogs.

It’s natural that these dogs, while they may still enjoy the beach itself, may not want to spend much time in the water, if at all. However, accidents can happen. And when it comes to accidents around the water, it’s not only these particular dogs that are less enthusiastic about the water. An accident can happen to any dog. Small, weak, injured, out of shape or elderly dogs are particularly vulnerable to having a bad experience should they find themselves in the water unexpectedly. And let’s face it, more and more of our dogs are living lifestyles that are a lot like their owners’; less and less active! Playing in the water takes a lot of energy, and an enthusiastic dog can become unaware of the fatigue setting in, until it’s too late.

All these scenarios aren’t meant to scare you away from brining your dog to the water. Not at all! In fact, we highly encourage you to spend time outdoors with your dog no matter where the location. But, we do want to bring these potential issues to your attention so that you can plan ahead and not have a disastrous, but avoidable, accident. The idea of having your dog wear a dog life jacket has a lot of merit to it.

First of all, anyone familiar with water environments knows that the weather and the water conditions can change in a hurry. In addition, even when the weather is calm and steady, you can never be completely sure of what lies just below the surface. Currents, rip tides, sudden increases in waves can all take people, and their dogs, by surprise. Being prepared and cautious with the use of a dog life jacket is a great idea.

One of the benefits of most dog life jackets is that they are built with a grab handle that comes up from the middle of the back. This is perfect for lifting a dog out of a dangerous and difficult water situation. Remember, a wet dog is a heavy, slippery dog, so anything you can do to make it easier is a good thing for everyone involved. In fact, I heard of one story where an owner broke his dog’s leg pulling her out of the water because she was so panic stricken. It was the only thing he was able to really latch on to in order to get her out. Of course a broken leg is tragic, but it’s better than losing your dog! The point is, this could have been avoided had the dog been wearing a life jacket.

While having this conversation about the merits of a dog life jacket numerous times with different dog owners, I have often come across an owner who completely dismisses the idea because ‘their dog is different.’ “Their dog” LOVES the water and wants nothing more than to play and swim in it as much as possible, so a dog life jacket is totally unnecessary. Perhaps.

If the only water your dog is around is a backyard pool and they know where the stairs are, sure, I probably wouldn’t have my dog in a life jacket either. If you spend time at a lake with a gentle sloping beach, maybe the same holds true. However, if you are in conditions that include rip tides (ocean), possible strong currents or fast changes in water levels (rivers), it’s a different story. Why not take the extra precaution?

If you are taking your dog out ON the water, then I feel that a dog life jacket is absolutely essential. Just like it is on any child. Again, you never know when the weather might change making it difficult to bring your dog back aboard in the event they go over (whether on purpose or not). Of course, if they have any of the challenges mentioned earlier, such as difficulties swimming because of their body composition, injury, fitness or advance age, then a life jacket can be a real life saver.

Even in conditions where there is nothing ‘wrong’ a dog might put themselves in a precarious situation. For example, the following story from perfectly illustrates the kind of thing that could easily happen to almost any dog.

I have a mixed breed dog named Sophie who loves the water. She takes frequent dips in the pond, loves to swim in the lake and doesn't even mind a nice cooling bath in the summer. So I didn't really worry about this particular dog needing a life jacket. While at the lake last weekend, she eagerly jumped in our little boat from the beach. She is very athletic and in good shape. As she sailed around the docks with my husband to meet the rest of the family, she got very excited and anxious seeing the rest of "her people" on the dock.

Before anyone could think, she leaped from the boat to the dock. Normally this wouldn't be a big problem, but... she missed. The combination of her pushing off from the boat, the boat heading for the dock, and the dock moving from waves meant that as she was underwater, and the dock and boat closed right over her submerged head!

We grabbed her quickly as she popped up out of the water, and everything was OK. But it was scary. I realized that while she loves swimming with her family nearby, she gets nervous when we are doing different things; some of us on the dock, some of us in the boat, or some of us swimming. This leads to unpredictable behavior from our excitable dog.

Dog life jackets come in many different shapes and sizes to fit all the different sizes and breeds of dogs. You want to be sure you get one that really fits your dog properly so that there is no chafing yet full range of motion is preserved. You also will want to make sure that the adjustment straps aren’t left hanging too long as this could be both annoying to your dog as well as posing a potential snagging hazard in the water.

As far as the looks of a dog life jacket, that too varies a lot. They come in many different colors and some are even ‘designer’ patterns on them. While these things are all playful and fun, the most important thing to keep in mind is that the main purpose of this piece of safety gear is just that; safety. You want to be sure your dog is clearly visible in the water. Not only will this make a rescue easier, should one be needed, but even in regular conditions it is good for other swimmers and boaters to be able to clearly see and recognize your dog when it is in the water.

All in all, dog life jackets are an excellent addition to your summer activity gear. After all, with man’s best friend by your side, sometimes it’s up to you to be your dog’s best friend and keeper by looking out for their water safety.


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