Choosing a dog life jacket or buoyancy aid

What to look for. What to avoid!

First question: do you want a life jacket or a buoyancy aid? Or both?

If you're planning to use the jacket in situations where the dog may be exposed to life-threatenings levels of risk you need a life jacket. Dog life jackets - or 'canine flotation devices' (CFDs) as we're starting to hear them referred to - will tend to be constructed using higher quality materials than jackets designed solely for use as buoyancy aids.

If you're planning to use the jacket only in situations where you have complete control over the level of risk - for example, in a hydrotherapy pool - then you can choose a jacket which doesn't offer life-preserving support. These aids are less robustly assembled and generally use inferior materials - but they're cheaper than life jackets!

Assuming that you're interested in life jackets rather than buoyancy aids I'm concentrating here on flotation aids which are of 'life jacket' quality.

The first thing to look for: flotation quality

Perhaps the most important thing to consider in a dog life jacket is the one thing you can't see - the internal flotation material.

Without exception (at least, without exception in our experience), the flotation material will be either polystyrene or expanded polyethylene (EPE). Both these materials come in a range of qualities - the higher the quality the higher the density; the higher the density the higher the flotation value.

Lower-quality products will tend to use the less-effective polystyrene (because it's cheaper); higher-quality products will use the more-effective EPE.

Whichever material is used, it will take the form of either thousands of individual, small, beads or be formed in bars of material. On handling, the difference will be immediately apparent; the bead-filled jackets will be floppy whilst the bar-filled jackets will be more rigid. The bead-filled jackets have a tendency for the beads of flotation material to gather in particular parts of the jacket whilst the bar-filled flotation material is stitched into position, offering it little opportunity to move.

Over time and with use, the flotation material will inevitably deteriorate. Lower density materials will lose their water-exclusion properties more rapidly, allowing water to gather and remain within the material (it finds its way in-between all those tiny balls which constitute the material). Lower density materials are also more prone to snapping. Higher density materials will resist water penetration for, typically, the life-time of the jacket. Also, instead of snapping under pressure, EPE has a degree a flexibility.

The next thing to look for: safety

Perhaps an inevitable purpose of a life jacket is that it should carry the dog higher in the water than would be the case without it. This might appear to be stating the blazingly obvious, but we have encountered one jacket which doesn't even do that! So that's the first safety criterion.

All dog life jackets are fixed in place on the dog using straps. The straps are adjustable in length and made of a webbing-like material, the two parts being joined using snap-click plastic fasteners.

On one product, the plastic fasteners have a 'keeper' strap, positioned to prevent accidental release of the fasteners. Unfortunately, these keeper straps also make it difficult to unfasten the fasteners; probably a bit of over-engineering going on there!

The majority of life jackets have two straps around the body (both straps go around the chest, one just behind the front legs and one just in front of the tummy). We've encountered one jacket that uses three straps.

More major differences may be encountered in the way the jacket is fitted around the front of the dog's neck.

At the bottom end of the range, some jackets don't have a neck fastening at all! It isn't difficult to visualise a dog just walking out of such a jacket!

Slightly up the quality range are jackets which rely on only velcro to hold the neck fastening together. This is probably sufficient when the jacket is being used in controlled environments.

At the top end of the range, the same style of fastenings which is used around the body is also used around the neck.

Of those jackets which have a neck fastening (please, seriously consider the wisdom of buying a jacket without a neck fastening!) some will have the panels filled with flotation material, others will not. Obviously, jackets which contain flotation material in the neck panels offer more buoyancy than those which do not; they also help tilt the dog upwards, keeping the dogís nose and mouth clear of the water.

And finally: fit and comfort

Lower-quality products will comprise nothing more than the flotation area and fastening straps. Higher quality products will incorporate 'comfort' flaps that overlap and wrap together under the dog, ensuring that the fastening straps are not in direct contact with the dog's body. On some products these comfort flaps contain areas of velcro, enabling the jacket to be double-fixed - together with the straps - around the dog's body

The comfort flaps (which are often padded) may be additionally useful when the dog is lying down - forming a cushion between the dog's body and the snap-click fastenings.

The velcro-covered flaps have an additional use, holding the jacket firmly in place as the straps are adjusted and fastened. They also retain the jacket's snug fit while the dog is in the water. One available product has the flaps but not the velcro - inviting the coat to slide off as the dog progresses through the water.

On one product, in place of fabric flaps, a net-like material is used.

On another product, an elastic loop is intended to hold the jacketís tummy band in place. Hmmm.

Other features

It's unusual nowadays to encounter a jacket which doesn't incorporate a lifting/guiding handle. Smaller dogs can be lifted out of the water (and onto/off boats); larger dogs can be boat-hooked in the water and guided to safety. The handles vary in size (which isn't critical) and position (which is critical). Ideally, the handle will be positioned in front of the dog's centre of gravity, so that when lifted the dog will tip nose-up. Understandably, dogs which tip nose-down often become distressed and try to struggle free (they'll succeed if the jacket doesn't have a neck fastening!).

Many jackets now have two, or sometimes four, thin strips of reflective material attached to the webbing of the jacket, making it much easier to locate a dog in restricted light conditions.

Some jackets will have one D-ring sewn into the webbing, just in front of the handle, for attaching a leash or other restraint. A small number of jackets have a second D-ring, located just behind the handle, to which a tether can be attached when the dog ventures far from dry land. These D-rings may be made of metal or plastic.

A small number of jackets incorporate a flapped pocket, the size of the pocket determined by the size of the jacket (which makes it pretty small on the smaller jacket sizes).

One jacket thinks ahead and incorporates a permanent docking station for a spare snap-clip fastener - just imagine how pleased you might be in an emergency to have a spare fastening so readily to hand!

Jackets are available in a range of colours besides the classic neon orange. Polka dot jackets - for smaller pooches - are the coming fashion, we're told! Look hard enough and you may find some extremely exotic patterned designs (at extremely exotic prices!).

It won't come as a surprise to you to find that - whilst we've tried hard to offer a balanced view - our dog life jackets compare very favourably with the issues noted on this page!

Last updated: 11 October 2016

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