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The Battle Of The Doggie Life Jackets

You know the importance of wearing life jackets aboard, but what about for your four-legged crewmembers? We tested 10 popular flotation devices for pups, and here's what we found.

Finn models the Ruffwear Float Coat

Our extra-large test subject, Finn, ­models the ­Ruffwear Float Coat, which got high marks for overall fit and quality.

Last October, some friends dayboating a mile off Fort Lauderdale spotted something strange bobbing in the water. Moments later they realized it was a dog paddling for his life in the open ocean. One person jumped in to help the pup toward the boat, while another lifted the dog to safety. He happened to be wearing a collar with tags, so the boaters were able to return him to his owners, who had been frantically searching for him almost 15 miles from where he'd been found. Apparently, he went overboard while no one was looking, and his owners didn't realize he was gone until later. Thankfully the story had a tail-wagging good ending, and his owners assured everyone that he'll be wearing a reflective life jacket on any future boating adventures — just in case.

Boating and pets go together like peanut butter and jelly, especially when our pups enjoy time on the water as much as we do. You might wonder, though, why your furry friend needs a life jacket if he can swim. The reality is that while you might confuse some water-loving canines with seals, others are not natural swimmers. In addition, some breeds, especially smaller ones, can tire quickly. A properly fitted, brightly colored life jacket with reflective tape dramatically boosts visibility on the boat and in the water, and the handles make easier work helping Rover on/off board — or plucking him from the water. Life jackets for pets also offer peace of mind in an emergency to help keep them floating until a rescue has arrived.

Ten years ago, our BoatUS Foundation did a comprehensive test of life jackets for dogs as part of its Foundation Findings 51. With new technology, materials, and options available, we revisited the testing. As in 2012, testing was observational and based on feedback from the dogs' owners on a number of different criteria including sizing and fit, adjustability, ease of use, comfort while on land and swimming, and flotation.

Our Furry Test Subjects

Due to Covid restrictions, we were limited to four dogs (compared to eight in 2012), but they covered a range of sizes and builds. See the chart below for a rundown of our furry models who enjoyed a day of running, swimming, playing, and rolling in the sand.

Pretzel swimming in life jacket

Pretzel

Pipa in life jacket

Pipa

Harley lifted by life jacket

Harley

Finn being fitted in  life jacket

Finn

Our Furry Test Subjects Fast Facts

Size Name Age Breed Sex Weight (lbs.) Neck (in.)
Length Girth/
Chest
Small Pretzel 9 Dachshund F 18
12.5
18 20
Medium Pippa 7 Boykin Spaniel F 35
16 17 20
Large Harley 2 Mixed Breed F 50 19 23 28.5
X-Large Finn 2 Golden Retriever M 78
19 28 36

Testing Methods

The BoatUS Foundation purchased size runs of each of the life jackets commonly available at national marine and pet stores, as well as online. Each model was assigned a number, and the jackets were tagged by size. The handlers tested each jacket in turn, selecting the size for their dogs as recommended in the fit guide on the packaging, putting it on the dog, and fitting it per manufacturer instructions. They then encouraged the dogs to sit, lie down, and walk or run around on the beach before bringing them into the water.

During the swim test, which was performed twice for each jacket, the dogs were carried out about 15 feet then released to turn and swim back to shore. The handler would then use the handle(s) on the life jacket to lift the dog out of the water before answering questions about fit, comfort, and performance. At the end, the handler was asked which jacket(s) they liked best and why.

Shopping Tips

  • Sizes may not be consistent across manufacturers or models. Follow the manufacturer's fit guide for the specific model before ordering.
  • If possible, take your pet with you to the store to try on different styles so you can ensure you find one that fits well and your dog seems comfortable.
  • Ensure that you can fit your hands in the grab strap(s) and that you can lift your dog with it/them.

Our Findings

In general, all the life jackets did the job, but some definitely outshined the rest in a number of categories. You can see the full results below.

West Marine Neoprene Pet Vest

West Marine Neoprene Pet Vest
  • Price: $39.99 all sizes
  • Available at: WestMarine.com
  • Sizes: S–XL
  • Colors: blue/yellow/black, purple
  • Fabric/Materials: neoprene foam
  • Reflective Trim: top, on handle
  • Fastener Types: 2 belly buckles, 1 chest buckle
  • Handles: 1 spine
  • Leash Ring: plastic
  • Additional Features: zipper seam down the back, covered by a flap
  • Pros: Very flexible and comfortable.
  • Cons: Zipper over back can be difficult to line up. Didn't seem to float most dogs enough. Fabric too stretchy to easily pull dog from water. Puts a lot of pressure around neck and seems to dump dog forward.

MTI Under Dog

MTI Under Dog life jacket 
  • Price: $59.95 all sizes
  • Available at: MTILifejackets.com
  • Sizes: XS–XL
  • Colors: red-mango
  • Fabric/Materials: ballistic nylon body and neck, 3D mesh on back
  • Reflective Trim: along back, side, neck
  • Fastener Types: 2 buckles on top, 1 top of neck
  • Handles: 1 on back end; nylon loop at neck
  • Leash Ring: nylon loop at neck
  • Additional Features: unique design unlike any other jacket, loop at back of neck for pickup in addition to handle, 1 year warranty; leash attachment, four adjustabilty points, made with U.S. Coast Guard-approved material
  • Pros: More comfortable for larger dogs. Lift handle slides so it stays centered on the dog for better lifting. Hook-and-loop fastener helps keep jacket in place to make buckling easier.
  • Cons: A bit difficult to fit at first, not intuitive. Poor fit for short-legged dogs (interfered with walking and swimming). Shifted too much on smaller dogs leading to capsizing.

Fragralley High-Vis Dog Life Jacket

Fragralley High-Vis Dog Life Jacket 
  • Price: $14.99–$32.99
  • Available at: smile.amazon.com (denote BoatUS Foundation as your supporting charity)
  • Sizes: XS–XXL
  • Colors: lively orange, coral blue, cute yellow, bright red
  • Fabric/Materials: EPE foam, ripstop 600D oxford cloth
  • Reflective Trim: none. White stripes on back
  • Fastener Types: 2 belly, 1 chest, full hook-and-loop tape belly and chest
  • Handles: 1 spine, plastic-covered handle
  • Leash Ring: plastic
  • Pros: Intuitive to put on. Cute colors. Not bulky. Good fit across all sizes. Excellent value.
  • Cons: Long hair gets stuck in the hook-and-loop fasteners. Quality isn't as nice as others. Can be difficult to get straps in their keepers.

Kong Aqua Pro

Kong Aqua Pro life jacket 
  • Price: $49.99–$70.99
  • Available at: Kong-Sports.com
  • Sizes: XXS–XL
  • Colors: green, orange, pink, stars & stripes
  • Fabric/Materials: three layers of foam, 1680 denier nylon
  • Reflective Trim: binding along side
  • Fastener Types: front and belly buckles, hook-and-loop front
  • Handles: 1 spine
  • Leash Ring: plastic, at front of handle
  • Additional Features: ID label inside, full belly wraparound
  • Pros: Floated dogs a little higher than others due to belly flotation. Elastic keepers make organizing straps easy. Easy to put on. Good adjustability. Easy to lift. Good overall coverage.
  • Cons: Belly flaps could use hook-and-loop tape to keep it in place. Elastic keepers slide when wet. Runs a bit long on some dogs. Hook-and-loop tape at neck wouldn't stay closed on large dog. Didn't conform as well to body shape of the small and large dogs. Might sit a little too far back for some male dogs.

Outward Hound Granby Splash

Outward Hound Granby life jacket 
  • Price: $24.99–$39.99
  • Available at: Outwardhound.com
  • Sizes: XS–XL
  • Colors: orange, camo, pink, yellow
  • Fabric/Materials: ripstop nylon, neoprene belly band
  • Reflective Trim: accents along both sides of spine and on handles
  • Fastener Types: Adjustable side release buckles, 2 belly, 1 neck, hook-and-loop tape chest, 3 hook-and-loop belly
  • Handles: 1 on XS–S; 2 on M–XL
  • Leash Ring: none
  • Additional Features: chin rest
  • Pros: Good lift; able to fit both hands in strap for better leverage. Level float. Stretchy neoprene belly is soft and offers good protection from straps.
  • Cons: Fitting was a bit off, especially for small and large dogs. Chin rest was off center on most dogs; didn't do very much.

Kurgo Surf n Turf

Kurgo Surf n Turf Life Jacket 
  • Price: $49.99–$71.99
  • Available at: Kurgo.com
  • Sizes: XS–XL
  • Colors: red, green
  • Fabric/Materials: 400D and ripstop material, mesh lining
  • Reflective Trim: accents, piping on back and along bottom, across tail, across chest
  • Fastener Types: Nifco quick release buckles: neck, buckle/hook-and-loop tape, 2 belly buckles
  • Handles: 1 on spine
  • Leash Ring: 2 metal rings — back of neck, top of tail
  • Additional Features: bottle opener, back strap goes through the jacket, keepers on belly to contain straps, nothing hangling free, removable floatation allows vest to double as a shell, athletic cut for more range of movement; lifetime warranty.
  • Pros: Floated the dogs well and high; kept head and chest lifted. Good quality materials and finishing. Nice hardware. Lots of features. Easy to put on once adjusted.
  • Cons: So many strap keepers. Handle was a bit hard to grab. Difficult to find correct size due to crossover; could be difficult to purchase online The red version we tried may not be the most visible in water.

Arcadia Trail Life Jacket

Arcadia Trail Life Jacket 
  • Price: $39.99–$49.99
  • Available at: Petsmart.com
  • Sizes: XS–XXL
  • Colors: hi-vis yellow, red
  • Fabric/Materials: nylon ripstop
  • Reflective Trim: stripes on handle and piping along bottom edge
  • Fastener Types: 2 belly, 1 chest, hook-and-loop chest
  • Handles: 1 along spine; 2 in larger sizes
  • Leash Ring: large, metal in front of handles
  • Additional Features: chin rest; watersports styling
  • Pros: Yellow color tested is very visible. Metal hardware looks sturdy. Lightweight. Conformed well to all shapes, sizes. Soft material.
  • Cons: Runs long on some dogs. Looks bulkier than others. Neck pad was not centered. Keepers on mesh belly protector were difficult to feed straps through.

West Marine Deluxe Pet Vest

West Marine Deluxe Pet Vest 
  • Price: $34.99 all sizes
  • Available at: WestMarine.com
  • Sizes: XS–XL
  • Colors: yellow/red
  • Fabric/Materials: not available
  • Reflective Trim: piping along sides and across withers
  • Fastener Types: 2 belly straps, 1 chest, hook-and-loop chest
  • Handles: 1 along spine
  • Leash Ring: plastic
  • Additional Features: warranty is 1 year against manufacturer defects
  • Pros: Simple to put on. Very good flotation. Neck isn't bulky.
  • Cons: Side flotation gives it bulkier look. No padding under the belly straps. Handle isn't padded.

Youly The Beach Bum

Youly The Beach Bum Life Jacket 
  • Price: $29.99–$39.99
  • Available at: Petco.com
  • Sizes: XXS–XL
  • Colors: green/blue, pink/orange, red
  • Fabric/Materials: mesh belly, foam padding
  • Reflective Trim: piping along stripe down sides
  • Fastener Types: hook-and-loop/buckle chest, 2 buckle belly
  • Handles: 1 along spine
  • Leash Ring: plastic, large, front of handle
  • Pros: Easy to put on; intuitive. Lightweight. Visible colors and lots of reflective locations for high-visibility. Conformed well to all shapes. Comfortable enough to wear all day. Good leash attachment. Less expensive than most.
  • Cons: Belly flaps could use hook-and-loop tape to help keep the fabric from bunching. Materials didn't seem as good quality as others.

Ruff Wear Float Coat

Ruff Wear Float Coat life jacket 
  • Price: $89.95 all sizes
  • Available at: Ruffwear.com
  • Sizes: XXS–XL
  • Colors: blue dusk, wave orange, red sumac
  • Fabric/Materials: bluesign approved (sustainablly produced) 800 denier ballistic polyester, PVC-free Gaia foam, polypropelene webbing, ITW Nexus Airloc side release buckles
  • Reflective Trim: tonal screenprint reflective trim
  • Fastener Types: 2 belly (underneath). Slides on over head but is adjustable
  • Handles: 1 on front of spine; very small but padded
  • Leash Ring: plastic, under handle
  • Additional Features: hook-and-loop keeper contains belly straps, attachment point on handle for strobe light or MOB, telescoping neck closure is permanently attached (no buckle)
  • Pros: Nice cut; conforms to shape. Slides on over head. Attachment point for light or wireless MOB. Everything is smooth; nothing to get snagged.
  • Cons: Handle is on the small side. Shorter cut leads to hind end rotation.

Here are some general observations.

Fit & adjustability: Most models fit true to size, though our small dog was the most difficult to fit in some models, often due to her long body and short legs.

The biggest issue our testers had, at least initially, was getting all the straps buckled and adjusted on wiggly, excited pups. Some jackets had so many straps it took a while to get them secured and tucked into the keepers. Once the jackets had been adjusted properly, most were quick and easy to put on. The Deluxe Pet Vest from West Marine was a favorite for ease of use because it slides over the head and has the fewest straps to attach out of all the models.

Features: One feature everyone found useful appeared on all but one jacket: a ring or loop to attach a leash. Most of the rings are made from plastic; MTI has a nylon loop, and Kurgo and Arcadia Trail offer a more substantial metal ring. Strength and durability tests were outside the scope of the testing. The Kurgo Surf n Turf offers the most features. The removable flotation allows the life jacket to double as a shell for protection against wind and rain. It even comes with its own bottle opener attached!

Flotation: All the jackets performed as expected, though just how well varied depending on the dog size. For example, only one out of four handlers said they believed the Neoprene Pet Vest offered enough flotation. Some models like the MTI floated the larger dogs well, though it shifted too much on the smaller dogs, causing “capsizing” in the swim tests. The Deluxe Pet Vest with its flotation along the sides offered the best and most level float, according to our testers, and they noted it raised the dogs higher in the water than others.

Outward Hound, and Arcadia Trail jackets both have chin rests. This flap under the neck is designed to help keep the dog's head out of the water. While it's an appealing feature, the pad was not centered on any of the dogs in either model, and testers didn't think it did much to aid flotation.

Lifting: All dogs were able to be lifted using the integrated handles in every jacket, and the handles all felt sturdy during our test. The materials of both the jacket and the handles contributed to ease of lifting. For example, the Neoprene Pet Vest fabric was extremely stretchy. While that made it one of the most comfortable for the dogs, it also required more effort to lift and left the dogs unbalanced.

Handles are generally sized and oriented based on life jacket size, which sometimes makes a difference in how they perform across size ranges. The handles on the smaller jacket sizes can be hard to grasp, especially by those with larger hands.

Care For Your Dog's Life Jacket

Only about half of the life jackets we tested had any information on care and cleaning, either on the packaging or website. While we always recommend following manufacturer recommendations, here are some general tips to help keep your dog's life jacket in good shape:

  • Rinse after every use with cool freshwater and hang to dry. Do not store wet.
  • Life jackets should only be line-dried; never put in a dryer.
  • Occasionally hand wash, spot clean, or sponge down the fabric using a mild soap.
  • If the life jacket gets chewed, torn, or otherwise damaged, replace it

Our Favorites

While our testing group was too small to make any definitive conclusions about the best-fitting doggie life jackets, ­several favorites consistently floated to the top. Here are the models that our testers liked best:

  • Best Fit Overall: Arcadia Trail, Fragralley, Ruffwear
  • Easiest To Put On: Deluxe Pet Vest, Youly, Arcadia Trail
  • Best Value: Fragralley
  • Most Features: Kurgo
  • Best Flotation: Deluxe Pet Vest, Kurgo, Kong
  • Best Quality: Ruffwear, MTI

Author

Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

Managing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

Stacey is an award-winning marine journalist and photographer who, as BoatUS Magazine's managing editor, handles some of the national publication’s most complex features, as well as keeping it on time, accurate, clear, and timely. Stacey also manages the magazine’s active website and social-media engagement, and is part of the BoatUS video team, helping to produce more than 30 how-to videos a year. Stacey recalls that one of her earliest memories in life includes being hung by her ankles in the engine compartment of her family's 1963 Egg Harbor, helping with repair work and searching for lost items. Her love of boats may only be matched by her love of horses; she spent 20 years writing, editing, and photographing for equestrian magazines and books — including Practical Horseman