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Life jackets are essential for water-faring doggos, but getting a canine comfortable with one can be a "ruff" ride for pup parents. Whether your doggy is a swimming "pawfessional" or still learning the strokes, a personal floatation device is crucial. Even expert swimmers like Retrievers and Labs get tired before they can make it back to dry land. Having a life preserver can keep them afloat and prevent exhaustion.
If you're the pet parent of a clothes-hating dog, you may be thinking "how on Earth can I convince my dog to wear this contraption?!" Don't worry. We'll cover how to train your dog to wear a life jacket in three different ways.
First, decide what type of floatation device is best for your dog's needs. A common misconception is doggy life jackets are the same as life vests. Life jackets are often bulkier and may interfere with swimming. Life vests, on the other hand, provide less protection but allow more mobility. Keep in mind that life vests aren't recommended for open water and should be used under careful supervision.
After deciding the appropriate style for your dog, you'll need to find the right fit. Use a tape measure to find your dog's length from neck to hind, then the circumference of the broadest part of their chest. Compare your measurements to the size charts to find the correct size. Don't guestimate your dog's measurements — life jackets must fit precisely to work correctly.The final defining step in training a dog to wear a life jacket is introducing the equipment the proper way. It's crucial that the dog makes positive associations with the life jacket; this will minimize stress (for you and Fido) and make them want to wear it again.
You'll need to have a few things on hand before you start training. First and foremost, a quality life jacket.
Things to look for in a good doggy life jacket:
A bright, reflective, or neon-colored life jacket that's easy to spot.
A handle, lead or strap to help you maneuver your dog in the water.
A life jacket that fits properly in both length and width.
A D-ring where you can clip Fido's leash
A design with adjustable straps.
Other things you'll need:
A tennis ball
The Fetch/Redirection Method
Starting on shore, take one of your dog's favorite water-resistant toys and play a short game of fetch near the water.
Put on the life jacket
Then, while your dog is chewing their toy, strap the life jacket on them.
Go get it!
When the jacket is on securely, throw the toy into shallow water to distract Fido from the gear.
Time for a swim
After a short game of water fetch, get in the water. Use the toy as an incentive to coax your dog a bit further out. The idea is to get Fido in a slightly deeper area where they can't touch the bottom.
Observe your pet’s behavior as they start to float. Fido may seem unsteady and float on their side until they get accustomed to the new gear. If your dog does this, grab the handle and gently position your pooch correctly in the water.
Do the doggy paddle
Allow Fido to regain their balance. Then, toss the toy a few feet away to encourage Fido to try their paw at doggy paddling with the preserver on. Remember: the key to success is lots of praise and keeping your dog distracted.
The Positive Association Method
Start at home
The positive association method begins in the home, not in the water. Before starting the process, make sure your dog is well-rested and able to focus.
Introduce the life jacket
Lay the life jacket on the floor and have your pup sniff it out. Make a big deal out of the new gear, like you might when presenting a new toy. For example: "Look what Mommy bought the good puppy!"
Reward good behavior
Treat and praise Fido every time they interact with the life jacket.
Once Fido seems comfortable being around the life jacket, gently lay it across their back. Don't worry about fastening the straps yet. The main idea is to have Fido experience the weight of their gear and realize it means no harm. This step may take several tries since dogs often shake off their life jacket at first. Treat and praise your dog enthusiastically when they leave it in place.
Fasten the straps
Now, repeat step 3, except this time, fasten the straps. Continue to reward your dog for cooperating. You may have to repeat these steps over a few days to condition your dog successfully.
Testing it out
When your dog seems reasonably comfortable in their gear, have them try it out in the water. Gently coax your pup into the water by wading along with them or tossing their toy into the water. Never force your dog into the water; this can traumatize them and undo all your hard work. Above all, be patient — this can be scary stuff for a young pup!
The Pool Method
Start in the pool
Some pet parents find it's easier to train a dog to wear a life jacket in a smaller, more confined space. Pools are calmer than natural bodies of water, so they tend to be less scary and distracting for young dogs. You'll also have more control over your pet's movements when swimming in a pool.
Introduce the life jacket
Get your dog acquainted with their life jacket while on the pool deck or patio. Like in the positive association method, reward your dog for engaging with the life jacket.
Fasten the straps
When Fido is finished investigating their new swimsuit, strap it on them.
Follow the leader
Hold the handle or strap of the flotation device and slowly lead Fido into the pool with gentle, cheerful encouragement.
Time to play!
Drag their favorite toy along the surface of the water to encourage them to explore.
Be mindful that it takes time for dogs to find their balance in the water. Swimming with a life jacket is much different from swimming without one, particularly if the device is very bulky.
By Mel Lee-Smith
Published: 09/04/2020, edited: 01/08/2021