Dog Lifejackets

A popular misconception is that all dogs can swim, but like people, not all dogs are built for the water. And even dogs that can swim tend to lack the stamina to stay afloat for long periods of time, particularly in rough water. The point? If you're a canine-crazy paddler who can't resist taking your dog for day-trips on the lake, you should seriously consider investing in some extra buoyancy for man's best friend. Think of it this way: Would you take your kid out without a lifejacket? Probably not. So spend a few bucks or get really creative with the sewing machine and put a PFD (personal flotation device) on Fido before you find him playing dead at the bottom of the sea.

Missy, flaunting her stylish tiny-dog PFD.

Since large dogs are less-than-ideal sea-kayaking companions, the paddlers most likely to take their four-legged friend out for a cruise are small-dog owners. But if you have a particularly small dog, the task of finding a PFD that fits can be a nightmare. Trust me, I know from experience. My paddling partner is an exceedingly-small, pure-bred Chihuahua. Her name is Missy, and she weighs a scant four pounds, with a torso barely nine inches long. In her case, a PFD is an absolute must. Yes, she can swim. But when she first jumps into the water, her remarkably slender body sinks like a brick. It can take anywhere from five to ten seconds before the modest buoyancy of her body can catch up and bring her back to the surface (usually sneezing water and more than a little flustered). As soon as I discovered this problem, I spent hours searching the Internet for a PFD that would fit her securely, but to no avail. So, as you may have guessed, I soon became a self-taught lifejacket engineer. Believe it or not, after a crash-course in sewing and the principles of buoyancy, $30 in materials, and three disastrous prototypes, I finally stumbled across the ultimate Chihuahua lifejacket design.

In case you ever find yourself faced with a similar tiny-dog flotation dilemma, here is my official step-by-step guide to making the ultimate tiny-dog PFD:

First, you need to find some kind of buoyant foam-like material to use for the flotation. I bought a Coast Guard-approved child's lifejacket from WalMart for $15, and cut it open to see what they use. To spare you the suspense, I'll tell you the answer: It's closed-cell foam not unlike the cellophane wrap that some fragile items come packaged in by mail. You can probably find something similar at a craft store or a packaging center, but be certain you don't confuse it with the bubbly packing plastic that kids like to pop with their fingers. If you use the stuff that pops, your dog will probably snap, crackle, and pop all the way down the beach, float lower and lower in the water, and end up wearing what amounts to a water-logged windbreaker filled with glorified Saran Wrap. In other words, be sure you use some kind of closed-cell foam or other fill that will provide adequate, long-lasting buoyancy. Fido won't appreciate all your hard work if you don't build his PFD with a close eye to safety.

Next, you need to decide what fabric to use for the shell that surrounds the flotation foam. Whatever material you choose, make sure it has the right properties for the task: it should be thoroughly wear-resistant, stain-resistant, and not very absorbent (you don't want your PFD soaking up water like a sponge or it might do more harm than good). It should also be smooth and comfortable. Remember, it's going to be strapped across your dog's back, and you don't want Fido to try to chew apart all your hard work just because it's chafing him. For Missy's PFD, I used the tough white fabric from a brand new, heavy-duty lawn-mower bag (the kind of bag that attaches over the blower of a push-mower to collect grass). It's relatively soft, amazingly strong, non-absorbent, stain-resistant, and easy to sew. Unless your local fabric store has a better recommendation, you might want to stop at a hardware store and pick up one of these bags yourself.

Side view of Missy's PFD, showing the right shoulder strap and the waist strap. The waist strap wraps under her, passes through the square metal loop, and folds back upon itself.

While you're out shopping for fabric, you'll need to pick up a few other materials too. In particular, some 20 lb. fishing line for the sewing (preferably superline, which is more thread-like than monofilament), some orange sew-on reflective strips (for safety and nighttime visibility), and some velcro strips. The velcro strips will be used to make the harness system, so you'll have to put a little thought into how wide you want the straps to be. I used 3/4" thick velcro strips for Missy's PFD. If you have a larger dog, you might want to use wider straps yet. Remember, comfort is important, and the wider the straps are, the more supportive they will feel, and the less apt they will be to chafe or constrict Fido's body. Also, you want a special kind of velcro that contains both hooks and loops across the entire strip, rather than the more common kind of velcro that is comprised of one strip of hooks and one strip of loops. The advantage of this special kind of velcro is that it sticks to itself, so it can be used to make an easily adjustable harness system.

Okay, so you've collected all the materials. Now is where it gets really tricky. I hope your dog knows how to sit, stay, and be patient. You have a lot of measuring and creative cutting ahead of you. I strongly recommend that you begin with a thin sheet of flotation foam (approx. 1/8" to 1/4" thick). Cut the sheet so that it is long enough to cover your dog's spine from about one or two inches behind the head, all the way back to the waistline (right in front of the hind legs). Cut it wide enough to wrap from one side of your dog to the other, starting on the lower left side, up over the back, down to the lower right side. Congratulations, you have now created the back panel of your dog's PFD: the part that will hug its back like a saddle.

Now you need to determine roughly how much flotation your dog needs for adequate support in the water. They say the average-sized adult weighs between 12 and 18 pounds in the water, which is why most adult lifejackets have anywhere from 20 to 35 pounds of buoyancy built into them. If your dog is as tiny as mine, it doesn't take a genius to see that a very small amount of closed-cell foam can work wonders for helping your pal stay afloat. In fact, the back panel alone (the piece you've already cut) might do the trick. Even so, I'm a firm believer in adding a little extra safety. You might be tempted to just cut a second sheet of foam the same size and shape as the back panel you've already cut, but don't. If you stack layers like that, you'll find it terribly difficult to get the flotation to wrap comfortably around your dog's back. Instead, cut a few one-inch wide strips of the 1/8" or 1/4" thick foam, and glue them to the back panel, parallel to your dog's spine, with at least 1/4" of space between the strips. This will add flotation, but the spaces between the strips will not prevent the back panel from curving securely around your dog. Just be careful to put most of these extra flotation strips close to the top of the lifejacket, closer to your dog's spine than to his belly. Otherwise, the PFD might try to roll your dog onto his side or turn him upside down in the water, which will obviously do more harm than good.

Front view of Missy's PFD, showing both shoulder straps, the underbelly strap, and the waist strap.

To clarify this process with an example, let me explain how I built Missy's PFD. The child's lifejacket I bought from Walmart was filled with several sheets of 1/8" thick closed-cell foam. I cut one of these sheets into a back panel six inches long (the length of Missy's spine from just behind her head to her waistline) and five inches wide (the width from the middle of her left side, up over her back, down to the middle of her right side). Next, I cut another sheet of 1/8" foam into three strips, each about an inch wide, and glued them on top of the back panel, running parallel to her spine. I glued the first strip straight down the center (exactly above her spine), and I glued the other two strips on either side of this center strip, with roughly 1/4" to 1/2" of space between them. Then I cut three more strips of 1/8" thick foam and glued these on top of the existing three, so that essentially I ended up with one 1/8" thick back panel and three 6"L x 1"W x 1/4"D strips of additional flotation running down her back. By my rough estimation, this probably only offers her about one pound of buoyancy, but for such a little dog, that's plenty to combat the momentary sinking effect that occurs whenever she jumps into the water.

Now comes the really hard part: trimming and sewing the fabric. Begin by cutting out one layer of fabric slightly larger than the back panel (perhaps an extra 1/4" all the way around; you can always trim it later). This layer of fabric will form the underside of the lifejacket (the part that actually touches Fido's back). Now pin another layer of fabric over the top of the back panel and the flotation foam, and pin it all together, all the way around the perimeter. As you go, try to pinch the fabric a little to give a natural arch to the PFD. This will make it fit much better later. When you finish pinning it, set it on your dog's back for a moment to check it for fit. If it needs more or less arch, adjust your pins accordingly.

Now comes the sewing. To ensure the seams hold up to repeated exposure to water, I recommned using 20lb.-test superline (available anywhere fishing line is sold, including WalMart). Afterward, I recommend running around the edges with a sewing machine to enhance durability. Some sewing machines might sew adequately with 20lb.-test fishing line on the spool, but for Missy's PFD, I used regular thread on the sewing machine. If you do use thread, make sure it's polyester, not cotton. Cotton will gradually degrade through repeated exposure to water.

Front view of the complete tiny-dog PFD and harness system. Two shoulder straps converge around a metal loop. The underbelly strap is also attached to this loop, and runs back to wrap around the waist strap in the back.

By now you should have something which decently resembles the back of a lifejacket. Now you have to get creative and figure out how to position the velcro straps so they sit properly on Fido and hold the PFD securely. The advantage of making the harness entirely out of velcro is that you can make it so every piece of the harness system is adjustable. But be sure you turn the little velcro hooks and loops away from your dog's skin so it won't chafe. I can't emphasize this point enough: Don't shortchange your dog's comfort. If you want your dog to wear this thing instead of chewing it to pieces, you need to make him happy and comfortable. Missy actually curled up and took a nap in hers.

Although there are many different ways to attach the straps, here's how I configured them for Missy: The "waist strap" is sewn to one side of the PFD at the waistline. It wraps under her, passes through a square metal loop on the other side, then folds back on itself. The "shoulder straps" are two separate straps, attached to the front of the PFD to either side of Missy's head, and sewn at a slight angle to match the slope of her shoulder. They converge and wrap around a round metal loop positioned right in the center of her chest, then fold back upon themselves. The "underbelly strap" is sewn at one end around the same metal loop that connects to the shoulder straps, and the other end wraps around the "waist strap" in the back, then folds back upon itself.

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© 2007, Wesley Kisting

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