There is a big difference between being at the lake and being in my hydrotherapy pool. At the lake or on the river, I would say “HELL YES!” if someone asked if a dog should wear a life vest. It is a safety issue, period. I also think you should teach your dog to swim efficiently so if your pup falls or jumps in the water not only will your pup not sink, but your pup can also get him/herself to safety expending the least amount of energy and more importantly, will not panic.
I am a huge fan of life vests, but I do not use them in my hydrotherapy sessions.
I was taught to hold each soul close to my body. I can feel every muscle and every movement. I can feel a release of tension no matter how slight, as the pup acclimates to the water. I can feel a release from their shoulders, back, flanks all the way down to their toes. This release of tension gives me information on when it’s safe to move to the next step. It gives me information that they are starting to trust I will not drop them into the deep end. The thick fabric between the pup limits this communication.
Life vests limit the range of motion for the dog. I want the pup to be unimpeded when swimming. The pup should be able to fully extend and contract while in the water. Additionally, life vests, by design, keep the dog slightly out of the water. I want the swimmer to be able to feel weightlessness and freedom. To compare think treadmill vs. walking on land. They are not the same at all.
Holding the souls close to my body, I can feel their heartbeat and breath rate. Having a life vest between the dog and me will diminish this ability to feel the dog intimately. This way I can compare from week to week how fast the dog acclimates to the water, I know how to adjust each session accordingly. My focus is on their safety and their form.
While we are together in the water, I will massage the whole body over the course of the session. Life vests limit my access to swimmer’s shoulders, back and rib cage. These areas are most massaged.
Here 3-year-old Jax takes a break between swims to get his toes massaged. I hold him close. I relax my muscles as I sit and ease my breath to communicate with him this is massage time, and he is safe. It was his first session, so I wanted to keep things to a low roar and very enjoyable. He is also practicing this position for massage as there will be several positions as he progresses. Here, I am massaging his front leg all the way down between his toes.
Not only do life vest restrict what I can feel from the dog, they restrict what the dog can feel from me. I take deep breaths all throughout each session to relax and steady myself. Dogs can sense oncoming seizures, so naturally they will be able to sense calm, relaxed behavior from me. The calm and steadfast I am, the more I bring comfort to the pup.
When I hold your sweet pup in the water, they have every part of me. My thoughts, my emotions, my breath, my muscles, my attention. My time in the water are the most precious moments of my day to. I am with them completely for that whole hour.