Do dogs raise their hackles when playing? Tips and Tricks


Situation: Your dog raises its hackles after hearing an unexpected (but non-threatening) loud noise.

What You Should Do: Try to replicate the sound to trick your dog into believing it was you, which can immediately reduce the perceived threat.

Carry on going about your business like the noise was nothing to worry about, helping to normalize and reassure them that there is no threat.

What Not To Do: The worst thing you can do in this situation is to spook your dog by saying things like “Ooooh what was that, go see what that was” or similar phrases that reinforce to your dog that there is an imminent threat.

Cuddling a frightened dog may seem like the right thing to do, but it could cause them to become overly dependent on you.

This can subsequently lead to your dog feeling extremely anxious, particularly when left at home on its own.

What Action Should You Take When Your Dog’s Hackles Are Raised?

When a dog raises its hackles it’s definitely time to pay attention to whatever it is that’s causing them to be overly stimulated, particularly when dealing with dogs or situations that you are unfamiliar with.

You may need to de-escalate the situation by removing your dog from the current environment they are in, or you may simply just need to observe their subsequent behavior.

The action you should take depends on the situation and the likely causes for stimulation, along with the other signs being displayed by your dog.


Situation: Your dog raises its hackles when playing with other dogs

What You Should Do: If your dog is playing happily with other dogs and its hackles are raised, there’s normally no need to worry – it’s a likely sign that they’re having a good time!

Raised hackles during playtime means that they are stimulated and excited, and unless accompanied by signs of aggression, there’s nothing to worry about.

This could also be a sign that they are asserting their dominance, which doesn’t always mean it’s likely to be followed by aggression.

What Not To Do: There’s no need to panic and tell your dog to stop playing or to calm down!

Your dog will not understand what they have done wrong, and could begin displaying other strange behaviors when socializing as a result of the confusion.

Unless the other dog’s owner disapproves of the playfulness, let them crack on with their fun!

Why Do Dogs Raise Their Hackles?

Raised hackles, the hair on a dog’s back and neck, confuse many pet parents. They may see them as a sign of aggression, but that isn’t always the case. Raised hackles do not qualify as a behavior, as they are an involuntary reflex triggered by something that put the dog into a state of arousal. There is actually a medical term for the reaction: piloerection (pilo referring to “hair” in medical terms).

Raised hackles could be a sign of fear, anxiety, excitement, nervousness or anger. If you notice raised hackles on your dog, you must look at other body language and the context to understand what is happening. Only then can you know how to respond.

My German Shepherd Dog, Ginger, used to display raised hackles every time she met a new dog. I rescued her when she was 7 months old. She hadn’t been properly socialized because she had parvovirus as a pup and needed to be kept away from other dogs until she fully recovered. When she was well enough to finally meet other pups, she was beyond the critical period of puppy socialization and was out of control on the leash, which is why I rescued her.

Meeting new dogs caused her much anxiety, and as an adult that manifested into raised hackles. All of her other body parts conveyed appeasing signals: low horizontal tail wagging, squinty eyes and a paw lift — all with wiggly interest. The good news was I understood her behavior, and the better news was that dogs we met also read and understood her body language: she was anxious yet friendly, willing to greet. This from my Dog Decoder app perfectly represents Ginger in this state.

Ginger got over her initial anxiety within the first 60 seconds of meeting a new dog, and she was the friendliest pup who loved to rough and tumble with the best of them. If I didn’t understand her raised hackles and body language, and saw it as aggression that required her to be removed from the situation, her continued lack of socialization would have caused her to become more anxious and even aggressive, when that wasn’t her original intent.

Jack, another pup I worked with in the past, also displayed raised hackles whenever he saw another dog, but because of a different trigger. His was pure and uncontrollable excitement, always wanting to play. He was overly exuberant in his greetings, and oftentimes this put other dogs off from wanting to meet him.

Many dogs displaying this kind of behavior have raised hackles while the rest of their body suggests play: fast horizontal tail wagging, forward ears, even barking and lunging on the leash in excitement. Some might see this as aggressive, too, because of the raised hackles, but for Jack in this situation, it wasn’t at all.

In this next , you’ll see slightly raised hackles at the shoulders and just along the top of the left dog’s back, along with ears back and down, hard eyes, tail high, wide open mouth with teeth showing, and more of a rigid body posture. This combination of raised hackles and body behavior signals aggression from the dog.

If a dog is highly aroused, the hair can stand up from their neck all the way to the tip of their tail, as shown in the predatory stalking below. However, there is no consistent pattern that correlates the amount of hair raised and where to a particular behavior. Each dog and each situation are different.