What does it mean when my dog’s hackles are up? The Ultimate Guide

About the author:

Jill Breitner is a professional dog trainer and dog body language expert. She is a certified Fear Free Professional, Fear Free Professional for Foundation for Puppies and Kittens, as well as Certified in Animal Behavior and Welfare. She is the author of the Dog Decoder, a smartphone app about dog body language. Join Jill on her on her Facebook page.

Dogs With Raised Hackles: What Does It Mean?

Raised hackles in dogs mean they are on high alert. They could be having a response brought on by fear, dominance, surprise, insecurity, or uneasiness about a situation. The nervous system automatically causes piloerection along the neck and back. This is done automatically, and not under conscious control of the dog.

When you see raised hackles on a dog, be aware of what the trigger is. Sometimes it could be the ringing of the doorbell, other times it might be meeting a new dog or person.

Some younger dogs raise their hackles more often because they are still getting to know their environment and the world around them. Their sense of security might be a little less solid than an older dog who is more confident.

By having the hairs along their neck and back stand up, dogs appear taller and bigger to whatever threat they are reacting to. Dog hackles are more of a visual cue to their trigger that they are big, dominant, and ready to defend themselves if necessary.

Although rare, there have been a few reports of dog hackles being raised when they are not stimulated by an outside trigger. Dogs with neurologic diseases can have a “malfunction” of the autonomic nerves, and cause the arrector pili muscles to contract when not stimulated.

What if a Dog’s Hackles Are Up When Playing?

Sometimes dog hackles can be raised during times of play. Overstimulation, excitement, and surprise can cause piloerection. Watching to make sure the hackles go down, or that the dog isn’t showing other signs of aggression is key to having safe playtime.

Why Do Dogs Raise Their Hackles?

Hackles are that strip of hair along a dog’s back. A dog’s hackles can rise in a number of different situations: fear, anxiety, excitement, nervousness or anger.

In the early days after my dog Baxter came to live with us, I noticed that when we met other dogs, his hackles went up.

I had always heard that hackles were associated with aggression, but Baxter didn’t seem at all aggressive. In fact, he was wiggly and excited and friendly any time we encountered other dogs—although he did it with his hair in a Mohawk!

You’ve probably heard the phrase “raise your hackles” and the association with “making someone angry.” However, in the context of dogs, our trainer put my mind at ease.

She compared my dog’s raised hairs on his back to human goosebumps. In looking at Baxter’s body language overall, she said he was just excited. The excitement made his fur stand up.

Alexandra Horowitz in the book Inside of a Dog describes a dog’s raised hackles not as aggression, but more generally as arousal.

“The hair between the shoulders or at the rump—the hackles—may be standing at attention, serving not just as a visual signal of arousal but also releasing the odor of the skin glands at the base of the hairs.”

For dogs, for whom scent is so important, I think the smell component is a really cool feature of hackles raising.