5 min read


Why Do Dogs Show Their Hackles



5 min read


Why Do Dogs Show Their Hackles




When your dog raises his hackles, do the hairs on the back of your neck prickle a bit too? Well, it could be possible that you are both experiencing the same sensation called piloerection. It is an involuntary response to an outside stimulus. A scary or exciting experience for canines and humans can be called hair-raising. These experiences trigger hair to stand on end or make hackles show up. When dogs show their hackles, the gesture is not always about an aggressive reaction to something. Hackles can be raised to show fear, excitement, lack of confidence, nervousness at meeting new people, or other dogs. All these situations can set off the hair-raising response. Reading your dog’s body language and understanding the circumstances will help you know why your dog is showing his hackles.

The Root of the Behavior

Dogs show their hackles as part of an involuntary response to something happening around them. This action is not really a learned behavior as your dog is not able to control the reaction, however it does allow dogs to communicate in different ways. Emotions, like fear or excitement, arouse the dog and lead him to have raised hackles. The hackles are found all along the dog’s back, over his shoulders and at the base of his tail. Dogs do respond differently to a perceived danger and in these situations, your dog may raise some or all his hackles. Watching your dog’s body language, along with the show of hackles will help you understand the situation. Firstly, although there could be an incident of aggression, the primary reasons for raised hackles are not a response to anger or imminent attack. Hackles can show fear, excitement, enjoyment, suspicion, dominance and even some predatory behavior. Raised hackles are linked to your dog’s flight or fight response to situations. Another two F factors have been added to the showing of hackles - fiddle or freeze. Hackles, responding to the adrenalin released and hormones like cortisol, send a boost of energy through the dog’s body. The arrector pili muscles between hair follicles lift and raise the dog’s hair along his back. Long ago, in his wild days, dogs needed to have hackles to make them look bigger and more dominant towards their enemies. Showing their hackles gave them a chance to assess the situation and then put themselves into flight or fight mode. All dogs have hackles, but they are easier to spot on short haired dogs. The Rhodesian Ridgeback has a ridge of hair down its back that could be confused with hackles, but the ridge is part of its genetics. This ridge is comprised of hair growing in a different direction along the back of the dog hence the name Ridgeback. Dogs automatically show their hackles when they feel insecure or under a threat. Meeting another dog would trigger your dogs automatic show of hackles and as you take note of body language you will be able to decide what mode your dog is going into and how to handle that response. Using the signals that nature has provided, and an understanding of dog behavior is a great advantage in these situations.   

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Encouraging the Behavior

A dog’s ability to show their hackles is a wonderful feature of canine communication. Your dog can show you he is a little uncertain and lacks confidence. There are three patterns of communication raised hackles show. Shoulder and neck hackles indicate lack of confidence and a fearful dog that may be defensive. Hackles that show along the back of your dog indicate a more confident response and an offensive mode of behavior. Hackles that show across the shoulders and at the base of the tail, leaving the back smooth, shows a conflict of emotions, an uncertain response. This could be reactive and unpredictable. In all these situations learn to read the body language of your dog as he shows his hackles. Remember that raised hackles are not necessarily an aggressive response. Good puppy socializing will certainly help all dogs to be more confident and less fearful. A puppy school will teach new owners how to understand different communication skills. Social classes give puppies and dogs a chance to meet other dogs. After a few bouts of raised hackles, they learn to calm down and have a good time together. When your dog raises his hackles in play behavior, you will see that his body language shows excitement. His ears are pricked up and alert, his tail wags quickly, and he may bark and lunge forward with a play bow ready to have some fun. The signs of aggression or fear in his body language show ears pulled back and tail held high. His body may be rigid, and his teeth could show as his hard eyes stare at the perceived danger. You should remove your dog from this situation until you can understand why he has reacted so strongly and get help with his possible fear.  

Other Solutions and Considerations

Getting out and about with your dog should never be a hair-raising experience for either of you. Be alert for canine stressors and be ready to be the calming influence your dog will need. Dogs can have a fearful response to loud noises, dogs they don’t know, and strange people. Generally, dogs feel anxious if they find themselves trapped or threatened. They can also show their hackles if they are over-excited or too playful. Hackles can be raised if you try to steal a favorite toy or bone. Listen for the warning growl and watch hackles show and use a leave command or distract with another toy to diffuse the situation. Dogs may use their hackles to increase their body warmth on a chilly day like putting on an extra little ruffle around their necks. Hackles can also release scent glands under the skin and send out odor messages to other dogs. Hackles are there to speak out for your dog’s insecurities and learning to read them is a valuable tool in canine communication. 


Finding a dog called Hackles could be rare but Hackles, the computer canine, exists! He has a leading role to play, with his companions, in the cartoon called Hackles. A clever play on words gives him his original name as a potential hack in the computer world! Would Hackles raise awareness about the value of showing hackles? No, not really, but the delightful cartoon could help dispel the myth that hackles are always a sign of aggression.

By a Rhodesian Ridgeback lover Christina Wither

Published: 02/13/2018, edited: 01/30/2020

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