What Does it Mean When My Dog’s Hackles Are Up?

In the early days after Baxter came to live with us, I noticed that often 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.

Our trainer put my mind at ease. She likened Baxter’s hackles to human goosebumps. In looking at his body language overall, she said he was just excited, which made his hackles come up.

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

Alexandra Horowitz in the book Inside of a Dog describes the reaction 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.”

dog's hackles are up

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

It’s important to pay attention to your dog’s body language and try to learn what he’s saying if he raises his hackles. Your dog may be reacting in fear or aggression, so you have to be prepared to manage that situation.

For us, Baxter’s hackles will go up sometimes if he hears a noise outside and feels like he needs to be on guard. Usually, he and his Mohawk go running to the dining room window and survey the farm until he’s sure there’s no danger—and then his hair relaxes again.

Hackles are also an example of why it’s important to look at body language as a whole, and not just one particular part of your dog.

Horowitz says, “For dogs, posture can announce aggressive intent or shrinking modesty. To simply stand erect, at full height, with head and ears up, is to announce readiness to engage, and perhaps to be the prime mover in the engagement.”

When meeting other dogs, while Baxter’s hackles may be up, his tail is wagging so fast his entire back end is wiggling. In looking at his ears, his face, his overall posture, I can usually assess how he feels about a particular situation.

Dog's hackles are up

I can also learn what Baxter is saying by looking at the other dogs around him. They aren’t hesitant to meet him or aggressive towards him. They usually return his friendliness and sniff enthusiastically.

As adapted as dogs and humans are to live together, we still communicate very differently. Figuring out what he’s feeling and thinking is a fascinating process. And it’s important to not make assumptions based on what we think we know. I love working on deepening my understanding of my dog.

Do you notice your dog raise her hackles? When?

Dog's hackles are up

Julia Thomson is a blogger at Home on 129 Acres where she writes about her adventures of country living and DIY renovating. She writes regularly for That Mutt.

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14 thoughts on “What Does it Mean When My Dog’s Hackles Are Up?”

  1. Lindsay Stordahl

    Remy’s hackles are really dramatic, I think because his fur is so short. He raises them when he greets other dogs too, mostly dogs he hasn’t met before. So for him it seems to be excitement and nervousness. When he was a younger puppy he did this even more so, like when we went to puppy class. People called him “Zipper dog” like he was wearing a zip-up suit! Haha. And some jokingly called him a Ridgeback mix.

    Ace will raise his hackles when he sees certain dogs too. It’s less dramatic. His ears and tail also perk up.

    1. Fur type and length really influences how visible hackles are, I feel. Some of the long-haired dogs we hike with, I feel like I’d never know if their hackles are up. That’s another reason why looking at overall body language is important.

  2. My dog often has her hackles up. Sometimes because other dogs are barking aggressively at her, and sometimes when she’s playing with other dogs (she’s only 9 months old).

    But most of the times, it’s at night when it’s pitch black and she hears a noise or think she sees something. She becomes unsure, and gets ready to engage.

    All in all, I don’t think it’s such a big deal with the hackles up.

  3. Cooper also has pretty dramatic hackles that go up when he’s defensive. Typically, they only appear when he’s out in our backyard and another dog goes past our fence. We never let him greet other dogs when he’s on leash, so now I’m curious as to whether or not he’d display his hackles in that scenario… Hmm…

  4. Great post, we got a Rhodesian Ridgeback from the shelter (we didn’t know the breed at first) and his ridge stands up when he is nervous or on alert. Nice to know it vary’s by breed and even individual.

    1. I was thinking of Ridgebacks a bit as I was writing this article. I don’t have much experience with them–beyond admiring their looks. It’s interesting to know that there’s a noticeable difference when their hackles are up versus the rest of the time. Do you ever have people assume his hackles are up all the time, even if he’s not on alert?

  5. My GSD/Husky gets a “Fluff Ball” on his shoulders when his hackles are up. I was worried about it when it was first happening until I researched on the Web and found what Lindsay stated, it can be, and usually is just some kind of innocent arousal. What I would like is to get a photo of it from the side. But I never have the camera ready when it happens. When I hit the “Big One” I’m gona hire a photographer to follow me around and get the pictures I miss. 🙂

    1. Julia at Home on 129 Acres

      I love the “fluff ball.” I also love the lifetime photographer. My wish is an audio rewind button so I can say to my husband, “No, you said this!” (or “I told you so”)! 🙂

  6. I left the message about my Dakotah’s puff ball and since then my eyes were opened to a possibilty. What I am looking for is an answer to the question; “What to use IF your dog refuses a Harness??”. I messed up on the long line training cause I just didn’t think correctly when I first got my “puppy” (he will be 3 in Feb). He somewhat comes to me -but- not all the time.

    What I have deduced from these two+ years, is that he doesn’t like the top strap on his back smashing his “hackles’. I haven’t yet found a Harness that will not crush is puff ball that arises when he is aroused by play or other stuff. And believe me it is a large puff ball of fur.

    Do you, or anyone else reading this have any Harness or other device suggestions??

  7. Serina J Rieckman

    Both of my two pups fluff up. One has it going in a 4″ stripe from neck thru tail. She’s usually nervous when thats happening. The other does a fluff at base of neck and base of tail. Usually when excited, especially when meeting new dogs. Everything I’ve read about stated it was over excitement/aggression. So I’m careful when meeting new dogs for second one…… which only makes her more frantic to meet new dogs…..

    Its nice to have at least one article that says not to worry!

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