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.”
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.
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?
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.