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

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!

IN THIS POST:

What does raised hackles mean?

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.

dog's hackles are up

A dog’s raised fur for communication

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

For us, Baxter’s fur 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.

Are raised hackles always a sign of aggression?

No, a dog’s raised hackles does not always mean aggression, although it can.

A dog’s raised hair on his back are 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 fur 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.

Hackles on a dog

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.

Raised hackles on a puppy

Some puppies may raise their hackles, for the same reasons as adult dogs. Since puppies are still figuring out their place in the world, they may be a bit more dramatic as new things are more likely to make them excited or nervous.

Lindsay, the main blogger behind That Mutt, noticed her puppy Remy would raise his hackles every time they went to his puppy obedience class. The trainer would even comment about his mohawk, but Remy never showed any aggression. It was pure excitement and probably some anxiety.

Do cats have hackles?

Yes, cats absolutely raise their hackles when they are upset, stressed, excited or scared. I’m sure you’ve seen a cat standing with its fur all puffed up. The cat was probably hissing or growling.

A lot of animals have “hackles” along their neck and back that will raise when the animal is on alert, excited or nervous.

Do you notice your dog raise her hair on her back? When?

Dog's hackles are up

Julia Preston writes for That Mutt about dog behavior and training, working dogs and life on her farm in Ontario, Canada. She has a sweet, laid-back boxer mix named Baxter. She is also a blogger at Home on 129 Acres where she writes about her adventures of country living and DIY renovating.

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