What are Raised Hackles in Dogs and What Does it Mean?

Almost all of us as devoted pet owners have come to understand most of the language that our dogs speak. While we can’t understand what all of their gestures and communications mean, we do learn over time some of the more important ones. We can interpret the different kinds of whine which signal the need to go to the bathroom, the I’m hungry or thirsty stare or the distress signals that dogs send out. One of them is raised hackles. This is when the hair on your dog’s back and neck stands straight up. What does this really mean?

The meaning or raised hackles

The majority of people believe that raised hackles on the neck and back of a dog signal a sign of aggression. While this is true to an extent, this isn’t always the case. It’s important to understand what causes raised hackles on your dog and the different things that it could mean.

Raised hackles is not a behavior

It’s important to understand that this is not a behavior on the part of your dog. They don’t intentionally raise their hackles. It is a physical reaction to your dog becoming stimulated about a situation. It’s a reflex or a response that he has no control over. Don’t scold your pet over raised hackles if he or she isn’t doing anything out of line, and try not to assume that it is a sign of aggression unless there are other behaviors to support this guess.

What causes raised hackles?

Raised hackles are a physical reaction to an emotional response that your dog encounters over some type of situation. For example, if your dog perceives a threat. It could signal that your dog is experiencing anxiety, fear, nervousness, anger or excitement. You need to know the context in which this is taking place.

Meeting a new dog

Most dogs get raised hackles when a strange dog is brought into their environment. They may wag their tails and circle one another with hair standing straight up. This could be a sign of elation at the prospect of meeting a new friend. It causes as much anxiety for your dog to meet a new friend as it does in some human adults.

When raised hackles signal aggression

If your dog gets raised hackles and it is accompanied by other signs of aggression, such as a low growl, you can be fairly certain that it’s either a fear response or a willingness to fight. Dogs get angry too and if there’s a strange animal or human entering the property, the raised hair might signal the fact that your dog is upset and willing to fight to protect his family and his home if necessary. When a dog is showing signs of aggression, the hackles are usually raised over a greater portion of the body and can run from the neck extending down the back all the way to the tail.

Predatory situations

Some dogs are instinctively born to be hunters. They may raise their hackles when there is natural prey nearby. While this is normal, if you don’t hunt, it could be a problem if your dog is stalking livestock or other pets. Some dogs even raise hackles when a bird is nearby.

When it becomes a problem

If your dog raises his hackles often, it could be a sign that there is an emotional issue. Even if there are no accompanying signs of aggression, it signals discomfort of some kind. It’s always a good idea to become familiar with what your dog’s body language is indicating. Make a note of the situation that your dog is in when this happens. Are there strangers around? Are there other animals nearby? If your dog shows aggressive behavior with raised hackles frequently, it’s time to seek assistance. You may want to talk to a professional trainer who deals with behavioral issues.

Final thoughts

Raised hackles don’t always mean aggression but they do consistently signal some type of arousal. If your dog is fearful, try to comfort him and give a little reassurance that everything is okay. The way you handle the situation will have an impact on your dog’s sense of security. Your dog’s body language is telling you that something is going on and raised hackles do not necessarily mean that your dog is angry, but on the other hand, it could. Know your dog’s body language and respond accordingly.


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