All dogs have hackles and they run from the dog’s neck, down their backbone and to the base of their tail, sometimes even the shoulders. One of my dogs actually had hackles that started at the base of their skull and went all the way down their back and partway down their tail. The first time Smokey saw horses, he sniffed the air in their direction and his hackles rose to their full extent on his back. He didn’t bark or growl at the horses as he approached them and he didn’t race up to them, so why did his hackles rise? Put it down to a simple case of curiosity. Smokey saw these huge creatures who smelled funny to him, and he was trying to assess the situation before taking action. Since I wasn’t worried, neither was he.
When a dog’s hackles rise it is called piloerection. It is similar to the hair going up on your arm, your head or the back of your neck and is an involuntary reaction to a situation. It is theorized that piloerection happens when there is a rush of adrenaline through a dog’s system. Hackles may rise on a dog’s entire body or just in one area, depending on the situation. This should not be confused with a Rhodesian Ridgeback’s ridge. This is a particular feature indicative of the breed and even some Ridgeback crosses.
Piloerection can be caused by excitement, stimulation, arousal, being startled, fear or interest. It is rare that hackles are raised in an aggressive manner, though it does happen. A hunting dog’s hackles may rise when they are pointing a bird or catch a whiff of a pheasant in the brush; they are stimulated and react accordingly. An intact male dog scenting a female in heat in the neighborhood may raise his hackles in his arousal. A dog’s hackles can rise involuntarily due to a loud clap of thunder that startles them. Even the excitement of greeting a family member or canine friend can cause the hackles on a dog’s back to rise.
Small dog or dogs that are fearful may raise their hackles when they meet another dog and it is thought they do this to try and make themselves look taller to the approaching dog. It reminds me of what my cats did when I brought my first puppy home. They puffed themselves up and looked so huge the puppy backed up in terror. While it was funny to watch, I had my hands full trying to calm the poor puppy and soothe the cats. A dog smelling an unfamiliar wild animal in their territory at night may raise their hackles and growl a warning to “stay away.” A puppy raising its hackles may do so because it is unsure how to react to a situation or change in its surroundings.
The best thing for a responsible pet owner to do is to be aware of your own dog’s body language and be in charge of any situation you and your dog are in. The next time you go walking with your dog or to the dog park, watch your dog and how they react to other dogs they meet. Watch both the dogs and their communication with each other. Watch not only their hackles, but their tail, eyes, ears, body posture and facial expressions. For more helpful tips on this topic, read Linda Cole’s Body Language of Dogs. By understanding your own dog and their body language, you are a step ahead of the game.
Read more articles by Ruthie Bently
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