I decided to make raised hackles the first in my new series on misunderstood behaviours because of an experience I had earlier today. I was at the dog with Ripley, and he and another German shepherd were saying hello. The other shepherd’s hackles were up all along her back. I said to the owner that I liked the Mohawk look. The dog’s owner replied, “She shouldn’t be doing that, its her being aggressive.” I tend to stay silent at the dog park unless something is going terribly wrong, but I really couldn’t see any aggressive behaviours coming from this dog. “I think she is just over excited.” The lady replied, “No that’s just her being aggressive.” Confused, I took long look at the dog, trying to find a single aggressive behaviour, while the lady chastised and pushed her dog across the park. Nothing, just an over aroused, dog who was overwhelmed by a new situation.
Raised hackles, or pilo-erection, is a reflexive behaviour. When dogs are over excited their hackles will reflect this arousal. The behaviour can be misinterpreted as aggression. While pilo-erection is seen during aggressive encounters; it is not an aggressive behaviour. Raised hackles during high intensity play and fear reactions is quite normal. Some dog’s hackles will be up at the shoulders and continue all the way down to the base of the tail, while others may have hair that is only raised at the shoulder blades, or base of tail alone.
Another dog’s reactions to a dog with raised hackles will vary: some may find it intimidating while others ignore it. The important thing to remember is that your dog is not doing it on purpose. Pilo-erection is reflexive, the only way to stop the behaviour is by decreasing the intensity of the moment.
If your dog regularly has raised hackles when he plays, interrupt his play more often, especially if other dogs seem intimidated by his play style.
If his hackles only go up when he is fearful, teach him a relaxation cue. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol. Hackles can be a good indicator of stress so pay attention, don’t punish.