What causes the hair and hackles to rise on some dogs’ backs?

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Dogs are very expressive and use many cues to communicate their moods and feelings; hair is one of the important mood indicators a dog can utilize. When the hair is raised over the area where the shoulder blades meet, this is called “raising the hackles.” The official term is “Piloerection,” which is involuntary, much like when humans get goose bumps. The nervous system creates adrenaline, which causes muscles to contract, puffing out the fur on top of them.

Piloerection makes the dog look larger, and it can convey several meanings: it could mean your dog is afraid, angry or possibly insecure, unsure, nervous or even wildly excited about something—such as playing with a child or another dog. There are many misconceptions about raised hackles. While it doesn’t always mean aggression, it does always mean one thing in particular: the dog is feeling something very intensely.

It’s important to look at a variety of factors in order to determine your dog’s mood. For instance, raised hackles means the hair along the dog’s spine stands up, but some animals, such as the Rhodesian Ridgeback, there is a natural “ridge” along the spine so it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference.

Take time to observe the dog’s overall body posture; ask yourself if the stance is relaxed or stiff. Generally speaking, a dog’s body stiffness will increase as it is feeling more tension and aggression. Evaluate whether the dog is crouched on lowered haunches or low in the “play bow.” Determine if the dog’s ears are relaxed, up, or flat and lying back. Make sure to notice if the dog is baring teeth or snarling.

Additionally, it’s important to look at all of the dog’s fur. Though dogs don’t really communicate with fur, it can indicate some important factors. For example, if the dog is nervous, he will probably shed more than usual.

Anytime you see your dog with raised hackles, pay attention to what’s going on around you. It could be nothing more than your dog feeling uncertain or apprehensive about another dog, but your dog’s body language will tell you everything you need to know before a situation gets complicated. Sometimes situations you don’t perceive as threatening can feel that way for your dog. Stay calm and keep the dog’s attention focused on you. When your dog sees you remaining calm, he will feel secure in knowing there’s nothing to worry about.

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