Although you can’t always see it through the fur, dogs do get goosebumps (called hackles for dogs). The reasons dogs get goosebumps are different than humans. Dogs typically get hackles along their spine when they’re being aggressive or defensive, but it can also happen when they’re excited and playful.
The scientific name for goosebumps is piloerection, which just means hair standing up. Dogs absolutely get goosebumps, but in canines, it’s called hackles.
Although the physiological process is the same, the reasons are different. Humans get goosebumps when we are cold, or sometimes due to fear. But dogs will raise their hackles for different reasons.
What Causes Dog Goosebumps?
All dogs have hackles, but it’s harder to notice in some breeds, like poodles, with long curly hair. There are many reasons why a dog might raise her hackles.
Some dogs, mainly those with longer, fluffier coats, will raise their hackles to increase the insulating properties of their coat.
This helps dogs who live in cold climates, especially if they spend a lot of time outdoors.
Fear or Startle Response
Just like when you’re startled or creeped out and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, a dog who’s scared or startled will raise its hackles.
This is usually an involuntary startle response, and the hackles will go back down once the dog realizes it’s safe.
If a dog feels threatened, he may raise his hackles to make himself look bigger and scare off the person or animal that’s invading his territory.
His body language will also be defensive if this is the case.
Aggressive dogs will often raise their hackles as the adrenaline shoots through their body and prepares them for a fight.
An aggressive dog’s body language will be aggressive rather than defensive, and there’s a good chance he’ll bite if given the chance.
Dogs will often raise their hackles when they’re intensely focused on something, like when stalking and hunting prey.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re fearful, defensive, or aggressive, just that they’re using all their energy on the task at hand.
Some dogs will raise their hackles out of pure excitement. This is especially true in hyperactive dogs, who tend to be more excitable overall.
How to Read the Hackles
Hackles are found in a few place on a dog:
- in a narrow strip along the spine
- across the shoulders
- on the haunches just above the tail
In some instances, not all of the dogs hackles will be raised, so it’s possible to get a sense of the dog’s intentions by noticing which hackles are raised.
However, not all dogs display the same raised hackles patterns for the same reasons, so don’t rely on that alone to figure out their intentions.
It’s also important to remember that it isn’t always possible to get a good look at a dog’s hackles, especially when dealing with a potentially aggressive dog that you don’t know well.
In that case, keep your distance and read the dog’s body language, which is discussed in the next section. But for now, let’s stick to hackle patterns.
Raised Along the Spine
Hackles raised along the spine indicate a high level of confidence, indicating:
If a dog has hackles raised along the spine and is growling or showing teeth, there’s a good chance that he’ll bite.
If these hackles are raised and he’s super focused, then his raised hackles might just be a sign of intense concentration.
Raised Over the Shoulders
Dogs will often raise the hackles over their shoulders when they’re frightened or feeling defensive.
Although not necessarily aggressive, if a dog feels cornered enough, there’s a risk that he’ll lash out to protect himself.
Raised On the Shoulders and Over the Tail
Sometimes, hackles will be raised on both the shoulders and the area over the tail, but the hackles along the spine will be flat.
This might mean the dog is feeling uncertain and isn’t sure whether he should defend or go on offense.
These dogs often have behavioral issues stemming from previous neglect or abuse, so their behavior is unpredictable.
Dog Body Language
Noticing the location of a dog’s raised hackles can give you a clue as to his mental state. Still, it’s important to use common sense. Read the situation and his body language to get a better understanding of what’s going on.
It helps a lot if you already know the dog since you’ll have a better idea of his personality and what may be upsetting him. This will also give you an idea of how likely they are to bite.
But even if you don’t know a dog, body language will tell you a lot about what a dog is thinking and its intentions.
Here are a few of the main body language indicators to look out for.
The easiest thing to read on a dog without getting too close is his stance or posture.
- Leaning towards: means he’s feeling confident. This can be to play or when tracking, but if coupled with other threatening behavior or raised hackles, it can be a sign that he’s ready to attack.
- Leaning away: the dog is afraid and cowering to get away from something. May bite defensively if cornered.
- Belly up: a very submissive posture
- Butt up: also called the “play bow,” the dog wants to initiate play
In addition to stance, the ears are a good indicator of his mood.
- Pricked forward: focused on something. If coupled with raised hackles, it’s a good sign that he’s on the hunt.
- Pinned back: a sign of aggressiveness or defensiveness if paired with raised hackles. If his ears are laid lightly back and he’s otherwise relaxed, it can be a gesture of social goodwill.
Dogs are very expressive with their tails.
- Fear or defensiveness: tail held low or tucked between legs
- Aggression: tail held high, stiff
- Alertness: tail held straight out
- Anxious or unsure: slowly wagging, or short, stiff, fast wags
- Happy: relaxed fanning or excited fast wags
As a general rule, an aggressive dog will stare, making direct, threatening eye contact. Dogs on the hunt will also have a laser-like focus on their prey.
A dog that’s feeling defensive, anxious, or afraid, on the other hand, will generally avoid eye contact altogether or not be able to keep it for very long.
The more relaxed a dog’s mouth is, the more relaxed he is. The more tension around the mouth there is, the more stressed, agitated, or aggressive he’s feeling.
Although dogs don’t always show teeth out of aggression, if a dog’s hackles are raised and his teeth show, there’s a good chance he’s willing to bite, so be careful. This is especially true if his body stance and ear position are forward rather than back.
Now that you know a little more about dog goosebumps (or hackles) you’ll be able to keep an eye out for it next time your dog raises his.
Using what you learned in the body language section, you’ll have a better understanding of why his hackles might be raised and whether he wants comfort or to be left alone.
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