Why Do German Shepherds Hair Stand Up? You’ll Be Surprised!


During your days of German Shepherd ownership, there will no doubt come a time when his hair virtually stands up. You will be surprised to find out that your dog will raise his hackles for many reasons. Knowing the causes is essential. So, why does your German Shepherd’s hair stand up?

Your German Shepherd’s hair may stand up when feeling aggressive, anxious due to fear, excited, or when indulging in preying behavior. Knowing the cause of the raised hackles will help you to take the steps necessary, if any, to reduce or prevent it from happening.

Raised hackles are something that you will see in your German Shepherd. Although it can occur often or sparingly, the main goal is to know why. Sometimes it’s harmless when your German Shepherd’s hair stands up. However, in some instances – such as aggression – the owner will need to step in and stop this behavior. 

This article will look at what exactly hackles are, what causes them to rise, and how to prevent or minimize the emotions that make your German Shepherd’s hairs stand up.

German Shepherd with Raised Hackles. Why Does My German Shepherd's Hair Stand Up?

Let’s dive into the reasons why your German Shepherd’s hairs stand up!

What Are Hackles?

When you are looking at hair standing up on your German Shepherd’s body, you are likely looking at raised hackles. These erect hairs are found along the backbone, beginning at the neck and running down to the tip of the tail.

They are more noticeable in the German Shepherd breed due to their coarse, dense, and wiry fur. Certain types of responses can trigger more raised hackles in certain spots than others.

The best way to understand it is to think of raised hackles like human goosebumps. They simply come and go when they please in response to something happening, whether it’s just a breeze of brisk, ice-cold wind, or we are feeling a type of emotion, such as being scared or angry.

This reflex is known as piloerection, which is simply an involuntary response under certain circumstances and to different emotions. All dogs will have this occur to them in their lifetime – it is a typical response to certain things and it is something that they cannot control. Raised hackles can be more common in German Shepherds due to their extremely protective nature.

Why Do The Hackles Raise?

Here are four primary reasons why your German Shepherd’s hair will stand up. And while every response is involuntary, each type of response will come with other signs (which we will dive into later in this article). These are:

  • He is feeling aggressive.
  • He is feeling anxious due to fear.
  • He is excited.
  • He is acting on his prey drive.

The primary reason for the raised hackles is to make the dog appear bigger to scare off a potential threat, which is why many dog owners assume that their dog is feeling aggressive.  It is known as the “fight or flight” response (also known as the acute stress response) and is how the dog will react to any stress or danger.

Knowing the reasoning behind your German Shepherd’s raised hackles is extremely important. Sometimes, it’s not a big deal – which is the case in an excited puppy. However, aggression, anxiety, and preying are all things that might need to be handled by the owner to stop anything from getting out of hand.

Here’s an interesting short 3-minute video explaining that piloerection in dogs does not only occur due to aggression, but many emotional states including fear, defensiveness, insecurity, unfamiliarity, arousal, and even cold:

Piloerection in dogs, “Raised Hackles”

Let’s take a closer look at 4 reasons why your German Shepherd’s dog hair might stand up:

Your German Shepherd is Feeling Aggressive 

Unfortunately, raised hackles can sometimes mean that your German Shepherd is feeling aggressive. And while this might be the last thing you want to be dealing with when it comes to your dog, it’s all too common, especially for this breed.

Don’t get me wrong – German Shepherds can be extremely loving, caring, and sweet. They are highly intelligent, which is why they find themselves in the police force and military. However, this overly loyal and protective dog is also highly dominant and can be a bit on the aggressive side if he is not trained or socialized properly.

If you suspect that the raised hackles are due to aggression, you should also look for these other signs of aggression:

  • Overall posture is stiff
  • The tail is vertical or arches over the back
  • Ears are pinned back completely
  • He is showing his teeth and growling/snarling

If you notice that your German Shepherd is acting aggressively, it is vital to stop this behavior right away. Aggressive behaviors must be stunned before they become too much to handle, and something awful occurs like a bite to a person or another dog. 

German Shepherd with her hair standing up. German Shepherd Raised Hackles
My German Shepherd “Willow” showing her raised hackles

The above photo shows my German Shepherd showing her hackles as the mailman approaches the front of the house. See how she makes herself look bigger – it is her way of saying, “don’t come any closer.” She is being protective of her family and property.

I don’t see this behavior as an issue as being protective is one of the natural traits of the German Shepherd. She doesn’t display other signs of aggression and you will notice that her ears are upright meaning she is very alert. Interestingly, if she sees the same mailman when out on a walk she will approach him with a friendly tail wag!

How to Reduce Aggression in German Shepherds

There are so many valuable ways to reduce aggression in German Shepherds. The good news is that German Shepherds are easy to train due to their high intelligence, but as an owner, you must be dominant otherwise, your German Shepherd will attempt to dominate you! If they think they can walk all over you, a German Shepherd will certainly try.

This does not mean that you should hurt your dog in any way to show dominance, though. Not only is this unethical and wrong, but it can also teach your German Shepherd that acting out in this way is normal – the opposite of what you want to accomplish! To find out more about this, here’s my post on how to discipline a German Shepherd and more importantly, what NOT to do.

Below are some great ways to reduce aggression in your German Shepherd:

  • Take him to obedience training. Perhaps the best way to take the aggression out of your German Shepherd is to take him for professional obedience training. The teachers are trained to handle your dog and his dominant personality. It’s also best to do these classes when the German Shepherd is still a puppy, however, it’s never too late to train a German Shepherd as you can learn here.
  • Teach him basic commands. Commands like “stay” and “down” will help you to stop his aggressive behaviors before they get out of control. For more info on how to train an 8-week old German Shepherd puppy, check out my beginner’s guide.
  • Always stand in front of him. If your German Shepherd is aggressive on walks, then you should always try and stand in front of him. Otherwise, your German Shepherd might think he needs to protect you.
  • Reward good behavior. Just like any other dog, your German Shepherd should be rewarded using positive reinforcement. You can give him healthy treats or if he isn’t motivated by food, give him his favorite toy, or play his favorite games. This positive reinforcement will help him associate being calm with positive consequences,” says Wag Walking.
  • Spray him with a little bit of water. Using a spray bottle, spray some water near his face when he becomes aggressive. This will show him that destructive behaviors have negative consequences, so he should stop. Some dog training collars can also do this using a remote control. You may have your own opinions on these two methods, however, I believe if you train and socialize your dog correctly, they won’t be needed.

You should never brush off your German Shepherd’s aggression, as it can quickly escalate when not dealt with. Stay calm and consistent and your patience will pay off.

While training is important, you should also make sure that your German Shepherd has a quiet place to relax, such as a crate or a special part of a room, and that he receives ample amounts of both physical and mental exercise per day, with 2 hours being the absolute minimum.

Your German Shepherd Has Social Anxiety

One of the significant causes of raised hackles is anxiety caused by fear, especially when your German Shepherd is meeting another dog. This is most likely to be seen in German Shepherds who have not had the opportunity to socialize, such as a German Shepherd puppy or a rescue dog that was not living in the best conditions. 

Two German Shepherds Playing

It can be easy to understand his raised hackles if they mostly occur when he is around new pets or people. Your German Shepherd may also show other signs of anxiety such as:

  • Suddenly aggressive. For the cool and casual German Shepherd, sudden aggression when new people or pets come near can result from anxiety. You may notice that he begins barking or growling uncontrollably. He may also start jumping up, down, and even go towards the person or other dog.
  • Suddenly timid. While aggression is common, what might be more common is an unexpected timid behavior when others come near. He may begin to show signs of fear, such as cowering down, whining, flattened ears, or tail tucked between the hind legs. Here, you can find out loads more on GSD body language and how they communicate.
  • Severe nervousness. In some severe cases, your German Shepherd may show a nervousness that results in excessive panting, drooling, and urinating or defecating unknowingly. This is only seen in severe cases and is not normal.

If your dog is struggling with anxiety – especially if it’s causing aggression or extreme fear and nervousness – then you will need to step in and help. The last thing you want is for your German Shepherd to be labeled as an aggressive dog simply because he does not know how to control himself due to his anxiety or fear when meeting new people and animals. 

Let’s look at how we can address this:

How to Prevent Social Anxiety in German Shepherds

The good news is that there are several steps you can take to help ease your German Shepherd out of social anxiety. This will help him in his day-to-day life as well as ceasing the raised hackles. You will need to handle the situation differently, depending on whether your German Shepherd feels anxious around new people or animals.

Nervous Around People

If your dog is nervous around people, you will need to act slowly and start introducing one new person at a time. You do not want to overwhelm him, so keep it simple at first. He needs to see that meeting new people isn’t a bad or scary thing.

Never force the meeting. Simply bring the individual into the home near your dog. Keep a close eye on your German Shepherd and watch to see if his hairs stand up which will give you an indication as to how he is feeling. Allow him to have a safe space to “hide” until he is ready. Let your dog initiate the first interaction and always reward good behavior. 

Pro Tip:  If you comfort your dog when he is afraid, you can end up reinforcing behavior that you are trying to get rid of!

As he begins to break down his barrier with steady new experiences, you can start taking him on outings and exposing him to different situations. The outings may be a bit of a challenge at first, but over time he will become more accustomed. You should begin to notice that piloerection is gradually reduced.

Reward him for being good during walks with a treat. A healthy treat alternative on long hikes is vegetables. Here’s a complete guide of 24 perfectly safe vegetables that German Shepherds can eat to give you some ideas.

Nervous Around Animals

If your dog is nervous around animals, especially other dogs, then you will need to take extra precautions as you don’t want this to escalate. Always observe a meeting between your anxious German Shepherd and another dog and watch for piloerection.

Keep it simple, and don’t run the meeting for too long. If you can, you should find a dog that is smaller and not as threatening to your German Shepherd. Another tip is to ensure the other dog is of the opposite sex to your GSD as he/she won’t feel as anxious or fearful.

During the meeting, slowly bring the two dogs together. If your German Shepherd starts to get too anxious and his hairs stand up, then increase the distance between the two until he is more relaxed. Try again. The process may be drawn out, but it will be well worth it in the end. Just remember that your German Shepherd may never like other dogs, but he should at least be cordial.

Your German Shepherd is Overly Excited

Something that may happen with some German Shepherds is that they simply become too excited and their hairs will stand up! This is more common in puppies rather than adults, but it can still occur.

In this instance, your German Shepherd simply will not be able to settle down. He might be running excessively in circles, jumping up and down, or barking/yipping. He might have a case of what is known as the dog zoomies.

While this might not be the worst thing on this list, it still needs to be dealt with. Sure, sometimes the overexcitement will only last a couple of minutes before he can calm down – in which case, not much needs to be done. However, if this is a recurring theme that happens often and for an extended time, then you need to do something about it.

It is important to note that overexcitement does not equate to happiness in your German Shepherd, even though it may appear that way. Being overly excited is something that he may be struggling with and could be upsetting and annoying for your dog, who simply may just want to relax – just like when you and I are unable to sleep when we get overtired!

This study documented by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers showed that raised hackles during excited play can sometimes lead to aggression – but only 40% of the time.

How to Prevent an Overly Excited German Shepherd 

Treating overexcitement in your German Shepherd is easy and can be done with just a few short steps. Here are some great ways to calm down your overexcited dog:

  • Allow enough exercise. Your German Shepherd requires at least 2 hours of exercise per day. You can take him for a walk/run, play some games like fetch or tug-of-war, or invest in a dog agility course. You can find some great ideas at Amazon here. Without enough exercise, your German Shepherd can easily find himself overexcited with too much energy, or even end up destructive or aggressive.
  • Never encourage overexcitement. Since a lot of people associate happiness with overexcitement, it’s easy for dog owners to reinforce the behavior. But remember that this is not always the case, so don’t get the two confused and do not encourage it.
  • Reward calm behavior. Reward systems always work. When your dog is friendly and relaxed, reward him. If he’s acting wild and overexcited and he doesn’t get a treat, he will start to notice that the treats only come when he has calmed down and his erect hairs have flattened down.
  • Get him some brain-stimulating toys. Your German Shepherd is a smart cookie, so he needs some toys to keep his brain occupied. Types of great brain-stimulating toys are interactive or puzzle toys such as these from Amazon. These will occupy his mind and keep him from becoming overexcited.
  • Use scents. Did you know that you can use scents such as vanilla and lavender to calm your dog? Now your candles and essential oils can find a name for themselves outside of the bathroom!

Your German Shepherd is Acting on His Prey Drive

Your German Shepherd was originally bred as a herding dog to keep sheep and livestock safe. This means that anything who tried to attack the sheep would be potentially chased off and killed. Enter – the German Shepherd’s instinctive prey drive – and the final cause of his raised hackles.

The German Shepherd originally had a high prey drive but it’s not as strong nowadays as he is no longer used much for protecting sheep. This has resulted in a prey drive that has become more subdued over time, but it’s still there – much like their loyal and dominant personalities.

If your German Shepherd’s hairs stand up while out in the woods, this could be a sign that he is acting on his prey drive. While this is sometimes the least common cause, plenty of German Shepherd owners will face this situation and is certainly one that I can relate to! 

My German Shepherd still has quite a strong prey drive. She will chase squirrels, rabbits, and cats all day long and her hackles will immediately raise as soon as the chase begins! Looks like this one got away again, the chase is over, the excitement is gone and her hackles are back lying down.

German Shepherd chasing a squirrel up a tree. German Shepherd Prey Drive
“Damn! The squirrel got away…….again!”

How to Minimize Prey Drive in German Shepherds

If your German Shepherd only preys once in a while and he isn’t aggressive or causing any harm, it’s not something you should worry too much about – it’s natural. But if this is a common theme for your dog and he is becoming somewhat aggressive, especially with other pets you may have in the home, you will need to take steps to reduce the prey drive:

  • Give him a safe space to live in such as his own area of the yard. Your dog should not be able to leave this area without a leash.
  • Obedience training. Obedience training is the best way to go. Here, he will be taught calming techniques and how to behave around other dogs and animals.
  • Socialize him. Plenty of socialization will help your German Shepherd to reduce his prey drive.
  • Basic commands. Basic commands like “come” and “stay” can be useful when your German Shepherd is “on the prowl.”
  • Reward good behavior. Always make sure your German Shepherd knows when he has done well. 

Final Thoughts

We have learned that your German Shepherd’s hairs standing up are caused by many emotions such as aggression, anxiety, and fear – although he can also be showing a high prey drive or even overexcitement. Here are some key takeaways from the article:

  • Raised hackles are a normal involuntary reaction to an emotion.
  • This reflex is known as piloerection.
  • It is not a behavioral trait when your German Shepherd’s hairs stand up.
  • It is the equivalent of goosebumps in humans.
  • Unless he is exhibiting any other major signs of aggression, then there is no need to worry – it’s completely natural for your GSD.
  • Paying attention to your German Shepherd’s hair standing up can help you to better understand him.
  • Remedies include early socialization, obedience training using positive reinforcement, and plenty of exercise.

Related Posts You May Like:

Sources:

Sharon Waddington

I am the owner of World of Dogz. I have a 6-year-old female German Shepherd named "Willow," and I've worked with dogs for almost 30 years. I love spending time with my dog, and I enjoy sharing my knowledge and expertise of all things dogs on this site!

Recent Posts