Discover why your German Shepherd’s hair stands up, a phenomenon known as piloerection or raised hackles.
This involuntary reaction, caused by the contraction of tiny muscles at the base of hair follicles, signals emotions such as excitement, fear, or aggression.
Understanding the reasons behind your German Shepherd’s raised hackles is crucial, whether it’s a harmless display or a sign of distress that requires intervention.
This guide will explore the nature of hackles, their triggers, and strategies for managing your dog’s emotional responses.
- Recognize the signs accompanying raised hackles to discern the dog’s emotional state.
- Early socialization and positive reinforcement training to mitigate aggression and anxiety.
- Ensuring your dog gets at least 2 hours of physical and mental exercise daily to prevent overexcitement and stress.
The Reasons Behind Your German Shepherd’s Raised Fur
When looking at hair standing up on your German Shepherd’s body, you are likely looking at raised hackles. These erect hairs are found along his back, 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.
A German Shepherd’s hair will stand up on his back due to piloerection, also known as raised hackles.
The involuntary contraction of small muscles at the base of hair follicles causes them to respond to certain emotions such as excitement, anxiousness, fear, nervousness, or aggression.
They come and go when they please in response to something happening, whether it’s just a breeze of brisk, ice-cold wind or feeling a type of emotion, such as being scared or angry.
All dogs will experience this in their lifetime – it is a typical response to certain things and something that they cannot control. Raised hackles can be more common in German Shepherds due to their extremely protective nature.
Here are the main reasons your dog will raise his fur:
- He is feeling aggressive.
- He is feeling anxious due to fear.
- He is excited.
- He is acting on his prey drive.
Many dog owners assume that their dog feels aggressive when its hackles are raised, but the primary reason for this behavior is to make the dog appear bigger to scare off a potential threat.
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 true 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.
Let’s take a closer look at four reasons why your German Shepherd’s dog hair might stand up on his back:
1. 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 deal 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 also highly intelligent, which is why they are often in the police force and military.
However, this overly loyal and protective dog is also highly dominant and can be a bit aggressive 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.
The photo captures my German Shepherd raising her hackles at the mailman’s approach, a protective gesture to appear larger and ward off perceived threats to her home and family.
I view her protective behavior as a natural trait, not a problem. She shows no aggression—her ears are alert, not pinned back. Curiously, she greets the same mailman with a friendly tail wag on walks!
Numerous effective methods exist to curb aggression in German Shepherds, who are highly trainable due to their intelligence. However, owners must assert dominance to prevent these dogs from trying to take control.
Asserting dominance doesn’t mean harming your dog, as teaching it wrong behaviors is unethical and counterproductive. For proper discipline methods and what to avoid, see my guide on disciplining a German Shepherd.
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 GSD is still a puppy; however, it’s never too late to train, 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.
- Always stand in front of him. If your German Shepherd is aggressive on walks, you should always try to stand before 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.
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.
In addition to training, ensure your German Shepherd has a quiet spot to unwind and gets at least 2 hours of physical and mental exercise daily.
2. 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 occur in German Shepherds who have been unable to socialize, such as puppies or rescue dogs who were not living in the best conditions.
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 jump up and down and approach 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 learn more about GSD body language and how they communicate.
- Severe nervousness. In some severe cases, your German Shepherd may show nervousness that results in excessive panting, drooling, and unknowingly urinating or defecating. 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:
Preventing Social Anxiety
Several strategies can ease your German Shepherd’s social anxiety, improving daily life and reducing raised hackles, tailored to their comfort around new people or animals.
Nervous Around People
If your dog is nervous around people, you must 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. Bring the individual into the home near your dog. Keep a close eye on your German Shepherd and watch to see if his hair stands up, which will give you an indication of 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 the 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 with a treat for being good during walks.
Nervous Around Animals
If your dog is nervous around animals, especially other dogs, you must take extra precautions to prevent this from escalating.
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 gets too anxious and his hair stands up, 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.
3. Your German Shepherd is Overly Excited
Some German Shepherds become too excited, and their hair will stand up! This is more common in puppies rather than adults, but it can still occur.
In this instance, your German Shepherd 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 problem on this list, it must still be dealt with. Sure, sometimes his overexcitement only lasts 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, 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 may just want to relax – just like when you and I cannot 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.
Preventing Over Excitement
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 games like fetch or tug-of-war, or make a dog agility course. Without enough exercise, your dog can easily find himself overexcited with too much energy or even become destructive or aggressive.
- Never encourage overexcitement. Since many 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!
- 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.
- 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 the bathroom!
4. 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 hair stands 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 it 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, and her hackles will immediately rise 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.
Minimizing Prey Drive
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, such as his own yard area. 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.
Different Emotions of German Shepherds
German Shepherds, like all dogs, experience a range of emotions that are reflected in their body language.
Understanding these emotions can help you better communicate with your dog and respond appropriately to their needs.
Some common emotions of German Shepherds include excitement, aggression, anxiety, and fear.
|German Shepherds may become excited in response to positive stimuli, such as playtime or the arrival of their owner.
|Tail wagging, jumping, barking, ears perked up, body leaning forward.
|German Shepherds may become aggressive in response to perceived threats or challenges to their dominance.
|Hair standing up, growling, barking, teeth bared, ears pinned back, body stiff and tense.
|German Shepherds may become anxious in response to unfamiliar or stressful situations.
|Pacing, panting, trembling, whining, ears pinned back, tail tucked between legs.
|German Shepherds may become fearful in response to perceived threats or experiences that have caused them harm in the past.
|Cowering, hiding, trembling, ears pinned back, tail tucked between legs, avoiding eye contact.
Note: This table is not exhaustive. There may be other emotions and signs of body language that German Shepherds exhibit.
Here are some key takeaways from the article:
- Raised hackles are a normal involuntary reaction to an emotion.
- It is not a behavioral trait when your German Shepherd’s hairs stand up on his back.
- 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 on his back can help you to better understand him.
- Remedies include early socialization, obedience training using positive reinforcement, and plenty of exercise.