Why does my dog look like a punk rocker? (What does that mohawk mean?)

Every dog has a trigger.  For some pups, it’s a large man coming into their personal space. (P.S. That get’s me going too!)  For others, it’s an unfamiliar sound.  For my dog, it’s kids on bikes…she just can’t figure out what the heck they are!  All these different things can cause a dog to feel threatened, but the reaction is often the same – MOHAWK!  Well, the technical term is piloerector reflex, but (personally) “mohawk” is the only term that seems to fit.

Believe it or not, this is your dog’s way of looking bigger.  (My dog gets maybe and extra inch of height if she is lucky, so this seems extremely comical to me.)  It is not an offensive behavior: in other words, your pup is not looking to start a fight.  Rather, a dog with a mohawk thinks he or she is being threatened and is trying to look as intimidating as possible.  Most commonly seen on a dog’s hackles, it can also be seen down the spine all the way to the base of the tail.

Surprisingly, this reaction works similar in our own species.  Our piloerector muscles are smooth muscle fibers that connect hair follicles to the dermis, and they rely on the autonomic nervous system to function. ” What the heck does that mean?” you might be asking yourself.  Well…it means that when something scares you (like when you are watching that horror flick) your piloerector muscles are what make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.  They are also what give us goosebumps.  Want to know something really interesting?  While goosebumps now seem like the most pointless thing in the world, back when we (humans, that is)  were much less evolved (and much more hairy), our piloerector muscles did the same thing that your pup’s are doing now!  They made our hair stand up and made us look much more intimidating to predators.  Through the beauty of evolution, though, we have lost that thick layer of hair covering our bodies (thank goodness!) and are left to gaze upon those annoying, ugly bumps on our skin.

But this blog isn’t about humans, is it? 

While it may be true that mohawk doesn’t necessarily mean your dog is ready to fight, it does mean that he or she is alarmed and agitated.  Most dogs will accompany a piloerector reflex with a growl or a bark or, if you are my Buffy, tearing around like a crazy woman running from window to window.  Some dogs, though, skip the dramatic performance and internalize their discomfort – the silent raising of their hair the only sign of a problem.  When I worked in a large dog daycare facility, this is one of the first things I learned when supervising play.  It’s all fun and games….until someone gets a mohawk.  This means, though your human eyes might not have detected anything, the mood of playtime has somehow shifted.  Sometimes this can easily be corrected by stepping in and calling a dog’s name.  (“Ok, guys!  Remember this is just play and we are all having fun!”) Sometimes dogs need to be separated.  As always – a dog that feels threatened is more likely to snap….it is up to you to intervene! 

…or maybe your dog just wants to rock out to the Ramones.

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