What are guard hairs on dogs? Are they different from normal hair?

Once dog owners notice the coarse layer of hair on their dogs, their first response, more often than not, is to get it shaved off. And I can assure you that’s a pretty bad idea.

The guard hairs make up the coarse waterproofing layer on a dog’s fur. They play a big part in the everyday life of a dog. Guard hairs are the first line of defence for the skin against external threats such as moisture, and small impacts such as prickly plants, and reduce the damage of lacerations, fleas, and ticks.

Single coated dogs will only have guard hairs whereas double-coated dogs will have guard hairs and a thicker undercoat. Both guard hairs and under hairs come through the same skin but guard hairs are longer and straighter to be able to grow past the undercoat to the surface.

Guard hairs are oily in nature which is what gives them their natural waterproofing, the oils allow the water to wick off and not permeate into their hairs and into the skin and undercoat. When submerged, the oily guard hairs can stick together and form a barrier protecting the skin and undercoat, if they have one.

Dogs are susceptible to sunburn on exposed skin (see also ‘Products That Work To Treat Dog Elbow Callus‘). The thick and coarse guard hairs block sunlight to keep the skin safe from harmful UV rays. This is one of the reasons why a dog should never have their coat completely shaved off as they will then be exposed with no protection.   

Secondly, guard hairs are the visible part of a dog’s coat and are therefore patterned and coloured whereas the undercoat may only be a single colour. This pattern is how a dog can be identified when in the wild, be used as camouflage or just as a simple display.

Lastly, guard hairs are what dogs use to raise their hair when they feel threatened, agitated or scared – this is called a pilomotor reflex or more commonly ‘goose bumps’.

Read More: How to get rid of ticks at home?

How useful are guard hairs?

Coarse guard hairs do a lot more than just offer waterproofing despite being the best thing next to an actual waterproof coat. Guard hairs are so complex and integrated into a dog’s well-being and even emotions that it would feel like losing a limb if they lost it.

However, the most important part of this coarse layer is thermoregulation and to aid the dog to cool down and warm up, especially for single coated dogs. It helps them cool down by shedding and thinning when the seasons change whilst the skin still constantly produces the oils to repel external threats and of course the waterproofing.

Without guard hairs, the skin would be completely open to impacts, temperature changes and the harmful effects of the sun. Many owners would believe the coat is there just to keep them warm but that’s far from the truth. Guard hairs are essentially the canine equivalent of clothes. 

Lastly, guard hairs play a major role in a canine’s social life and how it is able to integrate confidently with others (dogs). Their unique pattern is a part of their identity, the guard hairs contain their scent and they can raise their hair to let other dogs that they are not in the mood right now.

To conclude, do not shave them off!


  • Jonathan Spaeth

    I'm a professional business person who loves dogs. I'm motivated by a passion for dogs and a deep understanding of pet care and behavior. I have more than 10 years of experience in animal healthcare—my lifelong passion for helping dogs.

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