Rage Syndrome in Dogs - Whole Dog Journal (2023)

RAGE SYNDROME: OVERVIEW

1. Document your dog’s episodes of unexplainable, explosive aggression so you can describe all the details to a trainer/behaviorist, including all environmental conditions you can think of.

2. Seek the assistance of a qualified, positive dog trainer/behavior consultant. Take your documentation with you on your first visit.

3. Be safe, and be sure others are safe, around your dog.

The term “rage syndrome” conjures up mental images of Cujo, Stephen King’s fictional rabid dog, terrorizing the countryside. If you’re owner of a dog who suffers from it, it’s almost that bad – never knowing when your beloved pal is going to turn, without warning, into a biting, raging canine tornado.

The condition commonly known as rage syndrome is actually more appropriately called “idiopathic aggression.” The definition of idiopathic is: “Of, relating to, or designating a disease having no known cause.” It applies perfectly to this behavior, which has confounded behaviorists for decades. While most other types of aggression can be modified and reduced through desensitization and counter-conditioning, idiopathic aggression often can’t. It is an extremely difficult and heartbreaking condition to deal with.

The earmarks of idiopathic aggression include:

• No identifiable trigger stimulus/stimuli

• Intense, explosive aggression

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• Onset most commonly reported in dogs 1-3 years old

• Some owners report that their dogs get a glazed, or “possessed” look in their eyes just prior to an idiopathic outburst, or act confused.

• Certain breeds seem more prone to suffer from rage syndrome, including Cocker and Springer Spaniels (hence the once-common terms – Spaniel rage, Cocker rage, and Springer rage), Bernese Mountain Dogs, St. Bernards, Doberman Pinschers, German Shepherds, and Lhasa Apsos. This would suggest a likely genetic component to the problem.

The Good News About Rage Syndrome

The good news is that true idiopathic aggression is also a particularly uncommon condition. Discussed and studied widely in the 1970s and ’80s, it captured the imagination of the dog world, and soon every dog with episodes of sudden, explosive aggression was tagged with the unfortunate “rage syndrome” label, especially if it was a spaniel of any type. We have since come to our senses, and now investigate much more carefully before concluding that there is truly “no known cause” for a dog’s aggression.

A thorough exploration of the dog’s behavior history and owner’s observations often can ferret out explainable causes for the aggression. The appropriate diagnosis often turns out to be status-related aggression (once widely known as “dominance aggression”) and/or resource guarding – both of which can also generate very violent, explosive reactions. (See “Eliminate Aggressive Dog Guarding Behaviors,” WDJ September 2001.)

An owner can easily miss her dog’s warning signs prior to a status-related attack, especially if the warning signs have been suppressed by prior physical or verbal punishment. While some dogs’ lists of guardable resources may be limited and precise, with others it can be difficult to identify and recognize a resource that a dog has determined to be valuable and worth guarding. The glazed look reported by some owners may also be their interpretation of the “hard stare” or “freeze” that many dogs give as a warning signal just prior to an attack.

Although the true cause of idiopathic aggression is still not understood, and behaviorists each tend to defend their favorite theories, there is universal agreement that it is a very rare condition, and one that is extremely difficult to treat.

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Idiopathic Aggression Theories

A variety of studies and testing over the past 30 years have failed to produce a clear cause or a definitive diagnosis for idiopathic aggression. Behaviorists can’t even agree on what to call it! (See The Evolving Vocabulary of Aggression, below.)

Given the failure to find a specific cause, it is quite possible that there are several different causes for unexplainable aggressive behaviors that are all grouped under the term “idiopathic aggression.” Some dogs in the midst of an episode may foam at the mouth and twitch, which could be an indication of epileptic seizures. The most common appearance of the behavior between 1-3 years of age also coincides with the appearance of most status-related aggression, as well as the development of idiopathic epilepsy, making it even impossible to use age of onset as a differential diagnosis.

Some researchers have found abnormal electroencephalogram readings in some dogs suspected of having idiopathic aggression, but not all such dogs they studied. Other researchers have been unable to reproduce even those inconclusive results.

Another theory is that the behavior is caused by damage to the area of the brain responsible for aggressive behavior. Yet another is that it is actually a manifestation of status-related aggression triggered by very subtle stimuli. Clearly, we just don’t know.

The fact that idiopathic aggression by definition cannot be induced also makes it difficult to study and even try to find answers to the question of cause. Unlike a behavior like resource guarding – which is easy to induce and therefore easy to study in a clinical setting – the very nature of idiopathic aggression dictates that it cannot be reproduced or studied at will.

Rage Syndrome Treatment

Without knowing the cause of idiopathic aggression, treatment is difficult and frequently unsuccessful. The condition is also virtually impossible to manage safely because of the sheer unpredictability of the outbursts. The prognosis, unfortunately, is very poor, and many dogs with true idiopathic aggression must be euthanized, for the safety of surrounding humans.

Don’t despair, however, if someone has told you your dog has “rage syndrome.” First of all, he probably doesn’t. Remember, the condition is extremely rare, and the label still gets applies all too often by uneducated dog folk to canines whose aggressive behaviors are perfectly explainable by a more knowledgeable observer.

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Your first step is to find a skilled and positive trainer/behavior consultant who can give you a more educated analysis of your dog’s aggression. A good behavior modification program, applied by a committed owner in consultation with a capable behavior professional can succeed in decreasing and/or resolving many aggression cases, and help you devise appropriate management plans where necessary, to keep family members, friends, and visitors safe.

If your behavior professional also believes that you have a rare case of idiopathic aggression on your hands, then a trip to a veterinary behaviorist is in order. Some dogs will respond to drug therapies for this condition; many will not. Some minor success has been reported with the administration of phenobarbital, but it is unclear as to whether the results are from the sedative effect of the drug, or if there is an actual therapeutic effect.

In many cases of true idiopathic aggression, euthanasia is the only solution. Because the aggressive explosions are truly violent and totally unpredictable, it is neither safe nor fair to expose yourself or other friends and family to the potentially disfiguring, even deadly, results of such an attack. If this is the sad conclusion in the case of your dog, euthanasia is the only humane option. Comfort yourself with the knowledge you have done everything possible for him, hold him close as you say goodbye, and send him gently to a safer place. Then take good care of yourself.

The Evolving Vocabulary of Aggression

Different behaviorists and trainers have used and continue to use different terms for what was once commonly known as “rage syndrome.” The confusion over what to call it is a reflection of how poorly understood the condition is:

Rage syndrome – This once popular term has fallen into disfavor, due to its overuse, misuse, and poor characterization of the actual condition

Idiopathic aggression – Now the most popular term among behaviorists; this name clearly says “we don’t know what it is”

Low-threshold dominance aggression – Favored by those who hold that idiopathic aggression is actually a manifestation of status-related aggression with very subtle triggers

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Mental lapse aggression syndrome – Attached to cases diagnosed as a result of certain electroencephalogram readings (low-voltage, fast activity)

Stimulus responsive psychomotor epilepsy – Favored by some who suspect that idiopathic aggression is actually epileptic seizure activity

“Rage syndrome” is not the only aggression term that has undergone a metamorphosis in recent years. Even the way we look at aggression is changing. Where once each “classification” of aggression was seen as very distinct, with its own distinct protocols for treatment, it is becoming more widely recognized that most aggressive behavior is caused by stress or anxiety.

It is now generally accepted by the training and behavior profession that physical punishment should not be used in an attempt to suppress aggressive behavior. Rather, aggressive behavior is best managed by preventing the dog’s exposure to his individual stressors, and modified by creating a structured environment for the dog – through a “Say Please” or “Nothing in Life Is Free” program – and implementing a solid protocol of counter-conditioning and desensitization to reduce or eliminate the dog’s aggressive reaction to those stressors.

We also now recognize that aggressive dogs may behave inappropriately and dangerously as a result of imbalances in brain chemicals, and that the new generation of drugs used in behavior modification work help rebalance those chemicals. This is in stark contrast to older drugs, such as Valium, that simply sedated the dog rather than providing any real therapy. As a result, many behaviorists recommend the use of pharmaceutical intervention sooner, rather than later, in aggression cases.

Here are some of the newer terms now in use to describe various types of aggressive behavior:

Status-related aggression: Once called dominance aggression, a term still widely used. Status-related aggression focuses more on getting the confident highranking dog to behave appropriately regardless of status; old methods of dealing with dominance aggression often focused on trying to reduce the dog’s status, often without success.

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Fear-related aggression: Once called submission aggression. A dog who is fearful may display deferent (submissive) behaviors in an attempt to ward off the fearinducing stress. If those signals are ignored and the threat advances – a child, for example, trying to hug a dog who is backing away, ears flattened – aggression can occur.

Possession aggression: Previously referred to as food guarding and now also appropriately called resource guarding, this name change acknowledges that a dog may guard many objects in addition to his food – anything he considers a valuable resource, including but not limited to toys, beds, desirable locations, and proximity to humans.

Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor. She is also author of The Power of Positive Dog Training, and Positive Perspectives: Love Your Dog, Train Your Dog.

FAQs

Is rage syndrome in dogs treatable? ›

Treatments for rage syndrome cannot cure the condition, but only serve to manage it, and owners should be aware that aggressive episodes can still occur. Every member of the family needs to understand the condition, and learn to recognize any behavioral changes that may signal an aggressive event is about to occur.

What dog breeds get rage syndrome? ›

Certain breeds seem more prone to suffer from rage syndrome, including Cocker and Springer Spaniels (hence the once-common terms – Spaniel rage, Cocker rage, and Springer rage), Bernese Mountain Dogs, St. Bernards, Doberman Pinschers, German Shepherds, and Lhasa Apsos.

At what age does Cocker rage start? ›

He found that the majority of the dogs he observed began showing signs at about 7.5 months. Though other research has suggested that it could be as early as 3 months, and as late as two years Despite all of the research, it is still unclear what triggers this dangerous and unpredictable reaction.

Is rage syndrome in dogs genetic? ›

The causes of rage syndrome are genetic in nature, and some dog breeds are far more likely to develop this problem than others. Springer Spaniels are particularly linked with the syndrome, but Cocker Spaniels, Golden Retrievers, Poodles, and Dobermans are also breeds that may be more likely to have rage syndrome.

What does rage syndrome look like? ›

The behavior associated with Rage Syndrome includes outbursts of aggression that are intense and at times unpredictable. These episodes also tend to be large dramatic responses relative to a seemingly benign situation. Affected dogs often freeze, stare, and may rapidly escalate to biting.

What is idiopathic rage dogs? ›

Idiopathic Aggression

An unpredictable type of aggression because the triggers aren't known or understood. The word “idiopathic” is defined as, “relating to or denoting any disease or condition that arises spontaneously or for which the cause is unknown”.

Why is my dog randomly attacking my other dog? ›

Aggression between unfamiliar dogs can be due to fear, poor communication, defensive, possessive behavior over resources (including perhaps family members or other pets) or territorial behavior over territory or owner. Aggression between dogs can result in injury to dogs and/or to the people trying to separate them.

Can aggression in dogs be cured? ›

Treatment. It's important to keep in mind that there is no such thing as a cure for aggression. Aggressive behaviors are managed and reduced through proper treatment with a veterinary behavioral professional. It's also essential to understand that aggression is a behavioral problem, not an issue of obedience.

Why is my dog attacking me all of a sudden? ›

1 Your suddenly aggressive dog may have an injury or an illness that's causing major discomfort and stress. Some possible causes of pain include arthritis, bone fractures, internal injuries, various tumors, and lacerations. Other illnesses may affect your dog's brain, leading to seemingly unreasonable aggression.

How do you stop cocker rage? ›

The best way for owners to prevent these attacks is through early socialization, positive only training methods and training that helps their pup feel more confident with people and pets in its surroundings and will curb the aggressive behaviour that comes with rage syndrome.

Is cocker rage curable? ›

It is a neurological problem. No amount of training, discipline or behaviour modification will cure it. In most cases, sadly, the only cure is euthanasia. Dogs with Rage Syndrome, attack out of the blue with breathtaking ferocity.

What causes rage syndrome? ›

It's more common in younger adults than in older adults. The exact cause of the disorder is unknown, but it's probably caused by a number of environmental and biological factors. Environment. Most people with this disorder grew up in families where explosive behavior and verbal and physical abuse were common.

How common is Springer Rage Syndrome? ›

Thankfully, Rage Syndrome is relatively rare. The condition, also known as Springer Rage, is a dangerous form of aggression. English Springer Spaniels with this condition have been known to aggressively attack other people , their owners, and other animals.

Why would a dog bite its owner? ›

"The motivation for lots of dog bites is fear," he says. "Others are territorial - if they're guarding something that they highly value, or defending their favourite resting place, their bed... Or if they've learned to defend, say, a dog bowl - that can result in aggression."

What to do with a dog that bites their owner? ›

After a dog bites his owner, you must take action. Simply hoping it won't happen again isn't the way to go. Instead, work with a vet or animal behaviorist to figure out why your dog bit you and to take steps to prevent it from happening again.

What is kennel rage? ›

Dogs that come from an environment of abuse, trauma, and neglect are especially likely to exhibit a form of aggression known as 'cage rage'.

What illness can make a dog aggressive? ›

Infectious agents such as rabies, hormonal imbalances such as hypothyroidism, psychomotor epilepsy, hyperkinesis, neoplasia, and a variety of genetic and metabolic disorders can cause or predispose a dog to aggression.

How do I stop my dog from being frustrated with aggression? ›

In order to deal with a dog's frustration, you need to distract them from it first, then redirect them toward another activity. You can use a sound, like “Tsch,” if your dog is at a low energy level, and a tap or touch if their energy level is high.

Is it my fault my dog bit me? ›

In the state of California, dog owners are held strictly liable for dog bites. Regardless of the dog's history, the owner is responsible for the dog's actions.

Is my dog psychotic? ›

Lack of response to human commands.

Most dogs will obey their owner 's commands, or at least acknowledge that they aren't doing what they're told. If your dog no longer responds to your prompts and simply ignores your presence completely, they could be suffering psychosis.

Can anxiety cause a dog to be aggressive? ›

Dogs also experience anxiety just like human beings. The different causes of anxiety in dogs include aging, fear, and separation. While anxiety is a normal occurrence, disproportionate levels of anxiety can lead to aggressive behaviors if left unchecked.

What should you not do after a dog fight? ›

Don't: Isolate the dogs from one another. If you don't get the dogs back together after a fight a bit of scar tissue develops in their mind, and in your emotions. After a few fights the scar can become too deep. When this happens their is nothing that can be done.

How do I get my dog to stop attacking my other dog? ›

Block Their View Of The Other Dog- If your dog cannot see the other dog, they are likely to calm down. If it is not possible to move your dog completely out of sight, simply stand in front of your dog's face to block their view. This may also calm them as they realise there is no need to become aggressive.

How do you discipline a dog after a fight? ›

How to Discipline Dogs Which Are Fighting
  1. Interrupt the fight with an environmental distraction. ...
  2. Separate the animals right away. ...
  3. Take away whatever resource they seem to be fighting over. ...
  4. Discipline your dogs by instituting strict order in your household.

Should I get rid of my dog if he bites me? ›

If your dog has a serious mental condition, or bites several times no matter how much training you give it, it may be time to remove him from your home.

Can an aggressive dog be changed? ›

However, there's no guarantee that an aggressive dog can be completely cured. In many cases, the only solution is to manage the problem by limiting a dog's exposure to the situations, people or things that trigger her aggression.

How do you live with an aggressive dog? ›

  1. Relax. I know owning an aggressive dog feels like a crisis, but it can be completely remedied. ...
  2. Assess. Have you ever heard the passive-aggressive break-up line, "It's not you, it's me"? ...
  3. Don't bully your breed. ...
  4. Talk to your vet. ...
  5. Seek professional help. ...
  6. Be considerate. ...
  7. Spay or neuter your dog. ...
  8. Exercise.
17 Dec 2015

What to do if your dog growls and snaps at you? ›

Whatever you're doing, just stop. If your dog's growl threshold is near his bite threshold – that is, if there's not much time between his growl and his bite, get safe. If his growl doesn't mean a bite is imminent, stop what you're doing but stay where you are.

How common is rage syndrome in dogs? ›

Rage syndrome is very rare, and a behavior consultant can help you determine if that is really what your dog has or if it is some other type of behavior problem. If it is determined that your dog does have a rare case of idiopathic aggression, consult with a veterinary behaviorist.

What do I do if my dog bites me and draws blood? ›

If a dog bites you, take these steps right away:
  1. Wash the wound. ...
  2. Slow the bleeding with a clean cloth.
  3. Apply over-the counter antibiotic cream if you have it.
  4. Wrap the wound in a sterile bandage.
  5. Keep the wound bandaged and see your doctor.
  6. Change the bandage several times a day once your doctor has examined the wound.
7 Feb 2020

At what age does a Cocker Spaniel calm down? ›

Only a few cocker spaniels calm down with age alone after 3-5 years. For most, they will continue to be very energetic well into their senior years. Owners should not rely on aging as a way to get a calm cocker spaniel. What is this?

What age does Springer rage start? ›

Dr. Roger A. Mugford, to whom the term is attributed, identified that the problem starts on average at around seven and a half months old in English Springer Spaniels. However some of his research subjects showed signs at as early as three months and as late as two years.

Do cocker spaniels attach to one person? ›

Cocker spaniels fixate on one particular person. While they are good family dogs, they choose only one individual as their favorite. This often causes them to act in obsessive and protective ways and can lead to separation anxiety issues.

What is red cocker rage? ›

Cocker rage can be described as an unexpected, unexplained aggressive dog behaviour; a sudden, vicious attack, for no apparent reason, towards the owner or whoever is near the dog at the time.

Why do cocker spaniels bite? ›

Also known as mouthing, Spaniels start using their mouths to bite things when they're teething. Their gums can be painful and chomping down on something can help to ease their pain… even if it's your arm that's the victim. Their teeth begin to drop out at around 12 weeks.

Can an aggressive dog be rehabilitated? ›

Dogs that are willing to use aggression to change the outcome of a situation are rarely cured but often can be controlled. Improvement may occur by having predictable interactions, avoidance of aggression provoking stimuli, a good daily routine of exercise, play and social interaction.

Why is my dog growling and biting me? ›

Remember that for dogs, aggressive displays like growling and snarling are just ways of communicating that they are uncomfortable – if we punish them for doing this, we make their anxiety worse and increase the odds that they'll go straight to biting in the future.

Can aggression in dogs be cured? ›

Treatment. It's important to keep in mind that there is no such thing as a cure for aggression. Aggressive behaviors are managed and reduced through proper treatment with a veterinary behavioral professional. It's also essential to understand that aggression is a behavioral problem, not an issue of obedience.

Is there a cure for Springer rage? ›

Rage syndrome can be managed, but not cured, so that means that all of your family members have to be aware that episodes of rage can happen again. You want to make sure everyone knows what warning signs to look for that might signal an aggressive episode.

Can cocker rage be cured? ›

It is a neurological problem. No amount of training, discipline or behaviour modification will cure it. In most cases, sadly, the only cure is euthanasia. Dogs with Rage Syndrome, attack out of the blue with breathtaking ferocity.

What medical conditions can cause a dog to be aggressive? ›

Infectious agents such as rabies, hormonal imbalances such as hypothyroidism, psychomotor epilepsy, hyperkinesis, neoplasia, and a variety of genetic and metabolic disorders can cause or predispose a dog to aggression.

Should I get rid of my dog if he bites me? ›

If your dog has a serious mental condition, or bites several times no matter how much training you give it, it may be time to remove him from your home.

Can an aggressive dog be changed? ›

However, there's no guarantee that an aggressive dog can be completely cured. In many cases, the only solution is to manage the problem by limiting a dog's exposure to the situations, people or things that trigger her aggression.

How do you live with an aggressive dog? ›

  1. Relax. I know owning an aggressive dog feels like a crisis, but it can be completely remedied. ...
  2. Assess. Have you ever heard the passive-aggressive break-up line, "It's not you, it's me"? ...
  3. Don't bully your breed. ...
  4. Talk to your vet. ...
  5. Seek professional help. ...
  6. Be considerate. ...
  7. Spay or neuter your dog. ...
  8. Exercise.
17 Dec 2015

At what age does Springer rage start? ›

Roger A. Mugford, to whom the term is attributed, identified that the problem starts on average at around seven and a half months old in English Springer Spaniels. However some of his research subjects showed signs at as early as three months and as late as two years.

How common is Springer rage syndrome? ›

Thankfully, Rage Syndrome is relatively rare. The condition, also known as Springer Rage, is a dangerous form of aggression. English Springer Spaniels with this condition have been known to aggressively attack other people , their owners, and other animals.

Why is my dog randomly attacking me? ›

In many cases, whether we realize it or not, aggression can be caused by fear or anxiety. In fact, fear and anxiety are the most common reasons I get called for aggression-related cases, and many of these dogs have reacted aggressively at least once in their lifetime.

How do you identify cocker rage? ›

A cocker's episode of rage syndrome is barely controlled, savage aggression that almost always takes the owner by surprise. The dog often sleeps before an attack and is spurred by no provocation other than perhaps a sound or someone entering the room. In any case, its eyes are usually staring and dilated.

Can anxiety cause a dog to be aggressive? ›

Dogs also experience anxiety just like human beings. The different causes of anxiety in dogs include aging, fear, and separation. While anxiety is a normal occurrence, disproportionate levels of anxiety can lead to aggressive behaviors if left unchecked.

What is red cocker rage? ›

Cocker rage can be described as an unexpected, unexplained aggressive dog behaviour; a sudden, vicious attack, for no apparent reason, towards the owner or whoever is near the dog at the time.

Why is my dog attacking my other dog all of a sudden? ›

There are a variety of reasons dogs may show sudden aggression towards each other. Some of the most common causes of conflict between familiar dogs include frustration, illness, and resource guarding. You'll need to clearly identify the root of the problem to restore household harmony.

What to do if your dog growls and snaps at you? ›

Whatever you're doing, just stop. If your dog's growl threshold is near his bite threshold – that is, if there's not much time between his growl and his bite, get safe. If his growl doesn't mean a bite is imminent, stop what you're doing but stay where you are.

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