cockerThe term “rage syndrome” appeared many years ago, initially describing a type of unpredictable, explosive aggression in Cocker Spaniels.  It was even called “Cocker rage” for a while.  There is still no definitive test or explanation for it, but generally it is thought to be a condition that is possibly linked to epilepsy.  The problem is that since this condition was recognised, almost every incidence of biting in Spaniels of any breed, and some other breeds is now diagnosed as rage and dogs are put down unnecessarily.

I am writing this because for some reason a lot more cases are being discussed on social media in the last few weeks.  I worry dogs are being put down who do not have it, but someone decided they have.

I was lucky enough many years ago, to meet with a couple of Spaniel breeders.  One had stopped breeding Cockers and had gone into field Spaniels as she felt the condition was too prevalent and some breeders were hiding it.  The other was following every puppy through to adulthood and following breeding lines carefully to avoid perpetuating the problem.  I have since met many good breeders who do the same.

Sadly back yard breeders and puppy farmers don’t care what they breed from and the hereditary health problems of many breeds are passed on over and over.  Many of the cases of rage I have seen in the last ten years have come from this type of breeding.  However, the vast majority of dogs sent to me to solve or diagnose rage do not have it, no matter how many times they have bitten.

Rage is specific.  Sudden, unexplained bouts of aggression, even from being sound asleep.  Often a glazed look just Jack Russell Terrier Snarlingbefore and during, the dog often uncoordinated and confused for a short time afterwards and no ongoing aggression.  Some snap in and out of it very quickly.  There is no trigger, it is some sort of wiring fault or chemical imbalance in the brain and there is no cure.

Some dogs improve a little on epilepsy meds and there have been studies which seem to link the conditions.  But the main problem is misdiagnosis.  A few newer ideas appear all the time, and it is always worth trying medication on vets advice.

It seems an easy fix to say “your dog has rage syndrome” and I am alarmed at the number of vets diagnosing rage and recommending euthanasia.  A full medical screen should be done.  This means bloods, xrays and scans to rule out other causes.  In some cases, the “rage” behaviour was actually medical.  Kidney and liver problems, particularly liver shunt where toxins are in the blood.  Occasionally thyroid function problems and in one case I saw, the dog had a splenic tumour and pain was the cause of the sudden aggression.

What do vets and behaviourists say to owners of other breeds?  I have seen rage in spaniels, collies and a terrier and a couple of crossbreeds.  Dogs who aren’t Spaniels don’t seem to get as quick a put to sleep diagnosis for aggression, “RAGE” has become the quick fix when sometimes it is “I don’t know how to solve this”.

Of course children and other pets and the public have to be protected and sadly many with true rage are put to sleep.  My concern is how many are who didn’t have it.  A dog that is aggressive over food or toys, tries to bite visitors, won’t be groomed, or attacks dogs on walks does not have rage.  It has a serious lack of training and socialisation, but not rage.

At least 80% of the dogs that come to see me that I am told have rage, don’t.  There was a Labrador I trained a couple of years ago.  The most serious food aggression case I have seen.  The mere presence of a food bowl made him fly at people and bite them.  His owner had even had plastic surgery on one bite, another was from behind as she carried a toy with food in into the garden.  I have no doubt that if he was a Spaniel he’d be dead.  He’d have had “rage”, been incurable and been put down.  He is cured, living happily and has never done it again after our help.

Two have been heartbreaking.  One was a Golden Cocker.  She stayed with me for a couple of weeks for me to try and help.  She was walking in the paddock a few hours after arriving, looking normal.  We happily wandered about and there was a moment when she turned to look at me from about 6 feet away.  It was a second of a strange look and she flew at me.  I had seen it in that second and although she bit me in the stomach I managed to grab her and hold her until it passed.  She stood a little confused for a moment, then kissed me and trotted off and played with a ball.

Another was a Collie, bought from a farm.  the typical madness of “we saw a sign outside a farm for puppies and the farmer said he was going to drown them”.  So they bought this lovely boy.  He was once asleep in my office, woke and flew across to bite me.  He was walking in the field with me one day, had a wee, went to get his ball, turned as he got to it, flew back and bit me on the wrist.  He remained in an upset state for a short while after these attacks, unlike the Cocker and he was deeply unhappy.  It is thought that inbreeding can create this problem too.  Both these dogs were put to sleep.

It is worth mentioning a couple who brought a Black Cocker to see me on their vet’s advice as he told them it could be rage.  The dog was spoiled, had no training.  Was highly strung, nervous and unsure of what to do so was defensive.  He had bitten them when trying to groom him, and when taking chews r bones from him.  He seemed a very stressed dog.

I got a brush and said “show me”.  The man took the brush and shouted at the dog, grabbing him roughly and almost strangling him with his collar whilst the dog squealed and snapped.  He let the dog go and the dog adopted a fearful posture, showing his teeth “see” the man said, “this dog is mental”.  I took the brush, put it on the floor, sat on the floor and encouraged this terrified dog to come to me.  I let him dance around the brush, rewarding every inspection of it.  he was soon touching it and looking for his treat.  I then touched the brush where it was, which panicked him at first, then he came back to touch it with me.  This went on until I could pick it up, touch him, eventually a few strokes.

All the while his owners sat there, silent.  I got the impression they were actually disappointed.   When I turned to them, beaming, they were looking at each other.  “Look” I said, “not rage, fear”.

Sadly this did disappoint them.  They asked what next, I said I would draw up a treatment plan for them and it was obvious this little dog was totally trainable.  They said they didn’t trust him, which I’d say meant they couldn’t be bothered.  I got very angry when they said would I not tell the vet my findings as they were paying so it was private.  I said no, I am telling the vet.  It seemed they intended to take the dog back, say yes, rage, please kill my dog.  So he was signed over to me, sorted, rehomed and lived happily ever after.

Be very careful of a rage diagnosis.  Every case of an aggressive dog is not rage whether a Spaniel or not.  A dog showing reactive behaviour where there is a trigger is not rage.  Full medical tests can only say what it isn’t, it’s the pattern of the behaviour that tells you if it is, combined with an assessment of posture and body language.


See Also “Separation Anxiety in Dogs, Did You Cause It?”

About Safepets UK

Expert Witness behaviourist assessing dogs for court, treating cats and dogs. Covering Midlands to London and other areas.

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