Rage Syndrome

Rage Syndrome
Sadly, out of the blue, certain breeds of dog display unpredictable outbursts of aggression known as ‘rage syndrome’ and ‘low threshold dominance aggression'.
These dogs will be perfectly civil with strangers and in the show ring, but then will suddenly attack family members for no apparent reason, their eyes becoming dilated and sometimes changing colour during and after an attack.

The dog will not respond to any attempts to stop it, often appearing confused afterwards, but will return to its usual self in time.

English Cocker Spaniels, especially the red and golden varieties, particularly suffer from rage syndrome, but it has also been reported in American Cocker Spaniels, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Dobermans, English Bull Terriers, English Springer Spaniels, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Pyrenean Mountain Dogs and St. Bernard’s.

Although “rage syndrome” has been widely and seriously studied since the 1930s, it cannot be accurately predicted and can only be diagnosed by EEG or genetic testing. Unfortunately, these tests are not conclusive, since the causes may be polygenic and therefore very difficult to pinpoint.

While it is very distressing to have a dog with this problem, owners should seek advice from a veterinary surgeon who may then refer their dog to a certified veterinary behaviourist for assessment.

“Rage syndrome” looks like an exaggerated form of status aggression. It’s triggered by the unexpected approach of people when the dog is in a half-asleep state. The dog snaps alert, growls and bites, even people it knows. Then it behaves as if it’s very sorry afterwards, as though it didn’t mean to do it.

Research has shown that rage syndrome is only associated with certain colours of cocker spaniels: red-golden and black, so that there is probably a strong genetic basis.

Because the different coloured lineages have been separated for a long time, champion dogs, which they were bred from, had this problem. Pure breeding inevitably increases genetic problems because it narrows the gene pool. Some almost have no genetic variation left, and then you can’t select out traits anymore. And unfortunately, there are dogs who have learned to get off on aggression – and often must be put down.



© Stan Rawlinson, The Dog Listener. Dog Behaviourist & Obedience Trainer. Stan Rawlinson (Doglistener) is a Dog Behaviourist and Obedience Trainer who has owned and worked dogs for over 25 years, starting with Gundogs then moving on to the behavioural and obedience side of Pet Dogs in 1996. He now has a successful practice covering London, Surrey and Middlesex you can visit his web site

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Submitted: 03 Jan, 2008 (Edited 27 Jan, 2010)
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