Cocker Rage Syndrome

We have all heard of it but how many actually understand what is euphemistically known as Cocker Rage? The term “rage syndrome” was originally used to describe a set of behaviour’s that were occurring in a disproportionate number of golden cocker spaniels. It appeared to manifest itself in single colour cockers and mainly males.

However these assumptions were disproved when it became apparent that other breeds were also suffering this type of affliction. It certainly was not helped when the likes of Dr Roger Mugford came out with a statement to the Manchester Guardian and I quote, “Cocker spaniels are all given to rages and that no family with children should ever have one”.

American and English 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 have all been diagnosed with suffering from this problem – but exactly what is this phenomenon and is it actually a syndrome?

This type of aggression presents itself as an unprovoked attack, normally on family members. Rage syndrome looks like an exaggerated form of status or dominance aggression, often triggered by the unexpected approach of people when the dog is dozing. The dog snaps alert then attacks, biting and savaging. This may continue for some time, then just as suddenly as it started it stops.

Often the dog looks confused and may come up to the person it attacked in a normal greeting mode, looking submissive and sorry for itself. Often the eyes change colour and go hard before the attack, and there is normally no warning or threat posture prior to the dog launching itself at the person.

There is a lot of argument about whether this rage really exists as a syndrome, or if this is an inherited condition – a form of brain disorder or even reduced serotonin levels (associated with violence in people). Others have suggested it may be related to a mild form of epilepsy.

Various experts have theorised that “rage syndrome” is a seizure disorder, not a temperament disorder (such as dominant aggression). The recent successful treatment of some cases of apparent “rage” with Phenobarbital (an anticonvulsant) may add credence to this evidence.

What I have found recently is that aggression in our English springer spaniel is on the rise. I tend to find that this unprovoked aggression is found mainly in the small working Springer’s that are about the same size as large Cockers – certainly in the USA they have had an increase in aggression cases in Springer’s.

* Dr.Ilana Reisner, a professor of behavioural sciences has probably done more research on this condition than anyone else, She believes that this is a condition that follows family lines, and is associated with decreased serotonin levels and that the condition can be hard to distinguish from dominance aggression.

Dr Ilana believes that there are a group of dogs who exhibit extreme uncontrolled aggression that is way beyond the “typical” aggressive responses for dominant or territorial dogs. I think that these rages probably occur in many breeds, but that Springer and Cockers are over-represented among these breeds. Though as you can see by the picture with three of my own Springer’s they can be very loving and affectionate.

The term “rage syndrome” is almost certainly inappropriately used to describe aggression that does not fit the reported standard, making the problem seem much more widespread than it really is.

*Dogs that appear to have rage syndrome can become aggressive in certain repeatable situations, such as when an owner leans over the dog or attempts to move if from the couch or some other repeatable trigger for the behaviour. If this is the case then it makes it less likely that this is a seizure disorder, which would tend to suggest that the condition may be related to resource, territory and status, though other tests primarily conducted by Dr. Reisner showed abnormally low amounts of serotonin metabolites in their urine and cerebral spinal fluid.

This suggested that the aggression was associated with abnormally low levels of serotonin in the brain. This corresponded with findings in violent mental patients and prison inmates. Serotonin is one of the neurotransmitters, brain chemicals that have a calming effect. In most mammals it appears to decrease the amount of aggression associated with dominance.

While it does not necessarily change the social status of an animal, higher serotonin levels decrease the likelihood aggressive displays that may be used to maintain social position. Based on these findings, medications that increase serotonin levels were used to treat dominance aggression in dogs. Apparently about 50% of the dominant aggressive dogs respond to these drugs, with a decrease in aggressive displays.

Drugs do not solve the problem, but it has been suggested that they can make it safer and easier for owners to use behavioural modification techniques to change the dog’s social status in the home. This indicates that dominance aggression may, at least in some individuals, result from a brain abnormality on the chemical level.

When treating aggression cases aimed at humans then you should take a number of factors into consideration.

There is another form of aggression, called mental lapse aggression, that has been previously described as “rage syndrome”. Dr. Bonnie Beaver, at Texas A&M, first described this type of aggression. The cause is unknown, but the EEG brain wave pattern resembles that of a wild animal. It is probably not a seizure disorder, as these dogs do not respond to anticonvulsant’s. These dogs display sudden, violent aggression. It can start at any age, but usually occurs in young adults, and becomes progressively worse. A careful behavioural history shows absolutely no pattern of predictability. There is no known treatment, except euthanasia. It is probably very rare, but can be very difficult to distinguish from a severe case of dominance aggression. In the long run, it probably isn’t that critical to make the distinction, since euthanasia is the safest course in either event.

Seizures can also cause unprovoked aggressive episodes, but the EEG generally shows seizure spikes, a different pattern from mental lapse aggression. When seizures are the suspected cause of aggression, the veterinarian should do the typical medical evaluation for any other type of seizure. These dogs often do very well on anticonvulsant’s. Owners must be prepared to deal with the necessary monitoring, as well as the risks involved with owning a dog who shows aggression during a seizure. Otherwise, they are handled just like any other seizuring dog.

Depending on how you break it down, there are probably 20 different forms of aggression in the dog. Multiple forms within the same individual may all interact together to produce a single biting episode. Without understanding all these factors, it is extremely difficult to successfully treat an aggressive dog. “Rage Syndrome” has been applied to many types of aggression, primarily dominance aggression, mental lapse aggression, and seizure-related aggression. This term needs to be dropped from our vocabulary when discussing causes, prognosis, and treatment of aggressive dogs.

o Age at onset of aggressive behaviour – The younger the dog at the time of the initial aggression, the poorer the prognosis. If a bitch is showing early signs of aggression to owners then you should probably not spay her, as the reduction in progesterone may exacerbate the behaviour.

o Severity of the aggression – Dogs who display lower levels of aggressive behaviour, such as growls, lip curls, and inhibited snaps, will be much easier to treat than dogs that explode with violent attacks. The depth and ferocity of the bite also has an impact on prognosis deep and powerful then the chances of treatment succeeding is poor.

o Predicting the aggression – If owners can predict which situations are most likely to result in aggression, such as guarding objects or a favourite spot, then measures can be taken to prevent those situations.

o Duration of aggression – Since there is a learned component in any form of aggressive behaviour, it makes sense that the longer the aggression has been going on, the harder it will be to convince the dog the household rules have changed. Like any habit, owner behaviour’s that lead to aggression are also harder to change.

In reality I have only seen two cases where “Rage Syndrome” appeared to be present; both these cases were working lines of English Springer Spaniels. Nearly all the other cases called rage syndrome were control complex behaviour i.e. dominance, frustration, resource guarding etc.

It may be that these are manifesting themselves in our working Cockers and Springer’s because of a shrinking gene pool. Pure breeding inevitably increases genetic problems, because it narrows the gene pool. Some almost have no genetic variation left, therefore it is almost impossible to select out bad behavioural traits anymore.

I certainly see a lot of Cockers resource guarding, and showing control complex/dominant behaviour; also a number of Springer’s that bite without warning deep and hard, but I personally think that this does not constitute us classing it as “rage syndrome”

I believe there is more at work here than simply labeling it a “syndrome” Though the jury is out on what is actually happening, I tend to err on the side of genetics and lack of early socialisation with perhaps some chemical imbalances involved plus of course strong medical reasons that are untreatable.

I thought I should mention that there is currently a major sea change in how we look at dominant behaviour social status and aggression. Dominance is surely a relative term, not a description of a dog’s psyche. Some experts recommend dropping the entire dominant / submissive paradigm. I do not agree, as that negates the fact that social status is apparent in our dogs.

To some extent I sympathise with those claiming the word dominance should no longer be used, that it is defunct and outdated and irrelevant, but sympathising does not mean that I agree with their arguments or their logic.

Advances in scientific studies have shown that our previous knowledge base did not give us the full picture, and was based on studies that were at best incomplete and at worst totally incorrect in their findings. The new wave of positive reinforcement style training and behavioural modification is proving to be far more effective and kinder than methods previously used.

The advent of clicker training has proved a revelation to many of today’s obedience and behavioural trainers. The style of training that insisted that the dog should be subservient and that reward or treat based training is bribery is fortunately now dying, though there are still places and organisations that believe it is the only way to train. Current dog training techniques focus on building a relationship of mutual respect and trust.

Please let’s not allow political correctness and semantics to creep into dog behaviour or training – lets be realistic and look at what we have in front of us; sometimes a joy, other times pushy and dare I say occasionally ” Dominant”.

Irrespective we love them all, even with their strange, complex, and irritating idiosyncrasies.

Stan Rawlinson
Dog Behaviourist and Obedience Trainer, who has owned and worked dogs for over 25 years, starting with gundogs then moving to the behavioural and obedience side of training companion dogs. He now has a successful practice covering Greater London, Surrey, and Middlesex. Though is available to travel to any location in the UK if required.

Recommended by numerous Vets, Rescue Centre’s, and Charities. He writes articles and comments on behavioural issues and techniques for dog magazines including Our Dogs, Dogs Monthly, Shooting Times, Pet Talk and Pet Owner Magazine. He has acted as a behavioural expert for Disney, Sky, BBC, ITV, and LBC. and has appeared on television, radio and in national newspapers.

He is also the chairman and founder member of PAACT The Professional Association of Applied Canine Trainers. And acts as an expert witness in cases under the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act

http://www.doglistener.co.uk
enquiries@doglistener.co.uk
http://www.paact.co.uk

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