Features June 2004 Issue

Rage Syndrome in Dogs

Idiopathic aggression is (thankfully) quite rare, but also quite dangerous.

by Pat Miller

The term “rage syndrome” conjures up mental images of Cujo, Stephen King’s fictional rabid dog, terroriz-ing 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.

A behaviorist’s investigation will reveal discernible triggers and warning signs if a dog has a more common form of aggression; not so with idiopathic aggression.

The earmarks of idiopathic aggression include:

• No identifiable trigger stimulus/stimuli

• Intense, explosive aggression

• 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 this condition, 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.

Glimmer of hope
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 “Thanks for Sharing,” 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.

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 sidebar)

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.

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.

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.


Also With This Article
"What You Can Do"
"The Evolving Vocabulary of Aggression"

-Pat Miller, CPDT, 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." See “Resources" for more information.

Comments (10)

Hi. Posting through desperation after a sleepless night, my male 6yr old Chihuahua has rage problems, I finally looked it up and have come across this rage syndrome, and I think my dog definitely has this, my dog can be a lovely loving dog but then, for no reason whatsoever he changes, his whole face changes,his eyes glaze over, change colour and almost turn red and bulge ,he can't be reasoned with in any way or calmed down,I. Never thought a Chihuahua could be scary but this is no normal temper, it's like he's possessed! he used to attack and bite if we made any attempt to control him, the only way we have managed to stop the attack is by ignoring him an walking away an leaving him alone till he becomes normal again,the last four nights he has started doing it at night,,in bed as much as every half hour as soon as he's dozed off he jumps up an snaps ,he looks dazed then starts to doze and does it again,his day time rages have been going on for a couple of years, this night time attacking has just started, anyone got any advice,I won't have him put to sleep as he's never attacked whilst out on walks and he has not turned on strangers, x

Posted by: Cazza. p | January 24, 2015 7:29 AM    Report this comment

I remember reading this article when my dog was about 18 months old. He would occasionally wake from a deep sleep and leap into the air snapping and snarling. This would happen even when he was in a dog bed on the couch completely alone. I told myself it was some kind of nightmare. Then on occasion he would go from playing with the other dogs to a fight that I had to break up. I told myself that can happen. Then I was visiting a friend and he turned and attacked me. I crated him and he screamed and attacked the crate for almost two hours.

At that point I sought help. He had other health issues so I looked into his meds. I did a full blood and thyroid panel. I went to a holistic vet as well. I went to a behavioral vet. He continued to have odd aggressive bouts. He was also a resource guarder, so I put it all down to resource guarding. However, I worked on that issue very successfully with a clicker and he really improved. The training had no impact on the rages.

The behavioral vet put him on meds and had me keep a journal. I noted that he had some other odd behaviors. Some days he would be terrified of the back yard. Other days he would trot out without an issue. He would occasionally walk around the outside of a room almost hugging the walls. Then several minutes later, go right through the center.

Then one day, I had him out in the front yard on a leash and he turned on me and went after my leg. There was no growl no snarl or anything. He was just intent on my leg. I could hold him back and try to talk to him. When I did this, my arm would get closer than my leg. He had no interest in my arm. He just stared blankly and pulled toward my leg. When I would try to walk again, my arm would move closer to my body and he would lunge for the leg. He was a little dog and the attack looked so bad that a man driving by in a pickup jumped out to "help" me. I sent him away.

My little guy was a sweet and social dog. He loved his companion dogs. However, after that incident, I knew he could accidentally kill one of the other dogs and he wouldn't even realize what had happened. I could have kept him confined away from other dogs and people. But I would have robbed him of his quality of life. I honestly think the man who jumped out of the pickup would have kicked or shot my dog to end the attack. If something like this happened again, I could not guarantee my little one a safe and peaceful passage. I was so lucky to have an amazing vet. I did some clicker work in the office on his last visit and he passed on with treats raining from the sky.

Not every dog that is aggressive has idiopathic aggression. I now have a very reactive dog. He can lung snarl growl and snap when he reacts to things. However, I can predict what will cause him to react and I can work with him on his issues. I have to admit his first growl sent shivers through my spine. It is a slow process, but there is something about bringing this boy through his issues that is helping me heal from my loss.

Posted by: aglmutts | August 15, 2014 10:35 AM    Report this comment

I have a year old cocker spaniel/pit mix. She does have some aggression problems. While walking her at a park one evening, she seemed to be enjoying herself;Tail waging. Then suddenly she spots this old couple walking together. She immediately shakes her collar, runs up and bites the old man on the leg. Prior to the attack, her hair didn't even raise up.. All that happened was a prick of the ears and a full on attack. After she bit him, she ran back to me and curled into a ball, peed herself and cried.
About 6 months later I have her tied up in my apartment back yard to use the bathroom. Our neighbors come out to smoke and she starts barking. As soon as they turn to run inside, she breaks the post and bites one of the ladies, then runs back to me, crying. It's like she blacks out for a moment and looses hersel. I'm not sure what to do with her.
She also Suckle sand kneeds on stuffed animals for comfort.

Posted by: Mrsaprilk | August 5, 2014 11:10 PM    Report this comment

I have never heard the term "rage syndrome" before but I believe that I had a Boston Terrier with this syndrome. First of all, we have always owned Bostons and still have two. He is the only Boston that we have owned that went from sweet to vicious in the blink of an eye. In fact, every Boston we have ever had were complete lovesponges. He was much loved as a puppy and adult, however, he eventually bit all three of my sons in the face requiring emergency room repair by a plastic surgeon and then he bit me in the face requiring 45 stitches in the chin, lip and inside of the mouth. He was MY dog. We talked about putting him down after the first son was bit but chalked it up to a freak accident, then the second freak accident and then the third son was bit and we knew it was our only option. After making that decision, I bent down to kiss him on our bed and I was bit. The next day, I took him to put him down. I loved my guy, Tucker, and still do to this day 16 years later. Something happened to him that defies explanation. We lived in constant fear of him biting one of our sons' friends. It was the only option and we made excuses when we should not have. It was a horrible way to live not knowing when he would strike again. We have been blessed with many dogs and I can't imagine life without them but sometimes tough decisions have to be made. My empathy is with anyone going through this and sympathy with anyone having to deal with the loss of a beloved pet. After the loss of Tuck, my husband brought home an amazing Boston puppy that I named Angus. Angus was with me for 15 years and I just lost him last October. He healed me and so I still feel the exquisite loss of both of them.

Posted by: Jarheadmom | July 2, 2014 2:58 PM    Report this comment

It is great to read these comments and to know I am not crazy nor alone with this "crazed rage syndrone." I have a 10 yr. old black female toy poodle named Onyx. For the past year or so, she has lashed out my other two "teacups" and my wife and I. She has not hurt the other dogs, but she has bitten me and my wife during the attacks. It appears that she wakes up out of a sleep, and charges whom ever is in her path. Our vet has checked her over from head to tail and can't find anything wrong. The rage lasts for a few minutes and her eyes just get a crazed look and the teeth come out. I am afraid that she would harm the other two dogs, so I have begun to crate her when left alone. Now to add to these episodes, she is having episodes of losing her balance and flopping on the floor for a minute. After a few minutes, she is back to normal balance and running with the others. She has had 3 episodes of this in the last 12 hrs. I'm afraid the time has come to put her to sleep forever before she kills the 3 lb teacup I paid big bucks for.

Posted by: RTalbotJr | May 25, 2014 12:17 PM    Report this comment

It is the first time that I find an answer to what has been plaguing me for years, or at least I think it is the only answer I will ever have. Seven years ago, my small female beagle Autumn, 3 yrs old, lunged and tore my daughters face... It was a horrible rip. We were in our bedroom, she went to kiss her and without warning , she snapped. There was no growling, no prior movement, probably those crazy eyes.
Needless to say , it was over for Autumn . She had been acting strange for a while, we had just moved, but probably out of ignorance and some denial , we just didn't see it. ( although she had tried to bite my daughter previously). I did take her to my vet for some basic evaluation then to a naturopath/chiropractor. They found nothing. I had a dog trainer friend , we talked about some issues but because her behavior was so random, we didn't know how to address it. It really could not be provoked. At the time I had a pack of 4 dogs , and there definitely was some of the " pack dominance " in her , but nothing out of the normal pack issues.
Seven years later, and many more dogs in my household, I still feel like it was my fault and that I just missed . I keep thinking I could have saved her. My daughter thankfully recovered and has no fear of any kind . I can't say the same for myself. I am always cautious of my dogs around people and every year I remember that day ,the horrible bite, her being brought away and her euthanasia alone several days later. I empathize with those who are going through this now.

Posted by: suzanna b | February 19, 2014 4:44 PM    Report this comment

Thank you for this tender and sensitive article. It was the first article I read that helped me to realize that this problem with my dog is not my fault. I got him as a puppy and took him to training, take him to work with me and basically can't think of any reason that he becomes so aggressive without any warning! I love my 7 year old Springer Spaniel so much and the thought of loosing him is horrible. However, I am allowing myself to see that I have made excuses for him and that he is dangerous....not all the time, but when he has one of his "spells" look out! He has bitten and I know it is only a matter of time when he does again. I have to let him go. Heartbreaking.

Posted by: janetsmithpeterson | April 7, 2013 3:13 PM    Report this comment

I wonder if any of these problems are brought on my vaccinations. - especially rabies. Some experts talk about "vaccinosis"

Posted by: La Trenda - Puddins Training Tips | February 18, 2013 11:57 PM    Report this comment

We too have tried all measures with our 14# Silky Terrier, Rocky. He is ten years old and for the last 6-7 years he has been and angel 90% of the time. The other ten percent of the time he seems to be a killer. numerous times he has gone from a comparative calm or sleep state to a raging vicious biter. He has attacked me, my wife, and all three of my sons( teen and adult.)
A behaviorist wanted to "dope" him up but I said why have a dog that just lies there? Many of our bites have probably required emergency room care but our pride or embarrassment led us to self treatment of the wounds.
Every definition I have found of "rage" syndrome seems to fit Rocky's behavior to a T.
We love this poor little guy but is his life any better than the one we live when we are around the dog. We are all crying our eyes out over our plans for euthanizing Rocky, but we all feel guilt wondering if we did something wrong during his upbringing.
Now that he's displayed the same behavior in front of visitors we too have that tough decision all but made for us.

Posted by: wcwynar | January 21, 2013 10:40 AM    Report this comment

THis was a terrific article on a scarey disorder..
I would like to purchase several copies to bring to my
vet & to keep on hand...I think any one who works with dogs
should be aware of the disorder...

Unfortunately it sounds so much like what has been going on with
my dog foir the past 5 yrs...and last night she bite me very badly..

I guess its decision time..

Thank you for this timely article,
Is there a way to download it?

Johanna Wertz

Posted by: johanna | August 3, 2011 4:38 PM    Report this comment

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