Rage Syndrome in Dogs

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



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

• 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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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 DogSee “Resources” for more information.


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