Rage Syndrome in Dogs

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

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RAGE SYNDROME: OVERVIEW

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 rage syndrome, 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.

17 COMMENTS

  1. MY MOTHER HAD A GOLDEN LAB WHO ONLY SHOWED SIGNS OF UNCONTROLLABLE AGGRESSION TOWARDS OTHER ANIMALS AND WE THOUGHT WAS SIMPLE AGGRESSION, BUT I COULD NOT HANDLE HIM ANYMORE AS HE WAS ACTING LIKE HE WANTS TO KILL EVERYTHING ANIMAL OR HUMAN IN HIS SIGHT.
    ALL THIS WAS ESCALATED WHEN I WAS ATTACKED BY HIM 3 TIMES OUT OF THE BLUE AFTER HE WAS AWAKE. SO YES, LOTS OF TIMES THIS UNCONTROLLABLE AGGRESSION TOWARDS OTHER ANIMALS AND GOING OUT OF HIS WAY TO CHASE AND KILL AN ANIMAL YES IT IS RAGE SYNDROME. NO THE TERM IS NOT OVERUSED. PPL DO NOT KNOW ENOUGH ABOUT IT AND SUCH ARTICLES CAUSE CONFUSION. WITH THE AMOUNT OF BAD BREEDING RAGE SYNDROME IS NOT THAT RARE ANYMORE. SO YES AN INDICATOR FOR RAGE SYNDROME IS WHEN A DOG IS OBSESSED WITH KILLING AND CHASING OTHER ANIMALS TO KILL THEM. THIS IS NOT TERRITORIAL!!!! WHEN PEOPLE GET CLOSER TO THEIR DOGS, THEY WILL SUFFER THEMSELVES AN UNEXPLAINABLE SUDDEN ATTACK LIKE I DID. AND GETTING CLOSER WITH YOUR DOG IS NOT SOMETHING THAT MOST PPL DO, THEY DO NOT COME TO CLOSE TO THEIR DOGS, THEY LEAVE THEM IN A YARD AND TREAT THEM COLDLY AND THATS IT. I HAVE NOW TWO COLLIES AND I HUG THEM KISS THEM HALF ASLEEP OR NOT AND THEY DO NOT ATTACK ME VICIOUSLY AND THEN NOT RECALL A THING, THEY DO NOT TRY TO CHASE AND KILL OTHER DOGS. SO YES, EXTREME AGGRESSION TOWARDS OTHER DOGS IS AN INDICATOR OF RAGE SYNDROME.

  2. Thank you Sassa! I have a German Shepherd that I inherited when my Mom passed. When she was living with my Mom she 2as fine but very high strung. She had always lived with one other dog and was very submissive. When Mom died and I brought the dog home to my 4 other dogs she was OK after a week. She got on well with them well here it is 6 monthes later and she has developed some serious aggression towards one of our old dogs with authritis and has also attacked the alpha dog. When she attacks she is out for blood. She attacks any time she gts excited which could be a dog barking, a person walking their dog outside or whenever my husband or I come home. It has gotten so bad that we are teying to find a home for her where she will be the only dog. She is gine with cats after a long slow introduction, but woulfd not teust her with other dogs at all.

  3. I put down my 18 month old English Bull Terrier and am absolute heartbroken. I am a trainer and thought I could correct this problem. He was always OCD but then he started attacking his leash very violently while making high pitched screaming sounds. I have never seen anything like that. I took him back to the breeder for a few days they recommended some very strict adjustments which I made and I thought they may have been helpful but didn’t. I tried medications more redirecting but his world seemed to get smaller he started sleeping away from his usual place and his episodes became more frequent.. I loved that dog. he attacked gardening gloves my wife was putting on, he couldn’t see me swinging an imaginary golf club without wanting to attack. This started at around 8 months and grew worse. I hope no one has to go through that experience. Heartbroken

    • I went through the same exact thing with my English Bull Terrier and it crushed me. She was around the same age as yours,18 months. Very sorry for your loss.

  4. hi im khloe and im 10 years old. my family got a Australian Shepard/border collie mix about 7 months ago. He was nippy as a little puppy, which almost all puppies are. But as he’s gotten much bigger and stronger, he loves to bite our other 5 year old mini schnauzer around his face. Also, he likes to go to my room and jump up on the bed. from there, he’ll run back and forth on it like a cheetah and bite you if you get within an inch to him. my whole family has at least one bite mark from him. we love him, but are afraid we might have to take him to a no-kill shelter. We are hoping that once we get him “snip-snipped” he’ll calm down more. but just as more proof he’ll get what we like to call “crazy eyes” his pupils get smaller and more insane look and he’ll just run around insanely until we get a chance to let him outside. finally, at the bottom of our yard, there used to be grass but now its just completely dirt! no joke, its from where he’ll chase after a vehicle or person while they walk or drive by and he is VERY fast. please help, we need some advice!

  5. Khloe do you take your dog for regular walks? Making sure he gets at least 20 minutes of exercise every day and neutering will both greatly alleviate his aggression.

    • 20 minutes? A dog like that needs a 45 minute walk daily and /or a job or task or something like agility training to exhaust his mind and body. Her description of him sounds like he has an enormous amount of energy to burn. Those breeds were bred to work, and work hard.

  6. I adopted a 6 yr old Austrailian Shepard/ German Shepard mix 6 months ago. He had been chained outside all his life and badly abused. He had never been in a house or had any training. He’s intelligent, took to training well, loves to please me, is by nature affectionate and friendly. We meet a lot of people on our walks and he is interested in everyone and their dogs. I’ve never heard him even growl at anyone, an energetic but not aggressive dog. He has attacked me twice with no warning. As soon as he comes back to reality he is ashamed. The 2nd attack was 3 days ago and every day since he wants to sniff my wound and give me kisses. Even today he is worried and attentive. I am heartsick that I will likely have to have this beautiful, intelligent loving dog destroyed.

  7. Hi Carolyn- I hope you seek a professional qualified trainer first. Also a vet visit- as there could be an underlying medical reason for this type of behavior as well. Best of luck to you !

  8. Thanks Bernie. I have done both of those and now have a call in to a vet that does a combination of training and medication. But if I describe the behavior in a phone message I often don’t receive a call back. It’s considered not amenable to change by training. There has been little research done on what they call “idiopathic agression.” With Ravi it’s like a PTSD reaction where in that moment he doesn’t know I’m not his abuser and his reaction is out of his own control.

  9. I have a 5 year old Pitt that I adopted from the Dog Pound at 4 months old, who for 6 months now, out of the blue started to viciously attack me, even to the point of a Hospital ED visit. His normal personality is sweet sweet sweet loving me ,other dogs, other animals and people in general. He will suddenly get a glazed over look and lunges for my throat like he’s possessed or rabid . I have to suddenly grab his collar and hold on strong, of course he is biting me all over my forearms . He even bites and shakes his head like a kill move. These are sudden and unpredictable episodes. Nothing triggers these, we can be watching TV him all curled up and I hear a low grawl so I now he’s fixing to lunge giving me only time enough to grab his collar. Last night he was totally asleep curled up next to me in bed when I heard him grawl sure enough he lounged for me biting me 5 times before the episode stopped. Once he comes out of this vicious rage of trying to kill me, he is his sweet loving self trying to lick my wounds. Last night he had 7 episodes and I was able to put a muzzle on him which he wore all night. I’ve been to the Vet she put him on Seizure Meds which he’s been on 1 month , I’ve taken him to a behaviorist trainer he said it was not a behavior problem it was a medical problem so he would not work with him. I am desperately trying not to put this fur baby down but my options seem to be running out. Has anyone had this severe type of trouble and what did you do. I need some great advice. My arms are black and blue with multiple tears on both forearms and hands. Need help

  10. Please,please have your dog pts. He could v easily kill you,he is big and strong . It’s hard I know but you really have to be strong about this. Best of luck ,I am so sorry.

  11. Oh my word. I really feel for you but you haven’t said whether the epilepsy meds have stopped the attacking yet. I have a Bichon Frise that we have looked after off and on since he was a puppy for the elderly owner when he had to go into hospital or on holiday. He is now 7 and I have had him approximately 10 months. 4 months ago he was sound asleep in his bed when he suddenly shot out and bit my leg which bled very badly. He went off and was staying away from me. Since then he has bitten 3 other people but they had accidentally stepped on his foot. I was upset but put that down to shock. My friend was staying with us and had got up and was sitting in the chair with the duvet wrapped around her and he was sleeping on her bedcon the floor when he suddenly shot across and attacked her. The duvet prevented any injury thankfully. Last night in the space of an hour he again was asleep when he suddenly bit me twice. Luckily he did not penetrate my skin due to the thick leggings I had on. I hatectobsay this becausevhe has been such a loving and loyal dog who sits next to me and follows me everywhere. When i had the first bad bite I discussed it with the vet who could give me no advice at all. We have decided today that we cannot allow it to carry on as I am diabetic and have very swollen legs from Lymphedema and next time it could be bad and I could get an ulcer. I feel like poop but we can’t go on. I have had him on some herbal meds from Lintbells called Yucalm which helps with anxiety and stress etc but that has not helped him. He keeps whimpering lately. That makes me feel worse. I am sure I will be criticised for our decision but we have to consider the safety of our grandchildren and other people as much as ourselves. I cannot take him but my husband isvgoing to take him this afternoon.

  12. Thank you so much for this article. My family and I rescued a puppy and got him at 10 weeks old. He’s a boxer, hound, Great Pyrenees mix. He’s been a great dog, loving and very well behaved for the most part until he turned two this past August. he bit one of my son’s friends in the face causing him to need six stitches. He then just recently ran out of his fence and went after another dog. he bit the dog but thank God, she is ok. The next day, he tried to bite my seven year old in the face, and one day after, he bit me in the face and I wasn’t even kneeling down over him. We are all ok but more traumatized and upset this is happening. All if his symptoms and aggressions fit the definition of Rage syndrome. His eyes glaze over and his face is different. It’s almost like he is possessed. There are barely any warning signs. I know we absolutely cannot rehome him and need to make a difficult decision to put him down. We are heart broken. 🙁

  13. THANK YOU! I have a Jack Russel Terrier –when I got him I was warned: “he is crazy,we will waive the adoption fees.” “Oh, they just don’t understand JRTs” was my thought to myself.
    Single woman, no kids –I was on a mission.
    He had severe food aggression –we worked through that (ish) many many months of hand feeding and petting and talking to him while he ate.
    Random LOUD excessive barking –some what controlled.–okay not at all.
    Peeing/marking everywhere all the time. –a lot better (we only let him in 1/2 the house and limit his water intake ) .
    All along he has had aggressiion
    — full on attacked me during a storm
    – gets aggressive “protecting” things like garbage can
    – wakes himself up in full on attack mode.
    since i first adopted him, I got married and having an “alpha” (hubby) in the house, JRT’s behavior got a lilttle better.
    We both have been bitten (hands) pretty bad –open puncture wounds.
    I work at home, dog falls asleep in my office +wakes up and full on attacks me. (random)
    -he’s been on prosac/CBD/and trainers.
    “he needs more exersize” no, he needs to be exorcised –we live on a lake –and are active family –he runs and paddleboards, swims etc. we have a large fenced yard, we have another dog and they wrestle all the time.
    Our vet acknowledges we have done ABOVE and beyond. I am in a classic abusive relationship with this dog. He is so cute I can’t stand it. He’s my “circus dog” and is so smart and curious and funny. The attack happens, my shoes/socks are ruined from his teeth and then he gets my ankle and bites me until there is blood. “Sorry?” do canines feel human emotions? I don’t know, but he definitely looks out of sorts when he “comes back” into his own self. After my adrenaline has run its course, I’ve cleaned puncture wounds, bandaged hand/foot etc… made some hot tea –I feel love for this holy-hell white terror. We have toddler grand-kids –should I wait until the JRT bites their faces? I made an appointment for him tomorrow. After reading these many comments –I know it’s the right thing to do. For the love of Mike, just like an abusive relationship , “why doesn’t the woman simply LEAVE?” well, folks this girl is “leaving” and by “leaving” I mean the dog is.

    • (it’s me again) –we put him ‘down’ yesterday –best thing I’ve done in a long long while –peace + serenity floated into our home (immediately). I had a moment of: “I wished I did this a long time ago.” But, I wasn’t ready …. anyone out there who has an severely aggressive dog –I HIGHLY recommend you put him/her down… no dog deserves to live in that mental hell, nor do you.

  14. Very interesting
    I am completely lost
    She woke barked
    Then screamed like a pig, ran up stairs
    Next thing it’s taking 3 of us to in lock her off my other dog
    I dragged her away and hugged her
    Eyes was black
    Freeked out and shaking
    But also wanted to get him again x
    Wtf

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