dog bites

A BITE FROM THE BLUE – DOES YOUR DOG HAVE RAGE SYNDROME?

A snarling red dog.

DOES MY DOG HAVE ‘RAGE SYNDROME’?

Probably not.

‘Rage syndrome’ is a label applied to dogs who are described as biting their humans out of the blue and with no warning. The attacks are often described as frenzied and the dog is often said to have been acting normally seconds before the attack. ‘Rage syndrome’ is most often described in solid coloured Cocker Spaniels, especially red ones, but has also been described in other spaniels and non-spaniel breeds.

There is little good scientific research on ‘Rage syndrome’ and what there is points to this most often being a problem behaviour related to rescource guarding rather than a mysterious tendancy to attack for no reason. In their 1996 paper Podberscek and Serpell (1) did find increased aggression in solid colour cockers, but attributed most of it to ‘social dominance’ and protection of territory and possessions. They suggested there was a genetic component to the behaviour, which is not surprising as we accept that many personality traits have a genetic basis. It may have been that by paying more attention to the colours of dogs than to temperament breeders were creating pups with traits unsuitable for familiy life.

In their book ‘EMRA Intelligence’ Falconer-Taylor, Neville, and Strong (2) describe a typical case presented to the behaviourist as ‘Cocker Rage’. What they found was not a dog with an incurable genetic predisposition to unpredictable aggression, but a rather bored and frustrated dog . He was trying to communicate to his people when he was unhappy through his body language, and if they ignored that by growling, but sometimes they just didn’t hear his communication and he was pushed to snap at them. By teaching his owners how to meet his needs and listen to him, Bracken the Cocker becaome a content and safe family pet.

When someone tells me that a dog has ‘rage syndrome’ there are three key questions I ask. Could the dog be in pain? Where was the dog when the aggression occured? Was there anything of value to the dog around when the aggression occured?

Pain affects sleep, mobility, can be chronic but with acute flare-ups, it can affect mood and we appreciate in humans that it will make us short-tempered, so why not dogs? If the aggression is related to grooming and handling a through vet check to look for pain is advisable. Even aggression related to being stroked can be because the person accidentally touched a sore area.

Often the aggression is related to objects such as a bed or sofa, toys, and found items or to food and treats. It can even be connected to a particular person. This is termed ‘resource guarding’ and is understandable when you thing that without shelter, food, and protection a dog could die! Puppies need to be taught early on that humans (and other pets) are not going to steal their food. They need to be taught good cues to get off beds and furniture for a reward, and they need to be taught to give up toys or found objects on cue for a reward. Sleeping dogs should be gently roused so they aren’t startled into biting and dogs should be controlled around flash points like the front door as this area causes a complicated mix of strong emptions in so many dogs!

THE BITE FROM THE BLUE

“Yes,” you say, “but the dog I’m talking about just bit out of the blue with no warning!”

This is rarely true, at least not to begin with. Dogs are very good at communicating how they feel, but humans are not very good at listening to dogs. I say ‘listening’ but I should say ‘watching’ as most dog communication is non verbal. Early signs that a dog is not comfortable can be trying to withdrawn from contact, stiffness, a slow stiff tail wag, showing the whites of the eyes, and pining the ears back. If we ignore those the dog might try showing their teeth, standing over an object, or growling. At this point people tend to notice and might punish the dog by shouting or even hitting the dog. This works to stop the dog snarling or growling, but it doesn’t stop the dog feeling very unhappy about the situation. The dog learns not to growl, because they get punished so goes straight from subtle body language into an air snap. If you watch dogs together they are veyr good at dodging warning air snaps… people less so, and we get bitten. At this point most dogs who have been taught that biting people is not acceptable retreat and ‘look guilty’, they don’t show the frenzied attack of the ‘rage’ dog. But, if their bite is met with screaming, shouting, or hitting the dog may be so afraid that they attack as a form of self-defence. Sadly this can result in severe injuries to anyone who is in the way and could even be fatal to a child.

SO ‘RAGE SYNDROME’ ISN’T A REAL THING?

I have encountered a very small number of dogs who I believe have something pathological behind their aggression which we might call ‘rage’. In The Behavioural Biology of Dogs, Hedhammar and Hultin-J√§derlund (3) note that abnormal EEGs have been found in some dogs displaying ‘rage’ which point towards the idea that it is a form of epilepsy. I know people who live with hallucinatory forms of epilepsy which can be frightening until they get a diagnosis. I can imagine that seeing a frightening or confusing image could cause the symptoms of my ‘rage’ cases, namely dilated pupils (described by owners as trhe eyes going red as they see the retina) suggesting their ‘flight or flight’ system is triggered, and growling at thin air. People get bitten when they try to comfort the dog, or move into the field of vision and the bites are deep and multiple as when dogs are in self-defence mode.

I have not had great success with these pathological cases. Other vets and behaviourists have found anti-epileptic drugs to help some dogs, but many are euthanased as their atacks cannot be predicted or managed.

WHAT DO I DO IF MY DOGS IS GROWLING AND BITING?

  1. Sit down and identify when your dog growls and snaps. Often ‘random’ aggression is not so random when you really think about it. This can give you and your behaviourist clues as to why your dog isn’t happy.
  2. Book a vet check. Your behaviourist will want this before engaging in anything other than an emergency management plan. Make sure your vet knows why you are asking and does a thorough examination including the mouth, eyes, ears, abdomen, and musculoskeletal system. If your dog is aggressive when handled this may require pre-visit medication and a muzzle. Your vet may want to do blood tests, especially in older animals where medical conditions can make them less tolerant.
  3. Engage with a behaviourist who understands the emotional basis of problem behaviours such as those with COAPE qualifications and/or CAPBT members.

References

I don’t usually do references, but here are two articles you can read, and a book you can buy or find in a library that I used in writing this piece.

  1. https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/41637557/Environmental_influences_on_the_expressi20160127-20205-l6aq70-libre.pdf?1453905122=&response-content-disposition=inline%3B+filename%3DEnvironmental_influences_on_the_expressi.pdf&Expires=1673962846&Signature=S3zRQ5gfuyA2ZVAkEY6z4ffUqm1CUJ~BF-sD7wcVYb~mN1-M2MV2Bi2R1mqh1UOAre3R4P3fjfoh5dp1RHQoU0eSCV~~ZoHdNpuBbIMfnlwswztX-stNovVjmwA~bUgQ813RkckoqetMjI0GoMPR673tdyD7AQmfeFnjS~DoFWmOyAdM4GUFwea8Mqq-Cq8-Cf8mhmGgn6CNxClUOowicr5zF~ygHv4hVs~SEmT8mV7PLTftb5wYp8A3RKxDEjCrh08nhmfaRffnFLBHYqrYq0VgJfATMmuj5GWRMHp9ekLQ6EupkwrkIPMWfxWxvQo-eTBTdW81-y9webjbCkbRqw__&Key-Pair-Id=APKAJLOHF5GGSLRBV4ZA
  2. https://www.abebooks.co.uk/book-search/author/robert-falconer-taylor-peter-neville-val-strong/
  3. http://sherekashmir.informaticspublishing.com/671/1/9781845931872.pdf#page=253