Rage Syndrome in Dogs: A Mysterious & Rare Genetic Disorder

In practically the dark ages of 1982 when I was a young girl, I remember one particularly snowy night when I went out with a friend. It was bitterly cold — like 20 degrees below zero cold — and when we got back to her house, my car wouldn’t start.

I spent the night with my friend who happened to have a Borzoi or Russian wolfhound. These are the dogs that have a steep arch in their back and a very narrow face. They’re actually bred to jump up in the air and come down on top of wolves to kill them.

Anyway, I remember this night because my friend’s electricity went out, and I woke up on the couch in the morning with this dog on top of me. I mean it was cold. He seemed like a nice dog to me, and so, I cuddled with him to stay warm.

Later that morning, I witnessed that same sweet dog erupt with extremely aggressive behavior at my friend (the dog’s owner) and her brother (also an owner) in two separate, unprovoked rage incidents.

The term rage syndrome was relatively new at that time, and many experts disputed its existence. It’s still not clear exactly what causes this type of dog aggression. It can certainly be problematic, and it can even result in euthanasia.

Let’s look at rage syndrome, what it is, how it manifests, and what to do if your dog has it.

What is Rage Syndrome in Dogs?

To put it simply, rage syndrome is a sudden, intense, and unpredictable form of dog aggression. Other forms of aggressive dog behavior typically result from some kind of trigger, such as fear aggression, anxiety, or when they’re protecting their territory.

With rage syndrome, however, there is no clear reason for the aggressive behavior. It is classified, therefore, as idiopathic aggression.

While it is seen in many different dog breeds, it is seen most frequently in English Springer Spaniels. For that reason, it is also referred to as “Springer Rage.”

What distinguishes rage syndrome from other types of aggressive behavior includes several common characteristics:

  • There is no identifiable stimulus/stimuli that trigger the incidents
  • The dog erupts in intense, explosive, and extremely aggressive behavior
  • The sudden onset of the rage episodes occurs between 1 – 3 years old
  • The dog may demonstrate a glazed or possessed look in its eyes just prior to the episode. They may also seem confused
  • It is more common in certain breeds including Cocker Spaniels (where it’s known as ‘Cocker Rage’), English Springer Spaniels, Doberman Pinschers, German Shepherds, Bernese Mountain Dogs, St. Bernards, and Lhasa Apsos. This points to a possible genetic disorder or at least a genetic component as part of the cause.

What Causes Rage Syndrome?

rage syndrome in dogs

Back in those dark ages when rage syndrome was new, there were a number of theories regarding the cause. One that my friend and I learned in vet tech school was that it might be related to certain traits breeders were selecting for in some breeds of dogs.

More specifically, the theory was that many breeders were breeding for increasingly narrow heads in breeds like Collies, the Borzoi, and Doberman Pinschers. Some experts posited that the narrow bone structure was putting pressure on and physically damaging the brain of these dogs. That, they suggested, was causing unpredictable behavior or perhaps symptoms similar to epilepsy.

Dominance aggression, brain damage, or genetics?

Unfortunately, with over 30 years of research, we still don’t have a clear cause for idiopathic aggression. Some experts believe that seizures are part of the problem. This does fit with confusion following or prior to an episode. Dogs who have had a seizure will commonly exhibit aggression and confusion.

Some of the other aspects of idiopathic aggression suggest the possibility that it’s simply a case of misunderstood status-related aggression. Status-related aggression or dominance aggression typically appears around 1 – 3 years of age. That’s also, however, a common age for idiopathic epilepsy to develop.

Some researchers have found that dogs exhibiting idiopathic aggression have abnormal electroencephalogram, or EEG, readings. The problem is that not all dogs exhibiting this aggressive behavior had those abnormal EEGs.

Another theory related to the narrow head hypothesis is that there has been damage to the area of the brain responsible for controlling aggressive behavior. This allows for other types of brain damage than just breeding for a narrow head, although it would include that reason for the brain damage.

Still, others have suggested that this is nothing more than dominance aggression or status-related aggression that is being triggered by some kind of very subtle stimuli. The fact is that we just don’t know for sure.

Part of the problem is that researchers have been unable to induce idiopathic aggression, which makes it very difficult to study. It’s possible to induce something like aggressive behavior associated with resource guarding or possessive aggression in a research setting, but so far, nothing seems to trigger the sudden, violent, but short-lived rage we see with this syndrome.

What are the Warning Signs of Dog Aggression?

fearful and reactive dog body language

While many owners only describe a glazed look in their dog’s eyes before an aggressive outburst, there are other warning signs of dog aggression that might indicate another type of aggression.

The glazed look that owners report might be what animal behaviorists describe as a ‘hard stare’ or ‘freeze’ that many dogs exhibit before an attack. According to the ASPCA, other warning signs include certain types of body language like a still, rigid body, certain movements like lunging forward or charging at the object of their aggression, and certain sounds like guttural barks, snarls, or growling. Your dog might also show his teeth.

Dog owners also sometimes receive what is known as a ‘muzzle punch’ where your dog punches you with his nose. Your best friend might also mouth you to try to control you without really biting you.

Of course, hard nipping and biting are clear signs of aggression. These range from nips with significant pressure, to repeated bites and biting and shaking.

It will be important to take note of any of these warning signs to accurately identify the specific form of aggression you’re really dealing with. That also affects how to treat the problem.

How Do You Treat Idiopathic Aggression?

dog at the vet

Of course, the first step in any kind of treatment plan is to make sure there isn’t a medical problem. That’s why it’s helpful to get a full medical examination by your DVM. If something like a tumor is pressing on your dog’s brain, that’s a much different treatment for that behavioral problem than if it is rage syndrome.

Once you’re certain there is no physical ailment behind your dog’s behavior, the next step is to get in touch with an animal behavior consultant. Rage syndrome is very rare, and a behavior consultant can help you determine if that is really what your dog has or if it is some other type of behavior problem.

If it is determined that your dog does have a rare case of idiopathic aggression, consult with a veterinary behaviorist. There are some drugs, like phenobarbital, that can help, although experts aren’t sure if these are truly helping or just sedating your dog.

Management & Worst-Case Scenario

dog barking

If such drugs don’t help, it will be time for some hard decisions. Rage syndrome can be managed, but not cured, so that means that all of your family members have to be aware that episodes of rage can happen again.

You want to make sure everyone knows what warning signs to look for that might signal an aggressive episode. It may also be important to determine how you will handle your dog if an episode of rage occurs.

Basically, it means constantly monitoring your dog’s behavior to determine if you need to do anything differently. If you’re finding that the problem cannot be managed, then it might be time to consider euthanasia. That’s a very difficult decision to make, but it might be the only choice you have.

Because of the nature of these aggressive, unpredictable episodes, it is not safe or fair to expose family members, friends, and yourself to the possibility of an attack. While most episodes of aggression are brief, they can be very harmful, maybe even deadly if a child is involved.

While euthanasia is not the optimal solution, and it’s one that I am loath to recommend, it may be the only thing you can do to keep everyone safe. If that is what you have to do, give your dog a loving goodbye, and then be sure to take care of yourself as well. You did everything you could, and hopefully, you can take some comfort in that.

Final Thoughts

puppy with cool teething stick toy

Rage syndrome can be the result of a genetic disorder or something like epilepsy that causes unpredictable outbursts of dog aggression. It is likely confused with other forms of aggressive behavior; and so, before a diagnosis is made, it’s important to watch for the warning signs.

If your dog does have a rare case of rage syndrome, some medications may help, but you may also have to make some tough decisions. 

As for my friend, they simply lived with the occasional outbursts of rage from their Borzoi. They didn’t have any children around the dog, and they made sure everyone was aware of the situation. I’m just glad I’ve never had to make that tough decision, and hopefully, neither will you.