The term “Rage Syndrome” is applied to serious uncharacteristic behaviour in certain breeds of dogs (particularly Cocker and Springer Spaniels). The Cocker Spaniel Breed Council has never approved of the term “Cocker Rage” preferring to refer to uncertain temperament. Rage is often misdiagnosed and used to justify euthanizing dogs.
It is not a new problem, indeed in an American book first published in 1935, Ella B Moffit wrote of certain Cockers having bad temperaments. She expressed the view then that because breeders were not being selective enough and dogs and bitches with bad temperaments were being bred from, this resulted in poor temperaments reappearing three to four generations later. Letters written from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Robert Browning (1845-1850) included many references to the aggressively protective tendencies of her red Cocker called Flush.
Rage is often thought of as a variant of dominance aggression and is more common in solid coloured Cockers than in particolours (though it should be emphasised that cases are relatively rare). An affected dog attacks suddenly and savagely, without any warning and during the attack the dog often has a glazed look and appears to be unaware of its surroundings.
Dr Mugford, an eminent world authority on animal behaviour, wrote to the Daily Mirror in 1983 claiming that both Cocker and Springer Spaniels tended to be uncontrollable and some were prone to aggressive rages. He reported that the most aggressive dog he had seen at Crufts that year was a Springer. He was invited to speak at the Cocker Spaniel Club in the summer of 1984 on the behavioural aspect of Cockers with unsound temperament, accompanied by Geoffrey Skerritt (a veterinary surgeon specialising in neurology) who was asked to cover the medical aspect.
Dr Mugford had collected 200 pedigrees of affected Cockers, which enabled him to calculate their coefficient of inbreeding. Three bloodlines occurred in over half of the patients he had seen, and the sample contained a 70:30 ratio of males to females. At the meeting he presented four case studies that summarized the nature of the problem, and then went through the data. One if his suggestions was that the Breed Club should operate a strict temperament testing regime on offspring that breeders had already sold to pet homes, when they were six, twelve, twenty-four and thirty-six months old. If any of the offspring were then found to be unsound, then the parents should not be used for breeding again. This caused much controversy at the meeting, which eventually broke up without any definite decisions being reached.
Dr Mugford claimed that Cockers (primarily the red and black)
were the breed he was consulted most frequently about. He had identified two leading kennels as
being the sources of deranged solid Cockers and reported that the more
champions there were listed on a Cocker’s pedigree, the more likely the dog would exhibit symptoms. The affected Cockers, he said, were perfectly civil with strangers, and in the show ring,
but tended to attack their owners savagely and unpredictably. He concluded that solid Cockers in
During the early 1980s there were a number of articles in the national press relating to aggression in dogs in which Cockers were considered to be particularly dangerous. There were similar references made on radio and television programmes at that time and this resulted in very bad publicity for the breed.
The Cocker Spaniel Breed Council established a Temperament Committee in the autumn of 1982 and its remit was to investigate the alleged temperament defects in the breed. The aims of the committee were:
The Temperament Committee’s first meeting was under the guidance of Mr G Skerritt and it was decided to establish the incidence of abnormal behaviour by means of a questionnaire to be sent to as many Cocker “pet” owners as possible via the London Cocker Spaniel Society’s newsletter; this was subsequently extended to being sent to all embers of the British Small Animals Veterinary Association through their monthly journal. The response to the detailed questionnaires was extremely good, resulting in information being provided on a total of 1,692 Cockers of which 258 showed one or more of eight different kinds of defined abnormal behaviours. More dogs than bitches were found to display abnormal temperaments in each colour group and the frequency was higher in reds than blacks, and in blacks was higher than any other colour.
Dr Bruce Cattenach, a recognised geneticist and a breeder of Boxers, kindly arranged for a post-doctoral research worker at MRC Harwell to put the data on computer for statistical analysis and the findings were as follows:
In 1990 discussions commenced with the Companion Animal Research Group, Department of Clinical Veterinary Medicine at Cambridge University, where a three year research project was being embarked upon into aggression and other behaviour problems, including so called ‘rage syndrome’ and a possible connection with temporal lobe epilepsy. In studies of this nature, it is important to distinguish between three different factors, which may influence the development of temperament:
Members of the Temperament Committee
The total cost for the proposed research was estimated at just over £4,000 and the Cocker Spaniel Breed Council agreed to raise £5,000 by mid-summer 1991.
Two thousand questionnaires were distributed randomly via the Kennel Club to owners of purebred English Cocker Spaniels. The findings were published in a paper [Anthony L Podberscek and James A Serpell (1996)] and whilst the information contained in it was scientifically based and some of the terminology not easy to comprehend I have tried to extract the most important points.
A good representation of registered Cockers
was achieved, as the distribution of coat colours of the survey of dogs
compared well with the coat colours of Cockers registered in 1992 in the
The existence of significant behavioural differences between the different colour morphs of the breed is interesting in the light of Hemmer’s view that coat colour in domestic animals is often closely associated with temperament. This theory was based on the fact that the pigment melanin shares a common biochemical synthesis pathway with the catecholamine group of neurotransmitters. Because red Cockers have different pedigrees to particolours, it might be a genetic (polygenic) trait associated with lines more than colours. There is to be a follow-up research on the study of pedigrees of a subset of aggressive and non-aggressive dogs.
There were similar numbers of males (49.1%) and females (50.9%). Of the males, 82.7% were entire and of the females, 66,8%.
Because the neutering effect was surprising, a follow-up study was carried out requesting further details of the age at which the aggression started (where appropriate), age the dog was neutered and the reason. Results were collected from 149 neutered females and 73 neutered males. The mean age at which aggression started was 11 months for both males and females. From the statistics it was thought that neutering was probably the consequence of aggressiveness rather than the cause.
The results suggest a genetic and neuroendocrine basis for the differences in aggression. Dr Podberscek carried out a ‘cluster analysis’ (grouping together of aggression categories) which showed that there is some evidence that rage syndrome is an expression of social dominance, rather than being a separate or pathological phenomenon. There are 2 main theories as to what this syndrome might be:
a) An unusual form of dominance aggression
b) Type of epilepsy – might be part of a group known as complex partial seizures.
The study provided important information on the prevalence of different types of aggression in the Cocker Spaniel.
Although rage syndrome has been studied for a number of years, it cannot be accurately predicted and can only be diagnosed by EEG or genetic testing and these tests are not conclusive.
The Chairman of the Temperament Committee informed me that things have come to a standstill over the last couple of years, the situation being that there has been a lack of affected Cockers coming forward for brain scans and it is difficult to progress any further.
Cocker Rescue is still occasional reporting temperament problems within the breed.
It is often very distressing and upsetting for the owners of dogs severely affected by true rage syndrome and not enough information is readily available. They are often already very upset by the fact that their dog has attacked a family member without provocation and may feel a sense of guilt about the whole business. The truth is there is probably not very much that could have been done to avoid the situation arising in the first place. Owners of affected dogs should seek advice from a veterinary surgeon for possible referral of their dog to a professional behaviourist for assessment.
© Linda Ward 2002