Severe Aggression in Dogs


Aggression In Springers

Q: Dear Dr. Richards, I am not a pet owner, but would like to ask you a couple of questions about English Springer Spaniels and biting. (My niece was recently bitten by her new ESS pet.)

My questions center around concern for extended family members (there are lots of small children in the larger family - two of which are my own). This situation is compounded by my brother's family's rationalizing this biting and placing the burden of prevention on the family's accommodating behavior and not on modifying that of the dog. They seem to have devised a plan that relies on avoiding another biting event through changing their interaction with the dog.

Q: After my 3-year-old niece was bitten on her face (near her eye, breaking the skin and later, blackening the area around the eye, but not requiring sutures) by the family dog (18 mo. old female who had been in their home 1 week), my brother and sister-in-law talked to their vet (also new to their family). My brother's family had decided to move the dog's food and chew toys/objects into the outside dog run and, to instruct the children not to approach the dog, but to let the dog approach them. The vet simply said that he thought this approach would work for their family, and didn't appear to mention anything about this troubling information about Springer aggression, etc.

In light of the information on your site, this seems like insufficient council. How well known among vets is this issue about English Springer Spaniel aggression/rage? If this vet sees few of this breed in his practice, how likely is it that this phenomenon has escaped his notice? (Note: I don't know who their vet is, his age, or how many of these dogs he's cared for.)

Q: From what I've read on your site (and one other which also discusses this phenomenon) it appears that this breed is the most noted (or first labeled?) for this aggressive behavior (e.g. the term Springer Spaniel Rage/Aggression). Is my impression correct in this regard? Are there incidence/prevalence figures about Springer Spaniel aggressive behavior available?

Q: I feel a burden to inform my brother and his family of what I have learned about this issue. Could you give me one or two epitomal references in the veterinary literature to which I could direct them?

On behalf of my family, I thank you in advance for your assistance.


A: Dear Patty-

I think that most veterinarians are probably aware of the term "Springer Rage Syndrome" but there is not a clear understanding of what this syndrome is, even among veterinary behaviorists at this time. Springers appear to be much more likely to suddenly bite than the average breed. Some people feel that this is just an extreme example of dominance aggression that occurs in a few breeds including springers. Other behaviorists feel that there is a difference in this behavior since many of the incidences have a specific pattern in which the dog really appears to be in an altered state of consciousness at the time of attacks and that there may be a genetic factor influencing a specific syndrome that is different than dominance aggression. Therefore, there are a lot of approaches to the problem based on whose theory of the problem is believed and then what approaches have worked in the past for the person treating the problem.

By far the best thing for your brother's family to do, if it is possible in your area, is to consult with a board certified veterinary behaviorist or a certified animal behaviorist. There are very few of these people in the country and that makes it difficult to obtain really expert help in many areas of the country. Your vet should be able to refer you to a behaviorist if there is one close by. It is worth considering a referral even if you have to travel a long way. There are veterinary behaviorists at many of the veterinary colleges now.

I believe that when interactions between a dog and its family are potentially dangerous to family members, especially when children are involved, it is best to error on the side of caution in dealing with the situation. Unfortunately, I think that it is possible for an attack on a family member to occur even if the dog approaches first, since many of these attacks appear to occur at times when the dog is interacting well with the family --- right up to the time of the biting incident. It is a difficult situation. If it were possible to treat this type of behavior in some simple manner I would be all for treatment. The problem is that there isn't a simple protocol that I can give you that will always work. That means that the help of a skilled behaviorist is nearly essential in ensuring that there is a safe outcome in cases of serious aggression. For many people this is not possible to arrange. This makes it necessary to consider alternatives such as euthanasia when the safety of young family members is in question.

I hope that this helps some. There have been some very good articles on canine aggression recently in the veterinary literature. I wish that I could remember a specific reference offhand, but I can't. If I can find one of these articles I will send the reference information so that you can see if your vet has a copy of the journal containing the article.

Mike Richards, DVM

Springer rage syndrome

Q: i need information regarding the problem. my sister has a springer who is 10 yrs old and she has just started having behavior problems. the dog has just started to turn on her. and she is concerned as she has 4 children and the neighborhood children all come to her house. any and all info you could send would be appreciated. Thanks for your time and effort. Kathy

A: Kathy - Springer rage syndrome is difficult to pin down. It may just be that springers are particularly prone to dominance aggression and that the manifestation of this is "rage syndrome". It is also possible that there is a distinct behavioral problem of springers that is some sort of chemical imbalance or other brain disorder. There has even been some concern that this is a seizure disorder although at present I don't think any researchers believe this is the case, anymore.

Your sister needs the help of a good behaviorist. This sort of aggression is best treated by someone familiar with the syndrome who can help a family make the necessary choices to deal with it. Please have her ask her vet to help her find the closest certified or veterinary behaviorist. It is worth a trip to discuss this with an expert.

Mike Richards, DVM

Springer Rage Syndrome

Q: I recently heard about a dog that has had a strange behavior for the 3 years its owners have had him (they bought him as a puppy). The dog "attacks" specific appliances in periods of extreme aggression--attacking people if they try to stop the attack. I've heard about rage syndrome and thought this (genetic??) disorder might be what he has. I cannot find anything on the internet about rage syndrome and wondered if you can tell me anything.

M.G, Baltimore

A: M-

Rage syndrome is not clearly understood nor clearly defined at this time. The term rage syndrome was initially applied to a peculiar form of aggression most common in English springer spaniels in which the dog suddenly attacked its owners without apparent provocation and often exhibited signs normally associated with seizure activity such as widely dilated eyes, urination, apparent inattention to anything but the object or person being attacked and sometimes a stiff-legged gait or other motor abnormality. Some vets argue that this is just an extreme form of dominance aggression and other vets feel that there is some sort of physical pathologic process contributing to the behavior. Once the term rage syndrome came into use there have been reports of similar behavioral problems in other breeds and people sometimes talk of golden retriever rage, cocker rage, etc.

Growling at or attacking objects sometimes occurs as a form of displaced aggression when a dog can not physically attack what it really wants to get to due to an impediment such as a fence or when the dog has inhibitions about attacking something due to fear or other reasons.

The best way to determine what is going on is to seek the help of a veterinary behaviorist or certified animal behaviorist or someone with extensive knowledge of canine behavior in your area. Your friend's vet may be able to arrange a referral to a specialist in your area or to the University of Pennsylvania behavioral clinic if your friends are willing to drive to Philadelphia.

Mike Richards, DVM

Springer Rage Syndrome - A different opinion

Q: On , please correct or delete the information about "rage" syndrome in English Springer Spaniels. Since at least the late '70s, some authorities have theorized that "rage syndrome" was a seizure disorder, not a temperament disorder (such as dominant aggression). Evidence that this theory is correct continues to mount, and the recent successful treatment of some cases of "rage" with phenobarbital (an anticonvulsant) adds to this evidence.

Thank you. Karen F.

A: Ms. Karen F.

If you will send information on the references you are referring to, I will be glad to review them and to include them if they are more recent than the information that I have or if their conclusions appear to be both valid and different than those posted. There has been one published reference in the Journal of the AVMA on this by Dr. Dodman but I think that he is pursuing other treatment methods at this time due to a lack of consistent success with phenobarbital, too.

The information that I have posted is based on correspondence with a board-certified animal behaviorist (Dr. Ilana Reisner) and with several board-certified veterinary neurologists, all of whom indicate that treatment of dogs suspected to have this disorder with phenobarbital or other anti-convulsants has not been successful in a majority of cases, making a seizure disorder an unlikely source of the problem in many cases. Dr. Reisner was researching this particular condition and as of last fall still felt that it was not entirely behavioral, that it appeared to be an inherited condition, at least in springers, but that the mechanism or existence of an underlying physical cause had not been proven at this point.

I do not need the full text of references in most cases since many journals are available online now. The title or author's name may be sufficient to find the reference. If you have them in electronic format that would be easier, though.

Mike Richards, DVM

Dominance Aggression

Q: We have an English Springer Spaniel, male (neutered), nearing age 3 years. This dog has been very active, and has shown dominant and territorial tendencies. He is playful, interactive, and enjoys affection. Our discipline with the dog has been much less than desirable, and I think it has resulted in under disciplined dog behavior (i.e. he is spoiled). The dog is submissive to me, the adult male of the household. He has become submissive to my wife. He is not submissive to our daughters ages 14 and 12. Over his time, we have had about 5 incidents of biting the kids, none of severity beyond breaking of the skin (which is severe enough). Each incident has an identifiable context (e.g. competing for space). We have had no biting incidents since last summer. We thought we were past that kind of problem with this dog. Last Saturday, I had the dog with me while parked on a street. A man came to the car and incited the dog by physical posturing and putting his hand up to the car window. The dog became very aroused. I was not prepared or well positioned to control the dog's reaction. I think this event incited the dog's bravado. Last Sunday, our 12 year old daughter attempted to remove the dog from her bedroom by reaching for the lead which was attached to the dog. The dog bit her on the hand one time, which broke the skin in about 4 places. The injury was such that we took her to the doctor, and he prescribed penicillin. We took the dog to our kennel for a few days, while we thought about what to do. While at the kennel, one day he showed his teeth the the female caretaker when she attempted to put him in his pen following a walk ... the next day he bit her on her gloved hand when she reached for his collar to put him inside the pen. We consulted with the Vet, to decide what to do about this behavior. We decided to: 1. Muzzle him (at least) temporarily, while he is around our kids. The Mikki soft muzzle seems to subdue his behavior and make him passive and submissive. 2. The Vet prescribed Ovaban 20mg, one per day for four days, then one per week. 3. We are restricting the dogs freedoms and privileges in the house. 4. We will likely consult with a trainer and have the females in our house go through professional obedience training with the dog. We considered euthanizing the dog (a heart wrenching consideration). We are unsure that the plan we've chosen is the right plan. We are unsure about any course of action right now. I am not too confident that our family can make the necessary adjustments to successfully keep the dog. What are the likely effects of Ovaban on the dog's behavior? Is there anywhere that I could learn about the experiences of other dog owners who have used Ovaban for their dogs? What other effects (e.g. physical) might it have on the dog? Is information available on Ovaban that I could obtain from another source? Do you have any other suggestions to help our plan toward success? Any other ideas or insights? Our Vet was very helpful in consult, yet other ideas and other info may be further helpful. Thank you for your response.

A: English springer spaniels are very prone to dominance aggression behavior. This is a difficult condition to treat successfully. A number of pharmacologic agents have been suggested as aids in controlling behavior while behavioral modification could be accomplished. No drug has successfully worked in all cases, as far as I can tell. Megestrol acetate (Ovaban Rx - veterinary, MegAce Rx - human) is one of these medications. Most of the reports I have seen report that it is pretty effective while being used daily and that dominance behaviors usually recur as people try to taper or stop the medication. Side effects of megestrol acetate include weight gain and sometimes lethargy, in male dogs. There are some reproductive tract changes that occur in female dogs that won't be a worry for you.

Currently, I think that the trend is to use seritonin sparing medications like fluoxetine (Prozac Rx) for dominance aggression but I don't get the idea it works a whole lot better.

Behavioral training for the family and your dog is the right way to go if you wish to try to live with your dog. It is a hard choice when he bites family members. If you elect not to keep him at some point, please do not take him to a shelter and place another family in danger. Euthanasia is a tough thing to face for behavioral problems but it is better than passing the responsibility on to someone who doesn't know he or she is acquiring it. It sounds like you are much more responsible than that based on your letter but I know that it is hard to consider euthanasia and that some people do leave aggressive dogs at shelters.

If there is a certified behaviorist in your area they can be very helpful in dealing with difficult behavioral problems. Your vet may be able to refer you to someone close.

The best place to find information from other dog owners are mail lists and services with bulletin boards, like AOL and Compuserve, I guess.

Mike Richards, DVM


Michael Richards, D.V.M. co-owns a small animal general veterinary practice in rural tidewater Virginia. Dr. Richards graduated from Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1979, and has been in private practice ever since. Dr. Richards has been the director of the PetCare Forum...