The persistent myth of ‘Cocker rage’

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Cocker

Earlier this year, we got word that a young Cocker spaniel was put to sleep after a diagnosis of ‘Cocker Rage’, never getting a chance to be seen by a qualified behaviourist. Was this pup killed by a persistent myth?

For some, the words ‘cocker rage syndrome’ may feel like an undesirable blast from the past. It is not a recognised medical or veterinary diagnosis, and is considered by many experts to be a myth – yet it was, if you’ll excuse the pun, all the rage in the late 90s. As much as we’d often like to pretend otherwise, it’s been well over two decades since the turn of the millennium; so why are we here, in 2023, to talk about a syndrome whose very existence has been widely discredited? The answer is simple as it’s disheartening: because even now, outdated myths and terminology are costing dogs their lives.

In February this year, at Dogs Today we received a heartbreaking message about a young Cocker Spaniel, only 17 months old, whose owner had contacted a behaviourist for help with what sounded like a “fairly straightforward” case of resource guarding and body handling issues. In the couple of days it took the behaviourist to get back in touch, however, the dog was put to sleep due to a vet diagnosis of ‘cocker rage’ – a now discredited condition which was once believed to affect Cocker spaniels in particular.

“Once a myth is out there, it’s hard to get rid of it”

There is likely a kernel of truth at the heart of this myth: some of the dogs observed showing sudden, unexplainable aggression did suffer from a neurological issue. However, this issue was present in different breeds. It may have been overrepresented among Cocker Spaniels due to how common they were as pets, or due to poor breeding practices. Either way, one thing is clear: this poorly named condition refers to a vanishingly rare occurrence when compared to the many different reasons why a dog may show signs of aggression and other behavioural problems.

Nicki Glencross, Trustee of UK charity Spaniel Aid, says, “What was once referred to as ‘cocker rage’ – a term we never use – is a neurological, seizure-like issue which causes an aggressive burst followed by a trance-like state. It is extremely rare and far from exclusive to spaniels. In my role as Behaviour Team Coordinator for Spaniel Aid, I work closely with all our behaviourists. While I am not one myself, I see  and hear firsthand the advice they give to fosterers, adopters, and people approaching to ask for our help.

“We had plenty of people contact us to relinquish their dogs, and they said it was due to ‘cocker rage’ – either they had read about it online, or a vet had made the diagnosis; in some cases, the diagnosis had come from trainers too! And it should go without saying that, without at least a brain scan, no neurological condition can be diagnosed with any degree of certainty.”

“Nearly every time they describe the behaviour and the circumstances in which the dog showed aggression, our behaviourists can see a variety of far more likely reasons for it, from resource guarding to an unsuitable environment. We had cases when a neurological condition was likely involved, but they were few and far in between.”

While aggression stemming from a neurological condition can happen, it’s a rare occurrence. In most cases, behaviourists can identify external causes and triggers, and work on them in order to manage and correct the dog’s behaviour. Not all dogs can be helped – but when a discredited condition such as ’cocker rage’ is simply assumed before any behaviourist can help, as was the case for the pup whose story prompted this article, then the dog simply doesn’t have a chance.

“Once a myth is out there, it’s hard to get rid of it,” Nicki says. “There are still vets out there that will diagnose a behavioural issue as cocker rage, as well as outdated information about ‘cocker rage’ that remains online, to be found by dog owners searching for answers about their dog’s behaviour. I couldn’t give the number of dogs who come to us because they are suspected of having ‘cocker rage’, but it was many, and they were saved from just being put to sleep.”

“I would advise anyone whose vet diagnosed their dog with ‘cocker rage’ to immediately change vets, and urgently seek support from a qualified canine behaviourist”

“If a dog comes to us with behavioural issues, and the foster carer needs support from one of our behaviourists, they work together to create a plan to make adjustments and training to help the dog – if it starts to work, we’re confident it is a behaviour issue rather than a neurological condition. In the vast majority of case, behavioural support is enough to manage the behaviour to the point the dog can be rehomed.

“Quite often, no support is needed at all and everything wrong with the dog’s behaviour comes down to being in the wrong environment. For example the Springer spaniel cross I adopted, Luna, was described to be unable to settle and very excitable. However, with her previous owner she was living in a small home along with two young children. Since she came to a bigger home with an older child, I have not seen any of those issues. She just needed a different environment!”

Unfortunately, some myths are hard to put to rest.

“There are still a lot of people out there, and vets, going with the dominance theory too – which has long since been disproven!” Nicki says. “Yet I still see posts on Spaniel groups with people saying their dog is dominant, or that their vet is saying the dog is dominant. And this causes dogs to be mishandled, misunderstood – it only makes behavioural problems worse. If the behaviour is not addressed correctly, it can cost their lives.

“Part of the problem, though, is that behaviourists across the country are incredibly busy – lockdown played a massive part in the increase of dog ownership, and qualified behaviourists have waiting lists of months while people are at the end of their tether, dealing with their dogs’ behavioural issues. Dogs bred poorly to meet lockdown demand, and sold to owners who were not prepared – that’s a recipe for disasters.

“Working cocker spaniels are not generally ideal for first time dog owners. A lot of people surrendering their dogs to us are first time dog owners – and we can tell they got their dogs during lockdown, because the age of the dog fits. Dogs are losing their lives because their owners don’t know how to handle them, and cannot access a behaviourist due to the high demand from others in their same situation. All rescues in the UK will tell you they’re at a breaking point, ourselves included. There are a lot of dogs being put to sleep – whether or not their vet misdiagnoses them with ‘cocker rage’.

“That said, I would advise anyone whose vet diagnosed their dog with ‘cocker rage’ to immediately change vets, and urgently seek support from a qualified canine behaviourist.”

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