Thursday, January 03, 2013


When one googles a phenomenon called “spaniel rage,” these vids come up.   Is this dog “happy”?

In my years with Multnomah County Animal Control in Portland, OR, (1973-78) we had one true case of "spaniel rage" which happened to be in Corbett, OR,  and involved a golden retriever rather than the more common “springer spaniel” or cocker spaniel.  It was the kind of frenzy associated with rabies but an autopsy proved not to be rabies, nor could we find any tumor or other cause.  The dog attacked everyone it saw and was finally shot by deputies.  Our animal control officer wrote an amusing report, an account of “hand to paw combat” which was probably in part to save his ego after arriving full of confident swagger and in minutes being trapped on top of his truck with the dog lunging for him.

The physiological conditions associated with such rage attacks are abnormally low serotonin levels (also found in violent humans in prison and mental hospital populations) and the autonomic nervous system’s “fight or flight” dilation of eyes.  Prozac and Clomicalm, a veterinary form of clomipramine, can dampen aggression in dogs, but true “spaniel rage”  is like a seizure, coming on suddenly with no warning.  Because the pedigrees of show dogs are known, it seems that the phenomenon is hereditary, perhaps a mutation.  Before the advent of DNA but in the context of good dog breeding, puppies who were unusually aggressive were simply destroyed early.  “Bad” dog breeding has let such defects persist and even expanded the numbers, being interpreted as “guard dog” material.  Many people think puppy aggression is “cute” and “spunky,” and fan the flames with teasing.  See the YouTube vids above. Here’s another below.  True rage attacks are so violent that it is dangerous to be present with a camera.  People are amused, baffled, and don’t get alarmed until it’s too late.

Aggressive puppies grow up to be aggressive dogs and once sexual hormones join whatever it is that causes this rage seizure, plus the natural dominance aggression of canids that is part of pack behavior, the dog is dangerous, possibly lethal.  Human beings also have hard-wired pack behavior characteristic of hunting mammals.  Belonging means that one must find a place or rank in that pack.  Belonging can be the key to survival.  “Lone wolf” may be a term for romantic solitude, but it is also marginal behavior.  Dogs fit into families because they find a secure role within them as though they were a pack.  Leaving dogs alone without even bonding and frequent interaction with an owner is creating a half-dog with no dependable internal identity.  The same is true for kids coming home to empty houses or having no home at all.  Kids and dogs will form partnerships and gangs among themselves.

Those who study aggressive dog behavior propose that there are least twenty interacting causes for excessive aggression (nice talk for attacking).  When enough of these are activated to create a tipping point, the only remedy is euthanasia. (Some want the same for humans.)  Like rabies, the emphasis must be on prevention, but not through vaccination -- rather through maintaining the natural restraints on behavior that can structure and reveal problems.  These must be appropriate, consistent, and dependable.  They are the mental ecology of all animals, including humans, particularly children.

Dogs that live with other dogs (and wolves) do this instinctively and will cull the defective and over-contentious pup or cub.  Many dog owners simply don’t know what they are doing.  Animal Control officers are called to situations where people must lock themselves in the bathroom in order to eat without the dog taking the food away from them, actually jumping onto the table in order to seize it.  At the University of Chicago I was friends with the second wife of a famous astronomer whose Great Pyrenees was big and dominant enough to simply grab food off the counter.  This highly sophisticated family was not coherent enough to function as a pack that would not have tolerated such behavior, not sophisticated enough to understand the dynamics, and emotionally/politically so liberal as to set no boundaries, much less enforce them.  They had no strategy but “love.”  There was a lot of displaced rage in the people that was acted out by the dog.  Luckily, it was a relatively mild dog when not eating and, anyway, no one ever challenged its alpha dog status except when the man was home, which was rarely and which the dog accepted.  Otherwise, with the dinner roast in its mouth, it holed up behind the sofa and growled menacingly.

The same twenty interacting causes that trigger spaniel rage, are clearly close to the same as those in human shooter rage attacks, and the helpless responses to someone like Adam Lanza are closely related to those concerning “spaniel rage.”  With an exception.  Raging puppies are cute until they are big enough to make trouble, and children with aggressive frenzies are tolerated and “understood” while they are small.  But adolescent humans are big enough to kill with guns which are amplifiers of power:  the great leveler.  Add drugs that are meant to calm but that sometimes create the opposite effect or street drugs like meth; add the human ability to delay, plan, and displace aggression; add the degeneration of whatever “pack” is or is not present; add the inability of family or co-workers or teachers to recognize or deal with the individual.  The result will be on the front page, because a gun makes the number of victims escalate.  In some countries where guns are not available (China), the raging person uses an ax or knife.  Politically, the extender can be a bomb or possibly an aircraft.  Turned inward, it can be self-immolation.  

Human emotional explosions are related to physical explosions in some metaphorical way.  A gun, a bomb, an explosive target, a video game simulation, media coverage of car crashes and gas leak conflagrations, planned movie explosions, and so on all grab our attention and specifically attract males, maybe because they are means to dominance, both in war and as terrorism.  Boys are sometime connoisseurs of explosions, critiquing the computer generated versions and rating movie versions, just as men can become connoisseurs of guns, accumulating expertise and knowledge about their making, their ammunition, their histories.  But in most people this does NOT lead to mass murder.  There aren’t enough of the twenty or so precursors to reach the tipping point. 

But the precursors can fuel lesser acts of aggression: cruelty to animals or less powerful humans like children or socially stigmatized people or women; destruction of material objects -- esp. those that show the success of a rival pack, like frenzied vandalism by disadvantaged outsiders of recreational settings meant to help youngsters -- and even things that seem “funny” and harmless like wrestling and tickling young children, esp. when they are in underwear or pajamas at bed time.  Like teasing puppies, the consequences -- esp. when sexual forces are added -- can be tragic once ingrained.

We want ONE cause, ONE cure, ONE law that will fix everything.  But that doesn’t exist in a multi-valent world where interactions and cultural ecologies are as much a part of us as our physical bodies.  Dogs have a lot to teach us about that.

No comments: