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Sudden Onset Aggression/Rage

What is Sudden Onset Aggression?

This rare but serious condition has been known by a variety of names; Sudden Onset Aggression is the name that has been adopted as a somewhat more accurate and less sensationalized description than the term ‘Rage Syndrome’ that was used more frequently in the 1980s and 1990s. Sometimes the terms mental lapse aggression and idiopathic aggression are also used — the latter simply means aggression due to an unknown cause or condition. There are several theories as to what causes SOA (some researchers believe it is caused by a partial seizure disorder) and it is thought to be an inherited disorder, appearing much more frequently in some breeds than in others.

In Bull Terriers, the disorder most frequently presents as ‘waking SOA’ where an otherwise normal dog will display a sudden burst of uncontrollable rage upon awakening. Many of these dogs, except for the SOA episodes, are wonderful, even temperamented animals; some having AKC Canine Good Citizen and/or obedience certifications, others have performed in agility and other competitive events, even acted as therapy dogs… It is a frustrating and unfortunate situation to have a dog that, awake, is the perfect dog, but asleep is a ticking time bomb. Unlike other forms of aggression, SOA cannot be controlled with training or behavior modification, because the behavior isn’t really in the dog’s conscious control to begin with. Sometimes, medication may be used to somewhat lessen the attacks but there is no cure. Sadly, oftentimes the situation comes down to a matter of weighing whether the risk in keeping such an animal is justifiable — in many situations it may not be.

If you suspect you have a dog with SOA, please seek help from a veterinary behaviorist! This problem should not be ‘self-diagnosed,’ only a professional will be able to determine for sure if the dog has SOA, if the aggression is due to some other medical cause, or if this is another behavioral issue entirely. This is (thankfully) a rare condition, and the majority of suspected cases turn out to be due to some other ‘normal’ canine behavior, such as territorial aggression, dominance, or resource guarding. A behaviorist will be able to address those types of issues as well as help determine the best course of action if by chance a dog does turn out to have Sudden Onset Aggression.

More information on SOA can be found at the sites below:

Medical Causes of Aggression In Dogs – Article by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

An Article concerning the so-called “Rage Syndrome” – Article at English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association by Lyn Johnson DVM, Companion Animal Behavior Services. Mostly addresses dominance aggression issues commonly labeled ‘rage’ but look for reference near end of article to “mental lapse aggression.”

Other aggression-related links:

K9Aggression.com – Dog aggression education, support, and resources.