Are English cocker spaniel aggressive? Research and science-supported evidence of cocker spaniel behaviour / Rage syndrome / Perfect cocker spaniel dog blog, breed & puppy guide (C) Natalia Ashton

Can English cocker spaniels be aggressive? Let’s talk about biting, growling & the rage syndrome

Can an English cocker spaniel be aggressive? Of course! But does it mean that a sweet puppy you just picked up is going to viciously attack you at every given opportunity? Not at all.

Let me put it simply.

Any dog, absolutely any dog, cocker or not, can react. Just like any living being, you and me included. We have our off-days and moments when something or somebody scares, frustrates or annoys us. Do we just “smile and wave”? No, we don’t. Which makes us pretty similar to dogs. Yet, dogs are still kinder, I’d say. They bite without breaking hearts. Humans, on the other hand, can come up with all sorts of cruel outcomes.

So let’s focus on our dogs and English cockers today and discuss the subject of sudden and no so sudden aggression these dogs can exhibit.

First of all, the forever hot topic that I simply must include in this post – the Rage Syndrome.

Cockers are said to be one of the breeds know to have a tendency for this trait. In short, the affected dog is said to suddenly become aggressive towards his owners, bite hard without warning, often have a chance in facial expression and eyes, and then stop as if falling out of some uncontrollable state. It has never really been scientifically proven, but solids (reds and golden cockers, in particular) were said to suffer from it.

There were a few studies that looked at aggression in English cocker spaniels, however.

The one from 1996 was conducted by the Kennel Club and involved two thousand ECS owners chosen at random. The 1008 responded (and 932 were found to be suitable) by completing a questionnaire that included information about age, gender, neuter status, and coat colour. The owners were also asked to use a 1-5 scale to indicate whether or not their dogs ever showed aggression towards various stimuli including…

… aggression towards other dogs (1)

… aggression towards strangers approaching the dog (2)

… aggression towards visitors (3)

… aggression towards people approaching the owner when out and about (4)

… aggression towards children in the household (5)

… aggression towards other dogs in the household (6)

… aggression towards owner showing attention to other person or animal (7)

… aggression towards the owner or family member (8)

… aggression when disciplined (9)

… aggression when reached for or handled (10)

… aggression in restricted spaces (11)

… aggression at meal times / defending food (12)

… aggression without apparent reason (13)

The results of the researched showed that…

… solid cockers showed aggression in 2-13 situations and red/golden spaniels were more likely to be aggressive in situations 1, 4, 5, 7-13 compared to black cockers;

… males were more likely to react when with other dogs, towards their owner, when disciplined and when reached for or handled;

… females were more likely to become aggressive towards other dogs in the household, and neutered females were more likely to become aggressive towards children in the household;

While “the rage syndrome” was one of the main reasons for the research, the study could not determine whether or not it truly existed or was just a combination of genetic and neuroendocrine factors. It did however highlight two very important points:

… “neutering was not found to be useful as a preventative measure for aggression”

..and…

… aggression was always a result of a stimulus.

Even though the paper did not describe nor specify any conditions the dogs were raised and housed, whether or not they were socialised and trained, if they were free or lead- or barrier -constrained when meeting strangers or other dogs, and how the children approached these dogs or what kind of “discipline” was used, it made it absolutely clear – none of these English cocker spaniels acted out of nothing

To explain my scepticism towards the missing information situation by situation from 1 to 12, I need to mention that dogs naturally

… (1) may feel growly towards other dogs, especially when the other dog approaches in a certain manner, the cocker is restrained and have no means of avoiding the situation, or the cocker is suffering from fear-related reactivity;

… (2) do not enjoy being approached by strangers, especially when strangers start reaching out trying to touch the dog – it is the dog who should be allowed to approach a stranger if and when he is comfortable to do so, not the other way around;

… (3) see visitors as intruders unless this habit is eliminated through positive training during puppy socialisation weeks;

… (4) suspicious of strangers approaching the dog’s owner unless the dogs are properly socialised or counter-conditioned out of the “habit”;

… (5) do not attack children unless provoked through acts of affection (which can be annoying and frustrating for the dog unless he is fully awake and prepared for it), high pitches noises, fast movement and running (dogs see these as an invitation to chase and catch), actions that dogs simply wouldn’t tolerate (think how many parents would insist of taking a photo of the dog next to a child or a child hugging the dog or, worse, sitting or lying on top of the dog) – several studies (1, 2, 3) ) concluded that young children, especially boys, were likely to be bitten by dogs, but none of them had details on the causes of the bites as those were never discussed with the families;

… (6) take time to accept other dogs in their household, especially when one dog is older than the other or they are of the same gender, so unless the owner knows how to introduce and manage these dogs, they can end up fighting;

… (7) feel insecure (especially at young age) when the owner shows affection towards other animals or dogs, however cockers can be jealous at times and react;

… (8) avoid getting into any situation when they’d attact the owner, so there are a lot of reasons that may push the dog over the threshold – and these were not mentioned here; according to another study, cockers often showed “impulse aggression towards owners”, which can often be a result of spoiling the dog and allowing him to do anything he pleases instead of teaching him respectful behaviour (with Deference protocol as a reference source); a 2017 study highlighted that “spayed/neutered dogs were more aggressive towards owner”; and one more study showed that “nurture also influenced whether or not a dog was aggressive; the variance due to the sire heritability of aggression was only 0.2 (20%) whereas that due to the dam was 0.46 (46%) indicating a maternal-environmental effect”;

… (9) will not growl when disciplined unless the type of “discipline” involves a form of punishment, the dog learnt to associate the “discipline” with unpleasant outcomes or the dog is reactive as a result of fear or stress brough up by “discipline” methods, incorrect training, lack of socialisation, owner’s own emotional state, improper diet, pain, discomfort etc.;

… (10) do not like being “reached for” – it is the unwritten rule that you do not approach a dog, but let the dog approach you; additionally, dogs who are reactive, fearful, in pain, or startled when approached (say, they are losing hearing or were asleep when approached) are likely to snap, too;

… (11) like to have enough room for moving around (that’s why dogs find it extremely odd and stressful to walk at heel down a busy crowded street); a form of enclosure, barrier or anything that prevents their ability to escape danger should it be necessary, raises the dog’s stress levels and likely to lead to reactivity and “aggressive behaviour”;

… (12) do not share food or treats they are currently enjoying; they can be trained to know that there’s no harm at having your hand in their bowl during dinner, but unless a dog is coached properly from the very beginning, he will snap trying to protect his “treasure”.

But as long as it’s getting (for which I apologise – and would be happy to buy you a coffee should we ever meet to browse the blog together), this story is not going to be complete without a few further studies.

A fabulous 1997 study published in VetRecord by British Veterinary Association analysed behaviour of 285 owners of purebred English cockers to reveal that “the owners of high aggression dogs were significantly more likely to be tense, emotionally less stable, shy and undisciplined than owners of low aggression dogs” and owners of “low” aggression dogs were older and had strong bond with their cockers (Podberscek & Serpell, 1997), which we can now explain even more when combined with recent research about dogs mimicking their owners stress hormone levels and another peer-reviewed study that discussed impulsive aggression, “a trait more common in ECSs” and low levels of serotonin in dogs that exhibited such a behaviour.

Two more pieces of research that worth a mention is a 2010 study that looked into brain structure and development of aggressive and non-aggressive dogs (the cockers fell into the non-aggressive group) and another study from 2010 that looked into several genes found in ECSs to see if there is a link between canine aggression and dopamine- and serotonin-related genes defined previously. They discovered that four of the genes of the aggressive dogs had distorted haplotypes when compared to non-aggressive dogs.

And since I’ve already mentioned that neutered dogs were not essentially well-behaved following their surgery, look into the studies on neutering showing undesirable behavioural changes, increased aggression towards other dogs in castrated dogs, and owner-directed aggression in neutered springer spaniels.

Additionally, diet and environment play a vital role in developing of behaviour, too, and should not be overlooked. In fact, I think that, after genetics, diet is the most vital element since the body develops from and depends on the nutrients, so the deficiency or excess of some can make a huge impact on the behaviour.

How can you ensure that your cocker spaniel is not the aggressive type? Well, in reality, you cannot have an insurance for that… Instead you can…

… get a puppy from the KC-assured breeder;

… see puppy parents;

… see the way a puppy behaves;

…  feed your spaniel a balanced complete diet;

… socialise and train your dog;

… protect your young puppy from excessive exposure to emotional and physical stimuli, positive or negative, and allow him plenty of rest;

… teach young children how to handle a puppy correctly;

… don’t neuter your dog to “fix” his behaviour;

… train using positive methods, not devices or punishment;

… be calm no matter what or as much as possible;

… love your dog unconditionally.

 

Image credit: Katrin B. from Pixabay

Reasons why dog like to dig so much / Canine behaviour explained / Perfect cocker spaniel, dog blog and book guide to English cockers and puppy guide, grooming, diet, nutrition, training / (C) Natalia Ashton

Seven reasons why spaniels like to dig so much

Once in a while we get to share our lives with a dog who loves to dig. In fact, most of them do. It’s just some seem to be obsessed while others tend to grow out of the habit after escaping adolescence.

So why do they do it? Why some pups treat our garden as their play ground while others act in the manner of the obsessed treasure hunters?

Here are a few reasons to explain their behaviour – and help you solve the puzzle if your cocker is particularly keen on remodelling the lawn and flower beds like they are going out of fashion.

Fun

Puppies will dig because it’s fun and as a part of their learning and exploring development. You can desensitise them by using the area for playing, training and other activities that take the pup’s mind away from excessive digging. Puppy-proofing the garden can also help.

Prey drive

Cocker may leave the proper hunting for terriers, but they do love and can sniff out and hear any form of life crawling in the grass or soil. And some dogs will do their best to find out exactly what those creatures are by digging them out. Desensitising the pooch, using the area to play “find food” and scatter feeding (by throwing kibble on the grass for your dog to find), and reducing the unwanted guests whenever possible are the best solutions.

Boredom

Dogs may dig when they are either tired and frustrated or don’t get enough mental and physical stimulation during a day. Re-think and plan your routine. Giving your dog enough time to run and explore, adding a few training sessions and using food puzzle toys and interactive games should help.

Phobias

Dogs who suffer with fears (for example, a fear of loud noises, thunderstorm or fireworks) or severe separation anxiety may try to dig their way out of the confined area.

If this is the case, find out the reasons for your dog’s fears and work out a plan to support him. You can find some tips on separation anxiety and helping a dog get through the fireworks season on the blog, but consulting a behaviourist can be extremely useful.

Hot weather

Have you noticed how much cooler the soil or sand inside a hole is? This is precisely the reason why a dog may dig a cosy nest on a hot day. It’s their version of a cool mat! Avoid the problem by providing plenty of shady spots, cool mats and damp towels for your dog to use instead of digging holes.

The bone collector

Some dogs may dig a hole to hide items that are either particularly precious to them or to save something for a rainy day. The least destructive, this habit can be stopped by supervising your dog, distracting him with toys or cues, or keeping him out of the garden while he is playing with chews or toys he’s likely to turn into… let’s call them… preserves.

Nature calls

Pregnant bitches may dig to create a safe nest and the boys may dig spots near fences if they can smell a female in heat. The most effective way is to keep your dog under supervision when at home, and on a lead during walks.

Help them with kindness and love, and avoid any deterrents (chemical, electrical or noise-producing) that may stop the dog from digging, but only as a result of fear. Trust me, hugs and fun are much more effective!

 

Photo credit: ktphotography from Pixabay

Re-activating happiness | The action plan

It took me time to write this part because, in all honesty, it’s been a while and our situation changed so much that my brain somehow blocked a big chunk of the negative memories and our initial attempts to deal with reactivity.

Nevertheless, I will try to go backwards, to the point where I began gathering my initial ideas and putting them together.

At first I felt helpless… I knew something wasn’t right anymore and felt lost and a failure. But Fred was my boy, he loved me and trusted me, so it was my job and responsibility to help him. Since my knowledge of Fred’s reaction was minimal, I did what I’ve always done in the past – I turned to Patricia McConnell and got two books of hers, Fiesty Fido and The Cautious Canine. Both were small, leaflet-like, perfect to be devoured over a couple of nights.

They taught me what reactivity was, gave me foundation and some very helpful tips. They also made me realise that Patricia’s advice, as good as it was, didn’t suit our particular situation.

So I had to look further and learn more… And it hit me then. Why not just learn canine psychology and read the volumes normally reserved for people who study animal behaviour? Said and done, I enrolled in and gradually completed two courses, in Dog cognition and behaviour and Animal behaviour, and invested in a few fat and heavy books that explained everything in detail, starting from the brain development and behavioural changes, to breed-specific behavioural traits and protocols that addressed every issue.

Basically, the way I approached and saw this was similar to when I studied nutritional therapy. As a therapist I addressed every particular person as a unique combination of several factors, and so I then worked with these factors to create a very personalised action plan. For example, if somebody wanted to lose weight, they could have read a diet book or two because those books worked for some people. Yet reading those popular books would never meant to work for everyone because they are simply generic texts – nothing more. So a lot of people ended up at my practice because my advice would work for them specifically (and it did).

Dog training is exactly the same.

I realise that this might have been a bit extreme, but I knew I could do it, so I read, processed, learned and put everything into practice. Even more so, I knew my boy better than anyone else because we are together 24/7, so his actions and behavioural nuances would not be misunderstood.

Training-wise, I was looking to counter-condition and desensitise Fred using positive reinforcement, aiming to create relaxed and positive experiences that would eventually push the negative memory far, far away and make scary and unfamiliar things – seem ordinary.

I STOPPED…

… asking Fred to sit in a stay position if we saw a dog approaching. Some suggest that it could work, but in our situation it made Fred anxious and over-reactive.

… telling Fred “it’s alright” and petting him whenever there was a scary dog because it’d create mix messages for him – and certain touches could even make him more reactive.

… making Fred look at me and get a treat when a dog approached, as suggested in some popular literature. Doing this only lead to a situation when Fred would never look at other dogs and never learn that dogs weren’t actually that frightening to look at.

… ever using high pitched and excited voice because it can put most dogs into alert mode.

… getting into situations when the lead would need to be kept short or tight.

… creating expectations and judging our life by the number of successes and failures because it created a lot of frustration and helplessness whenever things didn’t go as planned.

I NEVER USED…

… punishment in any form, physical or via recommended devices such as shock or citronella collars etc.

… the flooding method that means full exposure of the dog to his fear (by taking him to places full of dogs such as a dog park or unfamiliar and often crowded locations such as markets or public squares) with an idea that he will eventually give in and stop being afraid (this technique is still used, so I thought I’d mention it).

… getting into situations where the fear was obvious yet allowed no escape or created frustration (something as ordinary as being stuck in a very narrow street where you’d have to pull your dog close to you and keep the lead tight and short, especially to avoid an approaching dog, can become extremely stressful for a reactive pup).

WALKS

We changed where we walk and when we walk to avoid over stimulation and bumping into other dogs, especially those who were likely to lunge and bark. Everything had to be under my control and thought through in advance. This helped to lower stress levels and cortisol response (in both of us…).

Our initial walks were also shorter as they seem to create calmness rather than over arousal that could have been brought by both the physical stimulation and Fred’s strong prey drive and amazing ability to sniff out absolutely everything.

During each walk we moved in a rhythmic motions, either walking or jogging (swimming can also be great if you can do it) because such an exercise is believed to address specific brain receptors that process both fear and sense of happiness and can eventually rebalance the former with the latter.

Whenever possible, we’d stop to sniff and explore the surroundings, so Fred could fulfil his natural needs.

We also varied locations as much as we could, so Fred would learn that positive experiences can happen anywhere.

Eventually we also played games whenever the scary dogs were nearby. Play releases endorphins and stops the dog being preoccupied with fear because they want to focus on fun.

Ironically, the most obvious positive changes were achieved when we actually had to stop going for walks. We got house-bound for the first three weeks of COVID pandemic and I had to focus the boys’ attention on house-based exercise, training and play. Within days Fred became much calmer as the outside stimuli were completely removed from his life. He became more chilled than he’d ever been. Once we resumed the walks, he was able to relax and enjoy them.

TREATS

Whenever we were out, I always had plenty of treats with me. Whenever we saw a dog, I’d wait for Fred to look at him, then quietly praise him and as he looked back at me (after calmly observing the “scary thing” for even a second) I’d give him a treat. At first we practised when the dogs were pretty far away. I’d then say “Let’s go” to calmly walk back and away from the approaching dog, keeping the lead loose at all times.

The takeaway point to remember here is that fear and appetite are mutually exclusive, so a dog cannot feel fearful whilst eating, a natural psychological reaction that eventually leads to a new positive experience.

But the dog must face the fear (at a safe distance) first, recognise it completely, and only then get the treat. Failing to follow this and simply giving him food to drive his attention away from the fear (as I already mentioned in the beginning of this post because some books and trainers still advise it) can, in fact, make the situation worse, not changing the dog’s brain response to the fear stimuli and consequently never altering psychological reaction to it.

It took a while, but eventually we could walk by all dogs barking behind fences without any acknowledgement from Fred’s part whatsoever; walk towards dogs reducing Fred’s perception of “danger” to a minimum until we could walk in a parallel fashion alongside or towards most dogs (I still avoid dogs known to be highly reactive)

BUILDING CONFIDENCE THROUGH PLAY & GAMES

Fred has always been a very curious and confident pup, but the event changed his views on things and made him cautious. To improve it, I included various and very brief training sessions to practise everything he knew and learn a few new tricks and skills.

Each session was a little different to avoid repetitiveness and prevent boredom, lasted a few minutes and as long as Fred was happy. We stopped at any signs of hyperactivity to avoid any stress build-up.

The basics we practised included sit, down, recall, loose lead walking (in various locations), sit-stay for 1 minute and down-stay for 1 minutes (building up slowly and as long as Fred was relaxed), settle and training together. Karen Overall’s “Deference” training was also very useful (her book, Manual of Clinical Behavioural Medicine for Dogs & Cats, is a fantastic source of information – and if you can get a copy, do. It addresses every question and psychological condition and is one of my Bibles). The latter basically means that dog needs to sit down and wait calmly whenever he wants your attention – or anything. This ability essentially helps them to remain calm because they’d expect you, as their guide, to provide them with information or specific response (a bit like a pack leader would do – however I never mean, use or advise on applying the dominance meaning to it).

Additionally, I used relaxation protocol by Victoria Voith, which is similar to another one used by many trainers. However I decided to stick with Victoria because a) it was the original version b) it was designed with an idea that dogs were not restrained to stay – instead it was their choice to remain in a sit or down position for a set period of time. This freedom of choice can lead to positive changes in psychological response – unlike the situation when dogs are made to stay, which can negatively affect dogs if they suffer from reactivity, anxiety, fear or aggressive behaviour.

I did try to teach both boys Overall’s Breathing technique, but we are still working on it, though it’s rather sweet to watch my pups learning inhaling and exhaling on request.

I also got more food toys in addition to the familiar ones we already had, plus scattered treats around objects Fred wasn’t sure about, but was happy enough to explore eventually (and because there was food involved)

We played a lot of “find food” games around the house and garden, first I’d scatter the kibble on the grass or floor, then I’d start hiding pieces in boxes and toys, then I’d fill the boxes with paper or use unfamiliar textures for Fred to explore.

I even created an “obstacle course” in the garden using all sorts of random objects and teaching Fred to jump and walk over or around them, or using them as yet another sensory and sniffing tool.

It is important to mention that all our games and training sessions were done to set Fred up for success because many dogs who go through traumatic experiences end up feeling anxious and fearful of anything new simply because they expect to fail in any situation that seem threatening or new.

As a result, Fred’s famous curiosity and insatiable desire to explore returned with gusto. He began taking his time to sniff in a calm and explorative manner, and even approached a few calm dogs to say “Hi”.

I think this is a good place to stop for now… I still got a couple of areas to cover, but will save them for my next post.