Skipping Steps in the Aggression Cycle

Ideally, a dog shows a lot of restraint when acting defensively.  In many situations a dog may accomplish what is needed by just a posture and then escalating accordingly to a growl, snarl, snap at the air, a "hit" where the dog hits a competitor with his teeth but does not injure, and then escalating levels of bites that will cause injury before an all-out fight or attack.

Particularly, during resource guarding and normal dominance related conflicts we typically see appropriate restraint and the minimal amount of aggression to resolve the conflicts.  When there is obviously much more aggression than would be necessary for a situation we would say the dog is also "skipping steps in the aggression cycle".

Skipping steps in the aggression cycle, in rare cases, can be the result of intense human punishment for early steps in the cycle, particularly growling.

Usually, genetics is the main culprit and the behavior can be found in bloodlines of many breeds that are otherwise not known for overly aggressive behavior but were haphazardly bred.

In other bloodlines, the behavior was an intentionally selected for trait that gave an advantage to certain working dogs, terriers, and fighting breeds that needed the advantage of a quick bite to excel at their tasks.  Skipping steps in the aggression cycle can also be associated with not responding to signals of surrender and submission after the onset of aggression.

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  1. Would like to add here…a dog can skip steps here when owners “correct” a dog for growling in a situation where the dog is obviously uncomfortable with and is trying to stop the stress by growling. In some instances, correcting a dog growling could end up extinguishing the growl and the dog then “skips” the growling step and goes directly into biting to stop the stressor.

    1. Great point. I can’t think of any time during training I ever suggest correcting a dog for growling. Growling never hurts anyone or a dog and is good indication of how the dog is feeling at the time. It is best to work on the reason the dog is growling to begin with, if the growl itself is directed at an inappropriate target.
      A dog that is basically scared to growl can still ultimately “snap” when beyond their threshold and go right the bite.

  2. I have a 5yr old Pit Bull “Rocky”, have him since he was 7 weeks old. He is a wonderful loving dog, well behaved in the home. BUT!!! When he sees someone he does not know, he goes totally into a red zone, literally. His eyes nose and mouth look like they will start bleeding, they get so red and he just wants to get to the person to attack. He does not bark when someone comes to the door, nor growl, actually never heard him growl. Have had 5 trainers work with him, he is very food motivated so eventually he will be your friend. We live in the country so he does not see many people, but, in the summer many walk in the street and when I have him out, it is challenging to hold on. I have the Baskerville muzzle, I use a choke collar and the gentle leader together, that helps me hold on, plus a city leash with the 2 handles. He is 90lbs and very, very strong. The vet feels I should put him down, which I cannot bring myself to do, since he is healthy and a wonderful dog otherwise. I am looking for a new vet, since his rabies will expire this year and need it for his license. Now, I am thinking of getting a shock collar so when he sees someone maybe that will bring him back to reality. He probably needed to be more socialized, he is good with my children who always visit and anyone he knows. I take him in the car (crated) he used to freak out when people passed by, now he seems to be ok with them walking passed the car. I wish I had many dog people around to just visit give him treats and say “Hey Rocky” and leave, so he would associate strangers with a good thing. Anything you can suggest would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!!

  3. Hi Tina,
    Im sorry you are having some difficulty with Rocky. If you could create a profile and a training journal for him we can start trying to trouble shoot some things. Also please give us as much information as you can about him. Is the “red zone” he gets in only on or around your property or is it everywhere? What about at the vet and is it only towards people or other dogs/animals as well? You mentioned he is ok when strangers pass by your car, is that on or off of your property? Has he ever actually bitten anyone? How old are your children that he is good with? You mentioned you’ve had 5 trainers work with him, what type of training have you tried with him up until now? Is he a neutered or an intact male? Do you have safe and secure area for him to go into when strangers are passing by or is it all open property? What is your usual day like with him?…things like that…all this and any other detailed information you can give will help us to trouble shoot issues and see if we can start you on some kind of a plan with Rocky. In the mean time, continue to use the precautions you have been. You have been responsible getting him on the Baskerville muzzle and the double leashes. I would not use any type of e-collar yet. You have to be very careful when using them that they are used appropriately and correctly especially if you have a dog that is skipping steps in the aggression cycle. Continue taking safety measures as you currently are and we look forward to working with you.


    1. Thank you for answering my comment. He will try to get to somebody whether it is on our property or at the park, he does not hear me when he is in his aggressive mode, he will turn and try to bite the leash to get free to attack. Yes, he has bitten someone in the hand, we were coming out of the house I did not know a friend was coming towards the house and he put out his hand and Rocky bit him in the hand. Thank God he is never loose for then I don’t know what would happen. Rocky has been a hyper puppy since I got him, I had him neutered at 4 mos. old hoping it would calm him. My children are adults, 31 and 38. They visit and he is fine with that since he knows them since he was a puppy. Usually I or my husband walk him and we play lots of ball with him trying to get his energy down. One trainer said maybe medication would help. My vet refused to give any medication. The training was always great, once they gave him plenty of treats he was their friend. They first used clicker training when he was a puppy. Then time out in the bathroom or bedroom, when he would become uncontrollable with us. He now listens better, not always jumping and looking for attention. Outside we do not have a place to put Rocky except for the Dog Park we had built for him. The vet used to put him out to clip his nails and give shots. The last time he said to just go ahead and that is when Rocky (with muzzle on) flipped out and the vet feels he will bite someone or me and I won’t be able to control him. He should be put down. I don’t stay outside long with him, so that he will not see someone and act out. I do take him in the car when weather is cool, in a crate to see people and smell new smells. He does not like to get out of the car in a strange place, he then tucks his tail way under his body and might quickly go to the bathroom and right away want to get back in the car. He is fearful of new sounds and places. I try to desensitize him by dropping things and letting him see that nothing happened to him. The trainers always said to turn around when he is acting aggressive towards someone, but, he is strong and strong willed. So I try to avoid it altogether. My son feels he is worse with me, that he feels he has to protect me. I don’t know. He is very smart and follows commands, until there is someone or something that has taken his attention away from me and then I could jump up and down, yell, call him dozens of times and he is focused on one thing. The only thing I haven’t tried is sending him away for training, it is very expensive. I thought the shock collar would bring his attention back, but, will hold off for now. Thanks for any help you can suggest.


      1. Hi Tina,

        It sounds like a “fear aggression” problem for sure. It is common for pit bulls to also skip steps in the aggression cycle if their aggression is triggered. So you have a two layer issue. They needed to be this way to survive for their original tasks. But, the difference is that the type of fearfulness you are describing wasn’t typical. Therefore that is why you are having the issue you are having. For sure I would suggest making a profile for Rocky and start a training journal in your profile. Post questions about your training in the FORUM if you can. There it will be brought to everyone’s attention and make it easier to help. For starters definitely read through the self-help section and give special attention to the leadership section. Leadership for sure will be the biggest prerequisite to get started with a plan. After you read that section, please let us know where you feel Rocky falls on our chart for the 5 basic leadership areas: affection, play, resting places, food, going outside. We need to know if he is “entitled”, “provided”, or “unprovided” first before we get moving. Using an ecollar (shock collar) is an advanced tool that can be of use in later stages of a plan, but used the wrong way or without certain prerequisites in place can make the problem worse or even cause a bite to you. As a rule we do not correct the dog for aggressive behavior. We teach the dog what they should be doing instead of being aggressive and they get corrected for disobeying what they should be doing. We then do exercises to help make a better association with new people. Please make profile for Rocky and let us know in the forums about the leadership. If you have any questions on how to do this, you can send me a private message. Hang in there.

  4. Hi Tina, thank you for building up Rockys profile. I would not suggest having strangers come give Rocky treats. This is dangerous and can put others at risk and would also be a liability to you. You need to work on control with Rocky. As far as the E-collar you need to do things step by step before you can start using this correctly and appropriately. I would not suggest you go straight to the collar when he is in an aggressive state as this can often back fire, sometimes firing the dogs up more and sometimes even causing them to redirect on the owner. We want to keep you and others safe and also don’t want to hurt the relation ship you have with Rocky either by skipping steps or not doing things appropriately. Control is an important step by step process and unfortunately not a quick fix. I would advise you to review all the layers of the triangle starting from the bottom and working your way up so you are familiar with it. This can be reached by clicking on starting self help on the main menu bar. Then the most important thing you can do for yourself and Rocky is to read through the leadership section. The leadership section is one of the most important and overlooked sections. I would advise anyone to read and review it thoroughly. Start off by implementing all of the leadership that is outlined. You may or may not be doing some of these things already but the goal is to have all Rocky fall into the “provided” for section for each one. The first step to gaining control is to start working on “phase 1” training with him. There are “phase 1” videos for you to watch in the video section of the site. Although you may think this is going backwards I assure you it is not. We need to make sure you build a good foundation and do things in the correct order so that as you move along we know that both you and the dog fully understand everything. This phase may not take long at all especially since you have done work with Rocky for treats before. Once he understands everything in “phase 1” with the treats, we like to start fading off of them and start replacing the treats with love and affection from you as a reward. After mastering “Phase 1”, including leash manners (this “leash ninja” video can be found under “Dog Behavior Lessons and Tips Videos” ) You can then move to phase 2. After mastering “phase 2” we can discuss going to “phase 3” with the e collar to get more reliable control. Phase 2 will take a while and should not be rushed. This will take time and patience. The more you do in phase 2 and the more consistent and predictable you are with Rocky, the better it will be when you are ready to move to phase 3 with the e collar. Managing the situation with the muzzle and the double leashes right now to help keep everyone safe is the first goal. If there is a way you can video any of your sessions with Rocky, you are able to upload them right into your training Journals. This is a great way to allow us to see what you are doing and give you better direction and advice. If you have any questions re starting with the Foundation Style Training System and how to start please post them and we will help you. We want to see you succeed in gaining control over Rocky. Will Rocky ever be able to become best friends with strangers? Probably not. It can take a long time for a dog to gain trust in someone and accept them as part of their “inner circle” if they are even willing to do so. But that does not mean that you can not get Rocky to a point of having reliable control in various difficult situations. A lot of it will be management for Rocky but if you put in the time and have patience, you will feel good being able to at least control him in situations that you currently are not able to. Please feel free to ask questions in the forums. We want to help you and we want you to get to a point where you at least feel comfortable taking him outside or for a walk and not worry about him pulling you towards someone, or being able to control him when you have someone come over. Leadership and control with him will be key to any success you would like to achieve. I hope this helps as a starting point. So here is some homework… 1-Review the triangle from the bottom up, 2-Review and start implementing the leadership exercises with the goal of Rocky falling into the “provided” for category, 3-review leash ninja video and start practicing with the leash on a chair, the fridge door, anything you can find, 4-Review the command structure section. It is very important to be predictable and consistent with rocky. 5-Start doing the “phase 1” training. I know rocky has had trainers before and may know a lot of these things already but I would suggest reviewing this and being sure you are able to preform all the exercises as shown before moving forward. If you have any questions we are here for you! After you review the leadership, let us know where he currently falls for each category is he provided, entitled, or unprovided. I hope this can get you started 🙂 Remember one step at a time.

  5. Just to echo what abndogos said about it being an issue when owners correct dogs for it.

    Re-homed a dog that was hit by a former owner for growling, grumbling or even turning her head and not being keen on socialising with another dog so in his infinite wisdom he would force her back into a situation that made her growl / make her get up close to other dogs he knew she wasn’t keen to be near.

    That guy did some of the most stupid things I’ve ever known a person do and stopping his dog growling was one.