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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Someone posted a link about "normal" dogs and after reading it i found a couple of neat articles on Alpha Rolls.
Really enlightening.

Here is the first article
Well, I never! Thoughts on "alpha rolls"

You may or may not have noticed, but I generally avoid talking about a certain Latino celebrity dog trainer on the dogster blog. It’s an issue fraught with emotion on both sides of the debate – are training techniques rooted in dominance necessary? Beneficial? Faster or more reliable than dog-friendly training techniques? Truly, this is a topic worthy of its own book. Also, I don’t want to alienate any readers who are still exploring both modern and historical training techniques.

In my career and social life, I come into contact with dog owners with a wide variety of backgrounds, skill sets, and experience levels. People enter my classroom with preconceived notions about behavior. More often than not, my job is about separating the truth from behavioral myths and urban legends. Let’s face it, it’s usually the owners that need training – if we all already knew the right things to do, all of our dogs would be perfectly behaved, right?

Recently at the classroom I was talking with a client about his reactive dog. On my application for training, I have a checklist – which tools and techniques have you used to address this problem in the past? He indicated he had used techniques he learned on television, using both physical and verbal corrections including the infamous “alpha roll.” His friends had told him to try a shock collar, but he was not comfortable using that tool. After all, how could physical contact with an owner be a more powerful aversive than an electric shock?

Before we delve into the discussion any further, let me reiterate that I do not believe either technique or tool is necessary to create good behavior. I am not an advocate of shouting at dogs, hitting dogs, kicking dogs, jerking dogs around by their necks, shocking dogs, or alpha rolling dogs in general. I do find it very interesting how we view these various techniques and their effect on a dog’s behavior and emotional state. Many people say, “Well, I’d NEVER use a shock collar,” but would not hesitate to use an alpha roll. (Many of these same people also say that the “Dog Whisperer” would not use a shock collar which is patently false, he’s used the tool on his show on more than one occasion although he’s fairly good about hiding the remote.)

People justify the use of alpha rolls because they believe that this is a behavior that is natural in canine social groups, used as a way to establish and maintain rank. (Rarely do these people mimic other behaviors which are also popularly perceived as being ways to establish and maintain rank, like marking with urine or mounting – hey, how about some consistency here?) The popular perception is that a “dominant” dog forces another dog onto her back and then uses teeth to restrain the lower ranking pack member to show her “who’s boss.” In actuality, appeasement is the name of the game. A dog may voluntarily roll over and display her neck and stomach to another dog in a display of trust, as if to say, “I have made myself vulnerable to show you that I am not a threat.”

In the picture above, you’ll see my Saint Bernard puppy Cuba offering his belly to McKenzie, his “Bestie Westie.” McKenzie, a Westie puppy belonging to two of my most fabulous clients, is much smaller than Cuba. He wants her to play, so he rolls over and shows her his belly. This is also called “self-handicapping,” and essentially means, “I’ll make myself look smaller than you if that is what it takes to get you to play with me!” If I can get the picture to upload, ask yourself – do you think this sixteen pound Westie physically forced the sixty pound Saint Bernard puppy on his back?

When would a dog force another dog onto his belly and put his teeth on the dog’s neck? In dog society, alpha rolls most often mean – “I’m going to kill you!” Is this the message we want to be sending our dogs? Truly, “alpha rolls” as they are understood to mass society are not normal, but aberrant social behaviors. In a social group of any animal, unrestrained aggression is not conducive to survival of the group and the fulfillment of the ultimate biological goal – preservation of the species and opportunity to pass along genes to a new generation. In this sense, we are not so different – murder is an aberrant human behavior. It is a violation of normal society and of the rules which we hold sacred. It is a disruption to the peace, not a means of maintaining it.

If we assume that a true “alpha roll” in dog society is an indication that death is imminent, it really forces us to evaluate how effective such a technique would be in controlling a dog and establishing yourself as the kind of leader he might be interested in following. Many people that use this technique do so multiple times a day. Can you imagine the psychological trauma you might experience if you lived in a situation where multiple times a day, the only person who could provide you with basic life necessities also held a knife to your throat and said, “I’m going to kill you!” It is precisely this mental damage that makes me think the alpha roll ranks high on the list of the most aversive and psychologically damaging of all behavior modification or training techniques.

You may listen to this person. You may be confused because sometimes he shows you affection and other times, he threatens you to the point where you feel as though death may be seconds away. Eventually, you may decide you’ve “had enough” and defend yourself.

I actually know someone who lived in a situation not terribly unlike this. She is one of the kindest, gentlest, funniest women I know. I let her watch my dogs and if I had kids, I’d trust her with them also. She was an emotionally and physically abused woman, the victim of domestic violence. Her abuser repeatedly put her in the hospital. He held guns to her head, threatening her life. He broke her ribs, her heart, and her spirit. One day, she had enough. She shot him dead in self defense.

We see the same thing in dogs that have been frequently alpha rolled. It is not uncommon for the owner to eventually be bitten when the dog decides he’s had enough. Sadly, these bites are often to the face and can cause significant damage. The dog usually winds up dead. Could you imagine if humans received the death penalty for self defense cases?

We are quick to judge people who use use harsh leash corrections, electric shock of any sort, hit, slap, or spank a dog. Many view these training techniques as abusive and say, “Well, I never!” But we think so little of employing a technique like the alpha roll, one which may not seem physically abusive but is, to a dog, often an act of emotional terrorism.

Anyone studying the psychology of human victims of abuse knows that emotional and psychological abuse can create just as much trauma, if not more trauma, than physical abuse. In this respect, as in so many others, we are no different from the animals which have evolved alongside us and given us their dedication, loyalty, and friendship without reservation. For our relationships to continue evolving, our understanding of dog behavior must evolve as well. I hope that someday soon popular culture catches up to what research has already proven – that dominance is too small an umbrella (and one riddled with holes of outdated science) to accurately convey why dogs behave the way that they do or how we can best influence a dog’s behavior.

A simple google search on “debunking dominance” will go a long way toward making that happen.

There is one variation of the alpha roll technique I whole heartedly endorse and have had great success with. I encourage you to read this article, my favorite technique for doing an “alpha roll” as described by Natural Dog Training author and blogger Lee Charles Kelley. I use this technique

Which then led to this article

Lee Charles Kelley: How to Do an Alpha Roll

Last week at the dog run at 72nd Street in Riverside Park, near where I live in New York City, I saw a dog walker actually pick up a dog, then throw him onto the ground as hard as he could from three feet up in the air! And the dog hadn’t done anything wrong, he was just acting a little too energetic.

Why did this idiot dogwalker think throwing the poor dog down on his back like that was the right thing to do? I can’t say for sure, but the guy probably thought he was doing an “alpha roll.”

So what is the alpha roll exactly. And how is it supposed to work?

It’s a way of either pinning a dog on her back and forcing her to roll over on one side, or giving her the down command and then forcing her into a “submissive” position. It’s given the name alpha roll to suggest that it imitates the way an alpha wolf will discipline a subordinate pack member to establish his leadership. In dog training it is said to work by com- municating your position as pack leader to a dog through his inherited instincts to obey the alpha wolf.

The technique was first popularized in the 1970s by the Monks of New Skete. Their version involved not only the simple movements described above, but grabbing the dog by the throat, throwing him down on his back and screaming “No!” in his face. (They’re lovely, those monks.)

In The Intelligence of Dogs, Stanley Coren gives us a kinder, gentler version: “You should deliberately manipulate and restrain your dog on a regular basis, placing it in a position that, for wild canids, signifies submission to the authority of a dominant member of the pack.”

The funny thing is, around the same time I read Coren’s advice I also saw a documentary about wolves on TV. At one point in the film a papa wolf (i.e., the pack leader), rolled over on his back, ‘signifying submission’ to his puppies, and encouraged them to jump on his stomach and chest and even allowed them to nip at his ears and nose. Right away I began doing this myself with my own dog. I got down on my hands and knees, did a play bow, started batting my hands at his body, getting him riled up and in the mood to play, then I rolled over on my back, pretending to be submissive.

“Oh no! You got me! You killed me! You’re the king dog!”

He loved it! First he jumped on top of me, then he tried to get lower than me! Then he began to twist around the way dogs do when they’re rolling around in the grass on a nice spring day. When he was done he raced to find one of his bones and began chewing it, quite happily.

Later, on our evening walk—as he wandered a bit too far ahead of me—I sort of absent-mindedly gave him his recall signal, expecting him to do his usual routine: cock his head, look at me, look back at whatever he’d been sniffing, and then slowly trot back.

That’s not exactly what happened.

No, he immediately turned and came running back at full speed, ending up in a perfect sit right in front of me. I was astonished! I tested him further by quickly giving him the down command. He dove into position as fast as he could, eager to hear what I wanted him to do next. This was totally amazing and unexpected. I had no idea why this happening until I realized that for some reason, when I’d acted “submissive” toward him a few hours earlier I’d changed something about the dynamic between us. As a result he was immediately far more obedient to all my commands, plus his response time went from semi-lackadaisical to lightning-fast!

Over the next few months I tried my “submissive” act on some of the dogs I was training, including a great Dane. And in every single case it made them far more responsive and much quicker to obey.

So who’s right, here? Stanely Coren and those brutal, sadistic monks, or an actual papa wolf? And why did my acting “submissive” have the seemingly strange result of making all these dogs more obedient?

It might help us understand this better if we knew a little more about how a genuine wolf pack really operates.

There are 4 basic elements of life in the wild for a wolf pack:

1) The Hunt, where wolves work together as a cohesive social group in order to hunt and kill large prey.

2) Den Life, where the wolves sleep and rest up for the next hunt.

3) Play, which prepares young wolves emotionally, and to some extent physically, for hunting.

4) Mating, which is the process whereby new wolves are created so that the pack can continue hunting.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Everything in pack life is either directly related or eventually ties back to the need to hunt as a group.

So where does the alpha roll fit into these areas of life in the wild?

It doesn’t. This behavior simply doesn’t exist in wild wolf packs. The original study that gave us the idea that it does has long since been discredited. Some scientists are now saying that when it does occur (in captive wolves, not wild wolves), it’s actually initiated by a weaker pack member; he rolls over in submission. The stronger wolf does not force him down. Others say in wild wolves this behavior is a prelude to actually killing or at least maiming members of rival packs.

Nice, huh?

So why does it seem to work with dogs? Certainly there are some who swear by it. Cesar Millan is convinced that dogs see him as the pack leader when he does this.

Here’s the problem though. Wolves don’t have pack leaders, not in the traditional sense. The only thing that makes other wolves follow one pack member rather than another is that there is always one member of the group who’s steadier, better able to adjust quickly to change, and is cooler under pressure. But like a martial arts master, such an animal never needs to enforce his “authority” through acts of aggression, which is what the alpha roll really is. It seems to me that leadership is really attained through having more ability to control or respond quickly to changes in the environment than other pack members. And I don’t now if you’ve noticed this, but you have more control over your dog’s environment than he does. Who has the keys to the house? Who knows how to operate doorknobs and elevator buttons? Who knows how to use a can opener? Clearly, your dog already perceives you as superior.

So why doesn’t your dog listen to you the way the dogs on TV listen to Cesar Millan? Well, for one thing there’s probably a lot of stuff Millan does that ends up on the editing room floor. Plus, to his credit Millan is always fairly cool under pressure. But ultimately he acts more like a predator toward dogs than like a pack leader.

A predator? To get a clearer picture of what I mean, see the graphic below:
Just picture the way Millan stands and looks down at a dog. The level of gaze he has seems “magnetic” to dogs, correct? Is that because dogs see him as a pack leader? Doubtful since a wolf’s eyes are always on the same level as the rest of the group (see above, center), while a human being’s eyes are much higher up (see above, on the right). Or is it because Millan is acting more like the wolf’s only natural predators, the same animals wolves prey on—moose, deer, elk, etc? (See the spatial dynamic on the left.) After all, what does a wolf do when he’s chasing a moose, and the bigger animal—who has eyes higher up in space above the wolf’s level—suddenly turns, stands his ground, and looks down at him, brandishing his antlers? The wolf stops dead in his tracks. And that’s how most misbehaving dogs act when Cesar Millan enters a room and starts doing his “tch-tch” act. So the feeling Millan is actually stimulating in dogs is the polar opposite of magnetic. It’s a form of fear, pure and simple, only instead of causing the dog to run away, it causes him to freeze.

The alpha roll serves a similar purpose; it scares and intimidates a dog, something a real pack leader (if there were such an animal) would never need to do. By contrast, the exercise I learned from watching the papa wolf (the closest thing we have to a true pack leader) is what’s really magnetic. And that’s why dogs are so much more obedient and quicker to respond when you act submissive: they become magnetized to you!

Let’s put Cesar Millan aside. Many people use the alpha roll, and probably think they’re getting good results. But are they? It certainly stops a dog from misbehaving, at least momentarily. So what should they do instead to get real, lasting behavioral changes in their dogs?

When dogs “misbehave” they're basically showing us that they don’t know what else to do with their energy. The alpha roll at its most violent teaches the dog to be defensive about how she uses her energy, and builds up feelings that in humans we would think of as resentment. Her energy may seem to be under the owner or trainer’s control, but will often simmer inside and come out as aggression toward others, or be directed inward, and express itself as fearful behaviors or a general lack of interest in life.

But even when the alpha roll is done in its gentlest form, with the dog obeying the down command, and then being gently rolled over on her side (which is not a good way to reward her for obeying your commands, by the way), the exercise does nothing to teach the dog how to use her energy properly. It only puts a lid on it momentarily.

So what is the proper way to do the alpha roll?

If there is a proper way, this is it!

Technically, there is no proper way to do an alpha roll. If anything you should do the exact opposite, as I did with Freddie.

However, if you want to be a true pack leader just imitate the papa wolf—have fun, play hunting games with your dog, get down on her level. Remember, wolves hunt by working together, which is one instinct that really does exist in both dogs and wolves. And as for exerting control in a pressure situation, a dog who routinely plays tug and fetch and chase me with her owners is far more likely to respond properly in a crunch than a dog who’s merely had a lid clamped down on her emotional pressure cooker and pushed over on her side in a nonsensical display of some mythical instinct that doesn’t even exist.

Next time: The Eyes, a great technique to replace the alpha roll.

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

2,107 Posts
Really interesting, I like it! After reading this I rolled on my back next to a girl I'm working with, and she immediately flopped on her back next to me, nose pokeying me while she did it. What a goof!

416 Posts
Good stuff. Thanks for taking the time to write all that down and educate people like me. I always thought that you were supposed to show dominance just never really did it.
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