By Lynn Whinery, Bonza
Need help with dog behavior problems? Lynn provides clicker dog training classes in the Imperial Beach or San Diego county area and is a full member of APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers).
There seems to be a lot of confusion about the so-called Alpha Roll — and justifiably so since this outdated method never made any sense in the first place! Having studied the history of this maneuver and its theoretical origins, I think I can set a few things straight. I invite any correction to the information I provide here.
Is it an exercise done to a dog by a human. There are several variations, but the main steps would go something like this:
A) The Alpha Roll helps you to establish dominance over your dog. You do this by making the dog helpless and physically forcing it to stay in a belly-up position. This supposedly established you as the "Alpha" and "breaks the dog's will."
B) Place the dog in a Down. Very quickly roll the dog on its back and hold it there until it submits by lying still and looking away from your face.
C) Hold the dog in this position for several minutes. If the dog tries to get up or struggles, hold it down tightly and do not let it get up! It is testing your dominance.
D) Once in the belly-up position, some of the added niceties that are recommended are to: A) Pin the dog down by holding its neck. B) Growl at the dog. C) Shake the dog by the scruff of the neck.
A quote for one online source explains the source of the idea:
"This maneuver is patterned after something that wolves and dogs sometimes do to each other while fighting. Brood bitches will also sometimes roll their puppies in the whelping box."
Back to the key words in this quotation (sometimes, fighting) in a few moments!
The technique has been around since the 1960s at least. It was one of the poisonous offsprings of a wolf behavioral study done in the 1950s. This is the infamous and, in retrospect, highly flawed wolf study that produced the concept of Pack Theory, which involves, along with other ideas, the concepts that there is a strict social hierarchy in wolf packs, that the Alpha wolf maintains this hierarchy by controlling all resources and bullying this subordinates, and that when necessary the Alpha attacks or fights his subordinate pack members to maintain his leadership.
This study also popularized the ideas of dogs being either "dominant" or "submissive." So many mistaken assumptions and conclusions were based on this study, that it would take a dozen posts to review them! Suffice it to say that more modern wolf studies have found this view of wolves to be highly exaggerated and inaccurate.
The most serious repercussion of Pack Theory was that it was immediately applied to dogs, who were thought at that time to be direct descendants of wolves. (See Coppinger, "Dogs," for a strong refutation of this claim.) So when we use any of the assumptions of Pack Theory to analyze or train our dogs, we must realize that we are using – a flawed and obsolete theory that was based on an incorrect interpretation and faulty observations of a single wolf pack 50 years ago; that was then applied to dogs without testing or questioning whether dogs behaved the same as wolves! (The clincher is that *wolves* don't even behave like the wolves in the study!)
When "How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend" was published in the mid-1970s by the monks of the New Skete Monastery, the Alpha Roll was recommended in their book. Since the book was a popular seller and was in many ways a positive training book for its time, it became a classic, and the Alpha Roll lived on!
However, the majority of the book was written by one monk, Job Michael Evans. He eventually left the monastery and continued to train dogs, but after the book was published, he entirely changed his mind about the Alpha Roll and was said to have greatly regretted its inclusion in the book. He actively attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade the publisher to remove it from subsequent printings.
Finally, a new revised and updated edition of "How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend: The Classic Training Manual for Dog Owners" by the Monks of New Skete was published recently, and the Alpha Roll was deleted from the text. Unfortunately, Job Michael Evans passed away before seeing this long-overdue vindication of his change of heart.
The technique was referred to as the "alpha-wolf rollover" originally by the Monks. In the new addition, the following comments are made about the technique:
"We no longer recommend this technique and strongly discourage its use to our clients... It is potentially very dangerous and can set up the owner for a serious bite in the face (or worse), particularly with a dominant dog. The conditions in which it might be used effectively are simply too risky and demanding for the average dog owner; there are other ways of dealing with problem behavior that are much safer and, in the long run, just as effective."
"There is always the chance that autocratic dog owners, having learned discipline techniques, will misuse them. Watch yourself – owners who are physically or verbally domineering wind up with cringing, neurotic dogs."
Unlike the Monks, there are still many training books and trainers out there that advocate that the Alpha Roll as well as other "dominance" techniques be used by owners to put their dog in its place and enforce discipline through the macho method of dominating the dog.
Meanwhile, over the past years, the idea of positive training has become a popular alternative to the adversarial training methods of the past. Virtually EVERY modern canine behaviorist and modern trainer now advocate positive reinforcement as the heart of any training program. These ideas are in direct contradiction to the use of the Alpha Roll!
Australian Shepherds are always alert and incredibly intelligent.
Many people have said that they have never seen a dog roll another dog over! Instead, it is typical for the (supposedly) submissive dog to roll over on its own. Also, it has been noted that many of our dogs roll over just for the fun of it, and actually seem to enjoy it.
The behavior that is being observed and described here is NOT an Alpha Roll. For one thing, dog-initiaited Alpha Rolls are almost nonexistent! Dogs just don't normally roll other dogs!
What we do see are the following NORMAL canine behaviors:
Just as puppies play fight, mouth each other, and chase each other to practice the adult hunting and communication skills they will need (or would need if they were not pets), pups also offer a belly-up roll-over to a companion dog that they are playing with.
This is no more a sign of submission than chasing and biting each other is a sign of violent aggression! This play rehearsal, and it is pleasurable to most dogs. With two healthy pups, you will usually see the two switch positions. One dog will chase and then jump on the other who will roll belly up and fight the first off with its legs and paws. Then, the two will switch roles, and the previously "submissive" pup will chase the chaser, who will then roll over! Again, this is not an Alpha Roll – it is play behavior.
Although this behavior is seen most dramatically in pups, it can also be found in older dogs when they are in a playful mood. Dogs will often, as noted by other posters, even offer the behavior to humans.
Bitches will also roll and turn their pups in various ways, including grabbing them by the scruff to carry them around. Although when a pup is in the belly-up position, we might think of the trusty Alpha Roll, this again in NOT the situation. This is an entirely different maternal behavior.
Those of you who have noted that the "rolled" dog always rolls itself are quite correct. For the most part, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN ALPHA ROLL AMONG DOGS!
There is, however, an "Alpha Roll" that wolves will very infrequently perform. Wolves will roll a challenging or enemy wolf over with the likes of an Alpha Roll when the dominant wolf is intent on killing the other by ripping its neck apart! Even among wolves, this is a rare occurrence. So, to summarize, the intent of a true Alpha Roll is to kill, not to dominate!
1) If dogs do have a genetic memory of this behavior, the reaction we would suspect them to have is one of fear, since the roll-over was once a vicious attack meant to kill. IMO, this is probably why some breeds such as GSD's will usually not tolerate the Roll at all! Some of the breeds that typically do not tolerate the roll are considered by some to have the most wolf-like qualities. What you might gain from the maneuver with these dogs is a nice bite in the face!
2) Assuming the "kill" potential is a distant memory in most dogs' minds, the Roll still evokes great anxiety and sometimes aggressionin dogs because, in their view, they are being at least subdued, and possibly attacked, for no good reason! Many dogs will learn to tolerate this eventually, but what you have gained is not obedience or respect, but fear and a very unhealthy adversarial relationship.
3) The Alpha Roll is based on the idea that if we act like a dog, we can show our dominance and become the leader, like a dog would. There are three errors in this logic:
A) Dogs DO NOT enforce dominance with an Alpha Roll, so we are NOT acting like dogs, nor humans when we execute a roll. We are acting like idiots! It is likely that the dog has NO CLUE what the heck we are trying to do, and this irrational behavior produces anxiety!
B) The leader in a group of dogs DOES NOT enforce its position through bullying, it shows its position through calm, confident, and benevolent leadership. (Another mistaken notion we can thank the Pack Theorists for!)
C) When a dog is truly scared of another dog, it will roll belly-up as a sign of submission – although these days this type of behavior is likely to be called a "calming signal." The significance of the belly-up posture is to say to the other dog, "Don't hurt me. I am not a threat." Why would an owner want to force his or her dog into a position where the dog is thinking, "Don't hurt me. I am not a threat"? A truly noble and useful goal, right?
4) A final assumption had to be made before old-time trainers could advocate that owners and trainers become the Alpha to their dogs. This is that the position of Alpha is recognized across species! The assumption that a human can be an Alpha to his or her dogs leads us into a land of total absurdity!
For example, ponder this simple questions: If your dog was the Alpha but you usurp that position, what does your dog end up being? The Beta? If you have several dogs, and your dog is demoted to Beta, then what is the Beta now?
To conclude, even IF the method worked as advertised, who today wants to be the Alpha instead of the companion and closely bonded, respected and trusted friend of their dog? Not me!
Stay tuned for more dog behavior problem and clicker dog training articles.
If you are interested in trying clicker dog training with your Aussie you can get the clicker dog training aid i-Click from Karen Pryor Clicker Training. For help with your dog behavior problem and clicker dog training classes in Imperial Beach or San Diego county area contact Lynn Whinery at Bonza Canine Education.
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