Well, I never! Thoughts on "alpha rolls"

 |  Nov 17th 2010  |   1 Contribution


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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 a lot, with great success!

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