It’s all over the internet, we read it everywhere - “You need to Alpha Roll your dog to show it who’s boss”. Most often we see and hear reference to the famous National Geographic TV star Cesar Millan, better known as “The Dog Whisperer”, but Cesar is not the only trainer who follows “old school” methods of dominance theory. What I believe these misguided folks are lacking in the understanding of the social structure (hierarchy) of the pack is the awareness that any species (including humans), if forced into a family structure, will struggle to form a social order. However, we don’t all run around beating each other up to show that we should be the “top dog”, and the only time we see this sort of violent dominance exerted among animals is when there is an intent to do serious harm or kill.
We came across another one of these such “advice” posts in in the comments section of our local newspaper’s online source, which prompted us to write this blog. (Here is a little snippet from the post that caused us alarm.)
“I strongly believe in "alpha-rolling" a dog. This can be done frequently and lovingly in the home to get the dog used to it. Put the dog on his back. Straddle the dog. Allow ZERO kicking. Hold them there until they completely relax. You'll hear an audible sigh when they "give it up." Gently push his head, so his forehead is against the floor. I straddle my dog this way, give her lots of coo's and affection once she's completely relaxed, which she does immediately now. Then when you are out, your dogs aren't acting optimally, put them in down. You can lay them on their sides and have them leave their heads against the ground. This becomes easier with time and shows the dogs who to listen to when you need them to.
This sounds silly, but if I rush up to my dog to correct her, she goes upside down IMMEDIATELY before I even touch her!"
(It’s interesting to see how this poster dressed up their description of how they use the alpha roll on their own dog… repeatedly. I’d like to know if the dog also wets herself when she immediately goes upside down. My money is on the answer to this being a resounding yes, however the poster does not offer this information.)
What is an Alpha Roll?
An Alpha Roll is the act of flipping your dog onto his back, and holding his throat. This was once thought to be the most effective and “natural” way to teach a dog that YOU are its boss and to respect you. Wrong!
The theory of dominance based training and the alpha roll came about from a series of short-term studies on wolves done back in the 1940’s. Being short-term studies, researchers focused on the most obvious parts of wolf life, mainly hunting, and drew conclusions about “wolf behavior“ based on a small percentage of wolf life/living. Further study of wolves in their natural habitat has revealed a much less physical system in establishing pack leadership. In these studies, it has been observed that wolves are more of a family unit (very similar to our relationships with our own families and domestic dogs) and that the “Alpha” or leader, becomes so by way of physiological intimidation and controlling resources rather than physical force. Much like we humans do with our own children when we instruct them to do something; ie Parent tells child to clean his room before going outside and then reinforces this direction by checking the child's room before allowing him to go play with his friends. This same method is applied in the way positive reinforcement trainers utilize a program called “Nothing In Life Is Free” or NILIF, where the confident leader controls all of the resources.
It has also been noted in more recent studies that early research and conclusion about the alpha roll was misinterpreted and misunderstood. If you watch closely, with either wolves or domestic dogs, the “alpha roll” is actually an appeasement ritual instigated by the subordinate or submissive canine. The higher ranking member then sometimes (though not always necessary) “pins” the muzzle (in its mouth) and the subordinate voluntarily rolls onto his or her back and offers its belly. In other words, what appears to be one animal forcing another is actually a behavior that is offered by the submissive canine and the animal is already on its way down before the dominant wolf or dog has made any physical contact at all.
"In watching the wolves,” says Pat Goodman, MS, a resident ethologist at Wolf Park, “I find it rare for them to forcibly push down and hold down a subordinate, a rival, a youngster. In the overwhelming majority of cases, rather than being pushed down, the wolf who ends up on the ground is already going down in response to psychological pressure."
“ In fact", says Ken McCort, a dog training and behavior consultant,“with wolves the inguinal presentation behavior is usually volunteered by a lower ranking wolf as sort of an appeasement to a dominant animal in the face of some threat or altercation”… and leaders in packs “control assets (possessions, territory) more often than physically controlling individuals.”
But you’re talking about wolves, not dogs…Dr. Frank Beach preformed a 30-year study on dogs at Yale and UC Berkeley.
Nineteen years of the study was devoted to the social behavior of a dog pack. In his study he found that:
- Male dogs have a rigid hierarchy.
- Female dogs have a hierarchy, but it's more variable.
- When you mix the sexes, the rules get mixed up. Males try to follow their constitution, but the females have "amendments."
- Young puppies have what's called "puppy license (puppy breath is well recognized by older dogs)." They have a license to do most anything. Females are more tolerant of puppy license than males are The puppy license is revoked at approximately four months of age (teething). At that time, the older middle-ranked dogs teach the pup what is acceptable and not-- psychologically torturing it until it offers all of the appropriate appeasement behaviors and takes its place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The top-ranked dogs ignore the whole thing.
- There is NO physical domination. Everything is accomplished through psychological harassment.
- It's all ritualistic.
- A small minority of "alpha" dogs assumed their position by bullying and force. Those that did were quickly deposed. No one likes a dictator.
- The vast majority of alpha dogs rule benevolently. They are confident in their position. They do not stoop to squabbling to prove their point. To do so would lower their status because...
- Blustery-middle-ranked animals squabble. They are insecure in their positions and want to advance over other middle-ranked animals.
- Low-ranked animals do not squabble. They know they would lose. They know their position, and they accept it.
- Alpha" does not mean physically dominant. It means "in control of resources. Many alpha dogs are too small or too physically frail to physically dominate, but they have earned the right to control the valued resources. An individual dog determines which resources he considers important. An alpha dog may give up a prime sleeping place (or toy) because he simply couldn't care less.
Did you know?
When you Alpha Roll your dog, you are essentially performing an attack on your dog, which leaves you very vulnerable to being bitten in the face by the dog. Not only that, but you are also sending a message to your dog that you are not a confident leader and that you are not to be trusted, but rather you should be feared and not respected.
Alpha Rolling can also have disastrous consequences for dominant or fear aggressive canines. An alpha roll can increase aggression in an already dominant dog. In a submissive dog, the alpha roll will add more fear to the dog's psyche and can lead to submissive urination, loss of trust and possible fear biting.
In a study titled If You’re Aggressive, Your Dog Will Be, Too
Says Veterinary Study at the University of Pennsylvania
February 17, 2009
PHILADELPHIA –- In a new, year-long University of Pennsylvania survey of dog owners who use confrontational or aversive methods to train aggressive pets, veterinary researchers have found that most of these animals will continue to be aggressive unless training techniques are modified.
The study, published in the current issue of Applied Animal Behavior Science, also showed that using non-aversive or neutral training methods such as additional exercise or rewards elicited very few aggressive responses.
Another article can be found in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.
Using “dominance” to explain dog behaviour is old hat
21 May 2009
A new study shows how the behaviour of dogs has been misunderstood for generations: in fact using misplaced ideas about dog behaviour and training is likely to cause rather than cure unwanted behaviour. The findings challenge many of the dominance related interpretations of behaviour and training techniques suggested by some TV dog trainers. Contrary to popular belief, aggressive dogs are NOT trying to assert their dominance over their canine or human “pack”, according to research published by academics at the University of Bristol’s Department of Clinical Veterinary Sciences in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.
Dr Rachel Casey, Senior Lecturer in Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare at Bristol University, said: “The blanket assumption that every dog is motivated by some innate desire to control people and other dogs is frankly ridiculous. It hugely underestimates the complex communicative and learning abilities of dogs. It also leads to the use of coercive training techniques, which compromise welfare, and actually cause problem behaviours."
And paraphrasing our friend Mary Harwelik CPDT-KA & Professional Behaviorist: “To sum up my opinion: the techniques Millan uses are outdated, overly harsh, borderline cruel (if not outright cruel), dangerous and can cause side-effects sometimes worse than the original behavior problem they were supposed to solve.”
Read more information about the History and Misconceptions of the Dominance Theory.
Fair, Firm, Consistent, Confident Leader
If you are proactive enough to control the things your dogs wants and needs, by definition you are in a sense the “alpha”.
To be your dogs leader and to have his respect; control the resources (high value life resources) by making good use of the natural, high ranking, and survival items, a dog needs like food, toys and attention. Make resources contingent on behavior—in the relationship between you and your dog. Does the dog want to be fed? Good-- ask him to sit first. Does she want to go outside? Sit first. Does the dog love to greet people? Sit first. Want to play? Sit first. Train your dog. This is the dog-human equivalent of the "revoking the puppy license". Use positive training and the mantra: you do something for me, and I’ll do something for you.
New Hope Pit Bull Rescue's training philosophy is one that uses both operant conditioning and classical conditioning while teaching fosters and dog owners how to improve the relationship between them and their dog through bonding and trust. We teach cooperation and obediance through the use of pain free consequences, positive reward based reinforcement and the implementation of the Nothing In Life Is Free program which teaches the dog that good things happen when he acts appropriately.