What Dog Owners Should Know About the Alpha Roll

Dog in a submissive position whilst playing

825545 / Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain

If you are not familiar with the term, an Alpha Roll is when you physically force your dog onto its side or back into a submissive position and hold it there, supposedly to show them that you are the dominant one in the relationship and they should defer to you. 

Advocates of the technique liken dogs to wolves and suggest that to have a successful relationship, you must take charge, or your dog will try to assert its dominance over you.

Science-based, force-free training methods, however, are proven to be more effective and also ensure that you develop a much healthier, happier relationship with your dog.

Dogs Are Not Wolves and Wolves Don’t Alpha Roll Anyway

Original studies of wolf behavior conducted in the 1940s were held in a captive environment. These wolves were unrelated and brought together at various stages in their lives. This led to tension, and there could be a struggle within the group hierarchy.

Since then, as evidenced by renowned wolf behavior expert David Mech and others, in their natural wild environment, a pack is usually composed of related individuals, there is not generally a hierarchical struggle, and the "Alpha" concept is outdated.

You very rarely see a wolf pin down another pack member in a bid to dominate them. More commonly, when there is tension within a group, you may observe a member voluntarily roll over into a passive, submissive position. 

Dogs also offer this appeasement behavior; they are showing they are no threat and only have peaceable intentions. An Alpha Roll is not a natural behavior amongst dogs or wolves.

It has also been proven that dogs are vastly different in their behavior from their wolf ancestors anyway, and applying the same principles across the board is not appropriate.

Why the Alpha Roll Is Not a Recommended Training Technique

The Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour published a study in 2009 that showed that these aversive methods often actually create more problem behaviors. 

When a dog faces such confrontational and forceful training methods, it can provoke a fearful response. They often freeze until they no longer feel threatened or they may feel the need to defend themselves, and this can result in an aggressive outburst. Apart from anything else, you are teaching your dog through techniques that do not foster a bond of trust.

What Are the Recommended Training Alternatives?

It is much more effective and humane to teach your dog an alternative desired behavior with reward-based methods instead.

A dog that growls when being asked to get off the sofa is not trying to dominate you. If your dog growls when you try to get them off the sofa, they are not doing this in an attempt to be dominant. They just want to stay in that cozy spot and have learned that a growl will often result in them being left alone.

If you do not want your dog on the sofa, then invest in a comfy dog bed and reward your dog with super tasty treats every time they go there. Also work on an "off" command, which relies on your dog being rewarded whenever they get off the sofa when asked.

If your dog is jumping up, they are usually just excited to see you. Another common myth is that your dog jumps up on you to show its dominance. Your dog, however, is likely jumping up because it has been inadvertently reinforced for doing this before. Maybe when it was a puppy, it seemed cute and the behavior was encouraged, but now that your dog is fully grown, this behavior is not so appreciated. Some dogs jump up because it results in them getting the attention they crave, even if that attention is in the form of the owner constantly pushing them off.

Work on getting your dog to offer an alternative behavior; whenever it has all four paws on the floor, it gets a tasty treat. When guests are coming into the house, ask your dog to go to its bed and reward it. Ensure that all family members and visitors are consistent; ask them to turn their back and ignore the jumping up to ensure they are not reinforcing it.

Help your dog understand that house visitors are not be feared. Perhaps your dog has growled when someone new has come into your home. If your dog is fearful of strangers, it is natural for them to let the individual know they do not feel comfortable and a growl is a universal communication tool. If you deal with this by putting them in an Alpha Roll, it can make them associate strangers with this uncomfortable action, and they can become even more afraid and more likely to resort to aggressive behaviour.

It is much more effective and kinder to teach your dog that there is no need to feel frightened. Don’t force interactions between your dog and guests. Offer a safe space like a crate or the option to be in another room. If it's comfortable enough being in the same place, anytime your dog has a positive interaction—perhaps it moves closer to the guest, or it looks over at him or her—reward your dog. Teach your dog that interactions with strangers result in good things!

By training with these force free, reward-based methods, your bond with your dog will grow, and you will see longer lasting results.