Tuesday, May 6, 2008

How to Do an Alpha Roll

There’s been a recent resurgence in the use of the alpha roll. But most people I’ve observed have been doing it all wrong. Hopefully some of them will get a chance to read this. If not, feel free to give them your input...

The Proper Way to Do an Alpha Roll
Don't worry. This isn't the right way to do it. 

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 cant 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. Its 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 communicating 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! Youre 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 theyre 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 walkas he wandered a bit too far ahead of meI 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 to me.

Instead he turned and came running back to me at full speed, ending 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 “submissiveact 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. (Though I wouldn't try this with just any dog off the street—it has to be a dog I trust and who trusts me.)

So 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. There is a behavior called "pinning," which sometimes occurs in wolf packs. But it's usually part of a highly aggressive contest for physical supremacy, one that would be quite easy for a human to win if he or she were interacting with a small breed of dog, but could be very dangerous if attempted with a large German shepherd or Rottweiler. Even a Chihuahua is liable to bite back if treated this way. And even it weren't dangerous, it's not the best way to engender a spirit of cooperation between a dog and owner.

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 doesnt actually exist.


Colette said...

This is a great post! I'm going to try it with Banjo!. He's generally a pretty obedient little fellow, but I sometimes feel like he's in charge of me more than I am of him.

And, I have often wondered what your take on Cesar Milan is... :)

LCK said...

Hi, Colette.

Thanks for the kudos.

But I'm a little confused.Since this post is about NOT doing the alpha roll, I'm not sure what it is you're actually going to DO, unless it's the bit I mentioned in passing about letting a dog jump on top of you and nip your nose. That certainly reduces a lot of the dog's feelings of social resistance, which usually results in much better responsiveness.


Anonymous said...

You are making so many comments (with authoroty)about wolves but yet have you ever observed a wolf pack first hand in the wild or in captivity?

summerinbrooklyn said...

WOlves in captivity don't behave similarly to wolves in the wild. Lee might not have spent any time in the wild studying wolf behavior, but David Mech has, and Mech is someone that Lee references often in his blog entries. Cesar Milan, nice man as he might be, is sadly not as nice a trainer as one might hope. Have you seen an episode where he literally drags a dog frozen in sheer terror and basically has emotionally shut dowbn across a tiled floor? This inhumane insanely horrible practice is known as flooding. Would you like that done to you? If you were afraid of spiders, it would be the equivalent of dunking you in a bathtub full of spiders and then laying a large wooden board on top so you couldn't escape. Now tell me you won't emotionally shut down after 20 mins in that.

Angela said...

Lee, I see that I should have posted my alpha roll comment here. Sorry about that!

I should clarify that when I've used it, I trained a command, "sleep" which means to lie on their side. Maybe you are right in that it just put a lid on their energy, but they needed that at the time. I rarely use this anymore, but the last time I did was because my little one lunged at a dog my GSD was playing with...she used teeth. I just reacted quickly, but grabbing her off the other dog and placing her on her side...she didn't struggle, she just stayed there for a bit, relaxed. My GSD stopped playing and lay down next to her and the other dog just hung out. Then we all took a walk together. She has not gone after another dog since.

FWIW, nobody 'taught' me this...I just did it in the moment. What would have been a better way?

LCK said...

Hi, Angela,

First let me just mention something for those who haven't read the comments section on the "Positive Mental Associations v. Reducing Tension" thread, which is where some of what Angela is asking about can be found. On that thread I quoted a few passages from NATURAL DOG TRAINING, in which Kevin Behan writes that it's sometimes necessary to use some sort of dominance technique with a nervous dog, and that doing so can have a calming effect. He also says that it's best to employ such a correction with the leash and collar rather than through anything that involves grabbing, hitting, or wrestling with the dog.

So my comment to Angela is that this may have been a case where doing the kinder, gentler version of the alpha roll DID have a calming effect. However, another part of the picture is that your German shepherd lay down next to her afterwards, which ALSO had a calming effect, and took some of the sting out of your physical correction.

As to what you "should" have done instead, I wasn't there and I'm not getting a clear picture of what the infraction was, what sparked her behavior, etc. However, grabbing the dog and forcing her onto her side would never be my first choice (or second or third). If I can't solve a build-up of tension through praise or by saying, "Okay!" in a happy voice, I'll usually go to the other end of the vocal spectrum and give the dog a loud, angry, "HEY!" This usually shocks the dog momentarily, and THEN I'll praise her. When shouting doesn't work it's either time for a time out or a little leash work.

I don't know if that would've worked in your situation, and it sounds like doing a leash correction wouldn't have been possible, but I much prefer "dominating" a dog (if absolutely necessary) through vocal "intimidation" rather than through any form of correction where I have to lay hands on the dog in any way, the reason being that a dog's psychic space, and the physical integrity of her body, should be somewhat inviolable. It's not a line you want to cross unless you absolutely have to.

What this means, basically, is that you don't grab, hit, smack, spank, or in any way use your hands to correct a dog. Sometimes you have to grab the dog's back legs to stop a fight. But that's not a correction, it's an intervention.

There was a wheaten terrier named Magee that I trained who sometimes got into a contretemps at the dog run, and my technique to stop his fights from escalating was to grab hold of the fur on his back and lift him up off the ground. That got things quiet rather neatly. This had more to do with what was quickest and easiest for me physically than anything else though. And I always praised him to skies and let him jump on me and play such afterwards.

So what Angela did with her "little one," which was done on the fly, may have worked in that situation, but it's not something I'd recommend. It sends the wrong message to the dog: that physical violence is the way to solve your problems.


Anonymous said...

Last night I saw an alpha roll gone very bad. My dog Henry is very leash reactive with a dog in my building that I'll call C. C's owner is a big fan of Cesar Milan and has told me on several occasions that Cesar's techniques and philosophy are indisputable.
So last night, I was walking out the door of my building and noticed that C and her owner were on the stoop. I popped Henry's squeaky ball in his mouth and praised like crazy as we walked by. Henry stayed focused on me, while C jumped up and lunged at Henry. C's owner grabbed her and forced her on her side. Next thing I know, he HITS her. (Not hard, but he saw that I saw him do it.) So he said, "She bit me! I can't believe it! I corrected her and she bit me!"
Later that evening, same scenario. I walked by with Henry and C lunged at him. THIS time, however, he put C on her side and she squealed in pain. He said, "She's such a drama queen. I barely touched her."

Now Henry is by no means perfect when it come to reacting to other dogs on his leash, but I can guarantee that he isn't going to bite me (or squeal in pain!) if i praise him and play tug/give him a ball when we pass another dog!

LCK said...

It's possible that by seeing Henry and you as an example of how to relate to a dog in a way that has a positive overall effect, Colette's owner might start to question his beliefs about dog training. And while I can't speak for Cesar Millan, in my opinion if CM had seen what transpired with that poor sweet doggie he would've stepped in and asked the owner, "What are doing? Why in the world would you have done that?"

Of course CM's probably wouldn't have taken issue with the alpha roll but that the guy lost control of his temper. (Still, that's a step up from what the guy did.)

That said, people's beliefs tend to be very deeply ingrained. It's hard to know what might cause this guy to see things in a different light, or if he even COULD see them any differently. So my recommendation (if you want one from me) is to keep doing what you're doing with Henry, don't get into any debates with Colette's owner, but let Henry's behavior serve as an example.

Remember, your first goal is to help Henry get past HIS issues. Simply doing that can set off a small chain reaction, which may or may not stimulate some kind of change in this guy. Or as the slogan goes: "Changing the World, One Dog at a Time..."

Then at some point this guy MIGHT ask you to offer some validation for the different perspective you have on the subject. Then you could give him a print-out of one of my essays.


Anonymous said...

What I want to know is did anyone report the dog walker to the police? What he did sounds like abuse to me, misguided alpha roll? I think not ... he *threw a dog to the ground* for crying out loud! I would never have assumed he was trying to do the alpha roll. From your description what he did wasn't even remotely close. I'd have been confronting him and calling the cops immediately.

Moonbeam said...

Great read Mr. Kelly. CM is coming to Ireland in March and his your iis sold out.... such a terrible shame so many people have been taken in by his methods. I would be very interested to know if CM has ever spoken out publicily to respond to the research and 'real' dog trainers and Qualified behaviourists that dismiss him. I would pay any money to see that. Imagine him in a conference with the leaders in Canine behaviour and science. WOW... Well, I'm going to keep fighting thiis battle and if I can save one dog from being treated in the above ways mentioned well I've achieved something.

Elaine said...

Thanks for a very intuitive and interesting observation. This afternoon I just happened to do exactly that with my 2-year-old BC. I had done a 5 minute clicker and weaving session with her and as she rested before I dashed off to work I instinctively rolled onto my back - result was she came over to me for a fuss. When I got home from work she greeted me in a different, more relaxed, way and later came over for a cuddle - she would normally come over with a toy, wanting to play (or rather "work") with me.
So reading your observations a couple of hours later really underlined what I had observed and had done through instinct.
One query though ... I often need to check for ticks and trim claws. I ask my 3 girls to lay down and roll over, which they do, in order to do this. There isn't another effective way to do these things. Surely this is not a bad thing? I always give "good girl biscuits" immediately after.

Elaine said...

Thanks for a very intuitive and interesting observation. This afternoon I just happened to do exactly that with my 2-year-old BC. I had done a 5 minute clicker and weaving session with her and as she rested before I dashed off to work I instinctively rolled onto my back - result was she came over to me for a fuss. When I got home from work she greeted me in a different, more relaxed, way and later came over for a cuddle - she would normally come over with a toy, wanting to play (or rather "work") with me.
So reading your observations a couple of hours later really underlined what I had observed and had done through instinct.
One query though ... I often need to check for ticks and trim claws. I ask my 3 girls to lay down and roll over, which they do, in order to do this. There isn't another effective way to do these things. Surely this is not a bad thing? I always give "good girl biscuits" immediately after.

LCK said...

Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you found it helpful. I'm especially glad for the feedback on how it seems to positively affected your dog's behavior.

You're right. There's nothing wrong with giving your dog a belly rub. It's actually a good way to soften some of the tension the she be carrying around.


Keith said...

im no expert on dogs or wolves but i know wolves do have a pack leader and that CMs methods do work, his focus is more on the owner than the dog we fill up our dogs with anxietys and faults through treating them as human and not addressing their basic needs. Im a huge fan but as always i keep my mind open to new methods and ideas. My dogs are all working dogs and my passion is to see them lead a happy, healthy life filled with purpose

LCK said...

Hi,, Keith.

Thanks for your comment.

I agree with much of what you've said, except 2 main things.

1) Modern wolf research shows that that dominance displays between pack members is so rare is to be virtually nonexistent. And...

2) No one wolf walks ahead of the rest of the pack, no one wolf eats before the rest of the pack, and no one wolf leads the hunt.

Essentially what this means is that there is no pack leader.

Thanks again,


Rome said...

I did what is told here a couple of times and tried it to my high energy level dog and it didn't change on how they react on my commands. Now he's even lounging towards me and my son everytime we try to sit down the floor and try to topple us and alpha roll us, which is a no no as we are enforcing a no hard playing indoors... :(

Jeff said...

I think every situation is unique to the family emotional dynamic (including the pups/dogs in family, by the way) - if your dog is a rescue from a troubled background and has specific, weird issues, it can be really hard to address them with submissive techniques. If you could link me to some of the more recent research that doesn't require access to academic journals I'd appreciate it, I'm currently of two minds on the effectiveness of the alpha roll in correcting extreme behavior.

The energy issue is a real one and not controversial, it's hard to do much with a dog that's basically given the equivalent of "just sit/lay around all day" without the important release of exploration and occasional exhaustion. That raises a lot of tension and it can be expressed through different avenues... But if one of them is lunging/biting behavior toward humans, I don't think you should expect great results from laying down submissively.

LCK said...

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for your comment. You make some good points.

There is research that shows dominance techniques tend to make dogs more aggressive. It's not specifically about the alpha roll.

I can't tell you, off the top of my head, late at night, as I'm writing this, where to find that research. I think it was published by the American Veterinary Association, but I could be wrong.

It was used a lot by the +R camp a couple of years ago.

Thanks again for you comment.


Jeff said...

I know even the Monks say "don't do that" anymore in their latest revision, so it probably shouldn't be especially controversial that the alpha roll isn't a great means of correcting behavior. The "Nothing In Life Is Free" approach seems to be a lot less problematic, but right now I am really struggling with a backyard-breeder rescue from a neglectful home. He's as sweet as can be, half cocker, half poodle. He has mild epilepsy that doesn't require medication, but that is really clear evidence that the people that put the parents together didn't care. But I want him to be happy, and healthy, and safe.

When he was young, he had fear/anxiety issues. As he's matured, that's turned into fear/aggression issues. I'm going to try more carrot/stick activities with him, but it's difficult to handle the sort of furious rages he can go into. The things that used to make him nervous now make him growl, bite, and lunge. We spotted food aggression early on and have got much better with that by just carrot/stick or "nothing in life is free" - not dominance, just order.

I'm not sure how applicable wolf studies are to dogs. It seems like as with any advanced mammal with a clever, well-evolved predator's brain, there's just more going on than can be isolated to instincts OR background, so a measured and successful approach would inevitably rely as much on understanding the enculturation of the dog as its nature.

My worst fear is that it's not a correctable behavior, but something that is just an undesirable natural trait that the irresponsible breeders did no screening for whatever. I don't know what I'll do if that turns out to be the case. But so far, the same passive techniques that got him over his food aggression have done nothing at all to help with his generalized fear/anxiety aggression. I wish there were a one-size-fits-all solution, but...

Thanks for taking the time to reply. This is a great resource. Wish me luck.

LCK said...

Again, you've made some very valid comments. And I wish you all the luck in the world.

I don't know if "The Pushing Exercise" would help with your dog's issues. But it works with a lot of dogs, and can be positive first step in helping resolve most, if not all, behavioral problems.

It was invented by veteran police dog trainer, Kevin Behan.



Best wishes,


Anonymous said...

Thank you, excellent article. Posted on Facebook for my clients.

Michele said...

Why do you keep referring to a wolf pack when your site declares wolf and dog as different species?(Which I have heard genetisists refute)
Also, I think anyone wanting to know how a wild pack of wolves relate to each other should read Sean Ellis' book. He lived within a wild wolf pack for I believe it was two years. He slept on the ground, ate what they ate and had no contact with any humans for the entire time he was with the pack.

LCK said...
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LCK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LCK said...

Hi Michele. Thanks for your comment.

I'm glad you've come to visit my blog.

I don't think I've ever referred to dogs and wolves as separate species as you say I have. If so, I'd like to know where.

Also, since there is a large percentage of the dog training community that believes the proper way to train a dog is to imitate wolf behavior, it's often necessary to point out the flaws, if there are any (and I think there are), in that belief system.

Obviously dogs and wolves had different evolutionary histories which diverged at some point in history, and which created some significant differences in their social behaviors.

As for Shaun Ellis, he's a human being. He may have some wolf DNA in him (in the same way humans share 50% of their DNA with garden peas). So any effects he thinks he got by "acting like a wolf" are automatically suspect in my opinion. I find it hard to believe that any self-respecting wolf could be fooled for one second into thinking a human being was a wolf.

Also, since many of the behaviors that Ellis exhibited in his experiment don't actually exist in wild wolf packs (according to modern wolf researchers), one is left to surmise that the behaviors Ellis elicited from these animals were stress-related, and are not representative of normal pack behavior.

Thanks again for your comment.


Sam said...


What studies on wolves are you referring to, specifically? I have worked extensively with both captive and wild populations of wolves in the Yellowstone area, and I can assure that every pack does indeed have a dominant alpha male/female. It is true that he/she RARELY needs to assert dominance physically. This is an extremely rare event and normally only happens when a new member joins the pack. Other members generally know and fully accept their role in the pack and do not challenge up, so to speak. That being said, when a wolf is 'acting up' and questioning the leaders authority, he/she absolutely will physically and vocally discipline the dog through dominant displays much or exactly like the alpha roll. While dogs are different than wolves, I see many similarities. To conclude with my main point - most dogs do NOT need overt dominant displays from their owner. Only problem dogs (that are challenging authority) do, and usually not to the extent commonly thought. However, and I cannot stress this enough, the pack leader absolutely MUST assert his dominance through more subtle displays (body language, tone etc.) or the dog will eventually start to question authority and act up. As a final point to respond to a comment below, the pack leader absolutely eats first at kills unless permission is given to other members (often females) through body language or vocalization. Pack leaders also lead on hunts whether they are physically 'first' or not. Cheers.

LCK said...

Thanks for your comment.

I was referring to Mech's studies from the late 1990s to the early 2000s.

I understand that there are behavioral patterns seen in wild wolf packs that seem to also show up in the behaviors of dogs as well. The problem with our "scientific" ideas about dominance is that we keep looking at animal behavior through the lens of humanlike thought processes rather than understanding what's going on from the dog's or wolf's point of view.

Take another look at how you explained the "need" for dominance in a wolf pack: "when a wolf is 'acting up' and questioning the leaders authority, he/she absolutely will physically and vocally discipline the dog..."

You're explaining this as if the animals were capable of abstract and conceptual thinking. The idea of "authority" is an abstraction, based on conceptual thought processes. The idea that one animal will set about to discipline another is also based on humanlike thought processes of logic and mental time travel, as it implies that the so-called dominant wolf is thinking, "If I do this, then the other wolf will recognize my authority and understand not to question it in the future."

The wolf pack is actually a self-emergent system, operating from the bottom up, not the top down. This has been proven, at least at it relates to hunting behaviors, by a study done in Spain (thought up by a dog trainer and executed by two computer scientists, then given a stamp of approval by Ray Coppinger). They were able to show pack hunting behavior through obedience to two simple rules related to each pack members position relative to the prey and to other pack members. The computer model mimicked actual hunting behaviors to a tee.

Also, what we see as dominant and submissive character traits can't be such if the animals have no awareness of what dominance and submission are. The variations in temperament we see in wolf packs and in each new litter of puppies is actually based on a simpler model, one that is directly related to the need to hunt large prey by working as a social unit. It every wolf had a direct approach to prey, the hunt would fail. The same holds true if every wolf had an indirect approach. There has to be an amalgam of behavioral tendencies in order for the hunt to be successful.

These variations in approach to prey are reflected in social behaviors (mistakenly called dominance and submission) ONLY when the pack is under stress. It's now known that the most "dominant" member of an animal group produces more of the stress hormone cortisol than the others. It's also known that acting "dominant" increases production of serotonin, one of the brain's feel-good chemicals. This suggests that acting "dominant" is almost solely about reducing stress.

David Mech said that in 13 summers of studying the wolves on Ellesmere Island he saw no evidence of dominance and submission. Clearly, these wolves weren't living in stressful conditions during that time period.

It's also interesting to note that during their early years in Yellowstone, there was a lot more dominance and submission seen in the wolves than there was after they'd become more acclimated to their new environment.

Here are some articles that might further clarify what I'm talking about.




Thanks again,


CK said...

I wanted to mention to the person with the Cocker mix that there is a form of epilepsy in Cokers mostly that causes a syndrome known as Cocker Rage Syndrome. Since you mentioned he has seizures it is very probable he has it. Speak with your vet about this syndrome and see if medications can help. It can become serious enough that he can rage and bite while having a seizure and lash out at people nearby with no parent trigger, just the siezure causing the outburst. Unfortunately, in most cases medication cannot help. I wish you luck.