What “alpha rolling” is really doing to your dog

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To those unaware, alpha rolling is the physical act of forcibly rolling a dog over on his side or back, pinning him there until he is forced to submit. The objective is to assert “who’s boss”, and for the dog to reach what popular media has dubbed “calm submission”. It is dangerous and based on flawed understanding of how dogs work.

What you think alpha rolling does to your dog

As you’ve probably been led to believe by reading a dated book, or by watching the more recent “Dog Whisperer” by Cesar Millan, you’re under the impression that your dog needs to be told who’s in charge and that the best way to do that, is via an alpha roll. In your head (and I don’t blame you), this will effectively establish you as the “pack leader”, and the dog will be content now knowing it’s proper place in the “pack hierarchy”.

What you think alpha rolling tells the dog about you

You think that a firm alpha rolls shows the dog that you are strong, and willing to take charge.

What alpha rolling really does to your dog

To understand this, you must first understand the three basic mechanisms a dog has when faced with danger. 1) Flight. This is exactly what it sounds like. If presented with danger, flee to get away. 2) Fight. Also what it sounds like. If presented with danger, fight to protect. 3) Submit. If option 1 and 2 fail or are otherwise unavailable, submitting is a last ditch effort to communicate not being a threat, and hoping that the danger will go away.

When performing an alpha roll you are forcibly holding the dog in place, thus eliminating option one, which is flight. In many cases you will experience that the dog attempts to fight, which is option two. When the dog realizes that he can’t win, he will move on to option three, submit, and hope that you will go away if he remains completely still.

Since the large majority of aggression and behavioral problems stem from insecurities (not because he wants to “dominate” you/someone else), forcibly alpha rolling the dog will just serve to make the problem even worse. In other words, when you really should work with the dog to help him overcome his insecurities, you are instead manhandling him exacerbating the problem.

This is logical if you think about it. What if you were insecure about something and someone forcibly pinned you to the ground? Would that make you more or less insecure?

Suppression does not equal correction

Since alpha rolling is often done in response to something the handler considers “wrong”, it effectively contributes to the suppression of warning signals that the dog gives off before something more serious takes place, such as a bite. For example: a growl is usually the dogs way of saying “back off, or I’ll bite!”. If you respond by alpha rolling the dog into forced submission, you are also suppressing his natural behavior (growling is natural), and teaching the dog that growling is ineffective as a warning signal. Do this enough times, and the dog will stop using growling as a warning signal altogether. Then, the next time the dog feels threatened, he will remember what happened the last time he tried to warn a potential threat by growling, and go straight to biting instead.

This in turn will usually be interpreted as “the dog attacked without reason” by an inexperienced owner, when in reality, that very same owner is to blame. Thus it is safe to conclude that simply suppressing behavior is very dangerous, and does nothing to help correct how the dog feels on the inside, and increases the chances of a bite immensely.

What alpha rolling tells the dog about you

Behavioral science clearly shows that the more secure a dog is, the less of a reason he’ll have to act aggressively towards other dogs. Despite what you might think, your dog is not being “dominant” or “asserting himself as pack leader” if he constantly tends to act out against other dogs / people. This is a very simplistic and flawed view of a much more complicated problem. Instead, he’s being a bully because he’s insecure. Do you think that playground bully who always kept picking on you back in grade school felt very secure about himself? It’s often those who bully most who are the most insecure, something behavioral science again shows.

So what then are you telling your dog by being a bully? That you’re insecure. So instead of showing him that you are a calm, trustworthy leader, you are demonstrating very effectively through aggression that you are a threat, and you’re doing so in much the same way a highly insecure dog would. To top it off, you’re making his insecurities even worse. Nobody wins.

This also makes sense if you think about it, and it is evidenced in behavioral science. Dogs are looking to be as comfortable as possible, not to constantly compete. Always having to assert one another as the “boss” simply requires too much energy to even be close to comfortable.

Much worse, techniques such as pinning the dog to the floor, grabbing jowls, or blasting hooters at dogs will make dogs anxious, often about their owner, and potentially lead to an escalation of aggression. Source

Consider this contradiction

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I’m humanizing dogs and that they aren’t capable of feeling the things I’m describing (which is simply false). But even if you were correct and it is true, how do you explain your own contradiction? How can dogs be advanced enough to sit around all day and think about how they always have to “be the boss”? And how can they be advanced enough to walk around and “dominate” everyone around them because the want to be “top dog”? But they can’t be advanced enough to feel insecure? It doesn’t make any sense. I hope you see that.

Rather than viewing a wolf pack as a group of animals organized with a “top dog” that fought its way to the top, or a male-female pair of such aggressive wolves, science has come to understand that most wolf packs are merely family groups formed exactly the same way as human families are formed. Source

Closer observations of wolves over the last 40 years have shown that (an alpha roll) is an act of submission, not dominance. A wolf voluntarily rolls on its back [..] no (physical) contact is made, thus avoiding dangerous physical conflict. Source

The debate is over

There is no longer any doubt in the scientific community when it comes to the fact that many simply have a very misunderstood and damaging view of how a dog should be treated. The debate is over, you just don’t know it yet. The problem is that many of those who engage in what they still think is a debate (which in reality is fact vs. fiction), are so ignorant that they can’t see beyond their own self-absorbed egos. They refuse to admit defeat, which is truly sad because so many dogs suffer needlessly.

Of course, we still have a lot to learn and we learn new things every day, but one thing remains certain - we must stop acting on past, clearly flawed research, and instead replace it with evidence based modern behavioral science.


Author: Stian Karlsen

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