Alpha-rolls for (reactive) dogs

Having a reactive dog is an emotional business. Not only are our dogs anxious about walks and outings but so are we. We know too well the looks we get from others when we have a setback with our dog in public. They’re the same looks parents get in grocery stores when their children are throwing a temper tantrum and are thrashing about on the floor, screaming and crying, even throwing things. Sometimes we get the look of compassion and empathy – “You poor thing”, “I feel your pain”, “It’s not easy but you’re doing great”. These looks can be helpful – they can give us a break and some space to manage.

Other times we get the look or horror and judgement. This one is the worst one we can imagine. There is no compassion nor empathy in this look. It sends us into a dark place with our dog, embarrasses us and even causes us to react in a way that is inappropriate, out of character, or even downright dangerous. When we get this look (and sometimes even when we don’t) we suddenly feel like we are expected to react – to stop this thrashing, screaming beast, gain control of him and “set him straight”. When we feel this pressure, we can act out of frustration and desperation.

I remember Parker’s early days when I had been taught to use punishment in order to put an end to his reactive behaviour. We would be out on a walk and I would be on edge, ready to give him a firm leash correction every time he reacted to another dog. I myself became reactive (because you are, if you are not proactive), I would see the other dog and regardless of his reaction or lack thereof, I would “correct” him. Eventually the behaviour intensified and I felt as many people do, who use punishment, that I would have to intensify the punishment because this level was ineffective. (Learn about the 8 rules of punishment here from my brilliant friend Steve White.)

I was taught by many, including TV stars on dog training programs and well-meaning people in the park, to “Alpha Roll” him. This entailed flipping him onto his back on the ground, holding him still and forcing him to stay and “submit” to me. This is to apparently show the dog who is “Alpha” and force them to stop misbehaving. It’s such an unhealthy thing to do and I learned my lesson early on in my career.

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My first solo behaviour consult almost 10 years ago was for a Great Dane / Pitbull mix and when he acted aggressively toward me, I did what I had been taught so many times over; I Alpha-rolled him. When I released him (once he “submitted” to me), he launched himself at my face, biting my face, chest, arm, stomach, and legs before they pulled him off me. It was well-deserved…in fact, the dog showed great restraint by not killing me. The bottom line is that I attacked him. It was not the other way around. He was defending himself against me, as he should have. I learned a lesson that day and still carry it with me.

At one point not long after the attack, Parker reacted to a dog while we were walking along the street and I reached for his collar as I didn’t have the strongest grip on his leash in the moment and he assumed I was going to Alpha-roll him (I wasn’t). Before I even made physical contact, he rolled himself. He lay on the ground on his back and put his front paws up in the air almost as if to say “okay, okay, I surrender – just don’t hurt me.” My heart broke in that exact moment. A man was walking by and he gasped as he saw it happen and he looked at me in such a way that made me want to crawl into a hole and die. I was mortified. It was as though someone caught me slapping my child across the face. I was a bad person in his eyes and I would never have an opportunity to change his perspective or prove him wrong. My heart broke for Parker too. He was scared of me. I was unpredictable and scary in his eyes. Things changed from that moment onward.

There is never a good time to Alpha-roll a dog. Here are some good reasons:

  • Dogs are not wolves. Plain and simple. They’re dogs.
  • Dogs are not wild animals and dominance is generally only a concern in wild groupings of animals rather than domestic ones. Dominance is also only an issue within a species and does not tend to be a cross-species concern.
  • Dogs know we are not dogs. They learn this early on. Like around 3-5 weeks of age. They’re not going to believe you’re the Alpha regardless.
  • “Alpha” is another term for “breeding pair”. Do you really want to be your dog’s Alpha now? I think it’s illegal in most countries. Gross.
  • Alpha-rolling your dog does not stop the behaviour. It might suppress it temporarily but it’s by no means a magical fix.
  • Alpha-rolling your dog causes your dog to view you as an unstable leader – unstable leaders lose their cool and lose control of the situation when they act out of anger or unpredictably. This is how your dog will view you after an Alpha-roll. Unpredictable, angry, scary, out of control. How does that feel?
  • It is insanely dangerous. (Re-read my story if you don’t believe me.) Once you let them up, they might take any chance they can to protect themselves and ensure you never do that again.
  • It might work for some dogs but if it works, it means you have just scared or intimidated your dog into avoidance. How effective is that as behaviour modification?
  • It can cause an emotional shutdown (which is quite difficult to “fix” later).
  • It can cause your dog to act even more aggressively in the future. (Want proof? Click here.)

Yes, in the moment you feel you need to leave the scene with your dignity, however most people when they see others Alpha-rolling their dogs don’t respect the person doing it – they too likely feel that you’ve lost control and they feel sorry for the dog on his back. Why? We all love dogs – that’s why we have them. You can leave with your dignity if you do a few things:

  • call your dog off successfully (work on “recall”)
  • leash them up if they are off-leash and get some distance
  • reward them for good behaviour (such as sitting or looking at you)
  • promise your dog that you won’t put him in that situation to fail again
  • promise yourself that you will work on this, for real.

There. Now you can leave with your dignity and no one had to be hurt or scared. There is so much we can do for dogs who overreact around other dogs whether on leash or off leash and none of it has to be detrimental to your trusting relationship with your dog. Rather than pinning your dog, seek help! It’s as much for you as it is for the dog. Let’s take the emotion out of the equation and help your dog learn what you’d rather he do instead.

We have a great class that helps people immensely with this behaviour and our success rate is extremely high because of the level of support provided in class and beyond. Please forward the details on to those who need it and consider it for your own reactive dog.

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About Caryn Charlie Liles
Caryn is a Toronto-based “people-trainer for dogs” and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT). She is the founder of Whatta Pup!, a pet dog training company established in 2008. Seeing a growing need for specialized training due to an increase in aggression in Toronto, Caryn co-founded The Toronto Centre for Canine Education, specializing in “the socially-challenged dog”.

6 Responses to Alpha-rolls for (reactive) dogs

  1. stacey says:

    I cringe everytime I see someone alpha rolling their dog. Hope more and more people learn that there are way better alternatives. Thanks for posting this Caryn!

  2. Milot says:

    Well you’ve done something wrong while “Alpha Rolling” your dog because your energy and intentions must be right to do the right way. That’s why, you can sell your “great class” but not say that dogs do not live in packs. In my country we have too many dogs in streets and believe me i see them everyday living in packs and alpha rolling one another.

    So you think Dominance Theory is a myth. That’s interesting. If I am to believe what you say here then I must also believe that dogs do not live in social hierarchies where each dogs has a rank relative to the other. I must also believe that dogs do not discipline or challenge each other. I must also believe that that dogs do not direct dominance or submission toward each other and I must also believe that dogs do not ever try to dominate humans. No such thing as Dominance Theory??? Really you believe that?

    Well you’re free to believe what you wish and I am sure you will gather a following of positive-only trainers. You might convince many people with your flawed logic but you will never convince me nor many other professional trainers and there is one group that it will be impossible for you to convince – Canis Lupus Familiaris.

    The Military teach Dominance Theory to their handlers and their dogs are trained using methods based in Dominance Theory. If Dominance Theory is a myth, if it’s wrong, if it’s invalid then how can the Military train a single dog successfully? Let alone several thousand dogs trained to the highest standard of obedience in the land.

    When someone comes along with a ‘new’ theory then it tends to gather a following initially because it’s new. It may have a degree of initial credibility because it was supported by the leading academics at the time…. you know what leading academics are don’t you? They are the same people that for many years said that the planets revolved around the earth, the same people who said that the earth was flat and now those same people are saying that Dominance Theory is a myth. When the academics were saying that the planets revolved around the earth and that they could prove it, the people of earth believed them…… but that didn’t change the fact that the planets continued to revolve around the sun. When the academics were saying that the earth was flat and that they could prove it…… that didn’t change the real shape of the planet. And now you’re saying that Dominance Theory is a myth?

    I hope you don’t mind if I offer you some advice….. When an academic postulates a theory that gathers popular support but that theory contradicts reality then it is not reality that is in error.

    Please don’t waste your time writing a counter-argument to my comment. Ultimately it is not me you have to convince, its Dogs. Your chosen beliefs are your own personal reality and if a group of people have those same beliefs then it is still their own reality.

    • Milot, thanks for your insight…however I’m not sure you read my blog post as you’re putting words in my mouth that I have not written. Perhaps try reading it again and drop your defenses and we can try again?

    • Reena Soin says:

      Regardless of the theories, and the science and academics behind them, some things just don’t feel right. When we didn’t know better, we used correction methods to try and train our dog from barking and lunging while on walks. Even though we took private classes to learn these aversive techniques, we didn’t use them for long because we did not want compliance from our dog because he was afraid of us. I don’t want anyone (person or animal) to follow my instructions because they are afraid of me and I’m asserting my power over them. I want to build relationships based upon respect and loving behaviour. The ends do not justify the means – if I can get the same results through positive methods, I’d rather use those than hurt my dog in any way. Now we use positive training methods and we don’t feel bad about anything we do to our dog. He is a happy student and he is learning.

      Thank you, Caryn, for writing this article to educate people about the benefits of positive training.

  3. Miriam says:

    Caryn,

    This is beautifully written, concise and thoughtful. I too used to subscribe to the reality TV show belief in alpha rolls and regret it to this day. Thank you for your candour and honesty. One thing I would add though is that wolves voluntarily execute a submissive position and are not manipulated physically to do so. They assert their position ( note I do not say dominance) through intimidation and stance. It is a simple interaction of correction in the wolf and has been so misinterpreted by TV that we are harming our canine relationships irreparably.

    Thank you for your unending efforts to correct a great injustice to our canine friends.

    • Thanks Miriam!
      This one was more so about dog behaviour rather than wolf behaviour but I will certainly consider writing something about wolves in the future that explains the posturing and hierarchies, including dominance and submission – both of which do exist but one has become a dirty word as of late…! 😉
      Thank you!!

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