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Roll over Beethoven!

Updated: Jun 8, 2021

An unfortunately all-too common suggestion to dog owners having behavior issues is to "roll" their dog - push the dog into its back, pin it there, and then depending on the recommendation, growl in its face, yell at it, bite its ear, or simply hold it there until the dog "relaxes and gives in". Let's talk about this advise and why it is dangerous - dangerous to the owner, and dangerous to the dog-owner relationship.

Full disclosure, decades ago, I rolled my dog. I was a new dog owner, I eagerly consumed the few dog books available at the book store and the library (yes children, pre- Amazon!). I read the books of the British TV dog trainer, who advocated "walkies" and choke chains, I read the Monks of New Skeet, who (still) breed German Shepherds and who introduced many of us to the "alpha roll", used to show your dog who was dominant in your relationship. They're monks! How could this be bad?!

This was a time of force training, using physical compulsion and force to get behaviors. I took classes at the local, highly respected AKC obedience club - to teach your dog to "down" you looped the leash under your foot and pulled the dog to the floor. We marched in row after row of dogs being "corrected" on choke chains in the unheated arena of the local armory, slowly eroding our dogs trust in our leadership and learning that punishment was accepted - actually required - to train our dogs.

Fortunately, times changed and so did I. So let's get back to that "alpha roll". The original motivation for using the alpha roll in training dogs was a now-discredited wolf study, that appeared to show that "dominant" wolves would forcibly roll other wolves, whose "submission" would solidify the "dominant" wolf's position in the "pack". Once adopted by the Monks of New Skeet, this idea spread like fire - here was a way to get naughty puppies and rambunctious, misbehaving dogs to "submit" that appeared - on its face - to be KIND, no hitting. no slapping, no yelling - just flip the dog and hold him there! And they were MONKS! How could that be cruel?!

Fortunately, science did what science does, and this theory of the alpha roll was revisited by some smart ethologists (scientists who study animal behavior) who worked with wild wolves. These ethologists started questioning the study that appeared to show the use by a "dominant" wolf of a forced roll. And remember, that study formed the basis for using this behavior, it proved it was normal and natural and so gave us permission to use the technique,

The results of further study brought several things to light. Importantly, the study was done on a captive wolf population, not a normal wild wolf pack. Wolf packs in the wild are extended families, where as the wolf pack in the study was a group of unrelated dogs that were housed together. Think family living vs sleep away camp. More importantly, wolf packs in the wild never force a "submissive roll", this behavior is OFFERED (never forced) by wolves in what is called an "appeasement" behavior - it is used as a calming signal, a softening request, a "hey chill out, be cool" signal, often to a more senior wolf.

After much debate, and repeated examinations, the Monks of New Skeet stated in their second edition that they no longer recommended this technique (though they hedge their mea culpa by suggesting it was simply too dangerous for the average pet owner!), and the very author of the original study which purported to show the "alpha roll" behavior actually refuted his own theory!

So why does this use of the discredited "alpha roll" persist? Aside from some TV trainers advocating alpha rolls (makes for good TV), dog owners claim "it works". That is, if a dog is doing something they don't like, and they take the dog and flip him onto his back, and pin him down in that position (assuming he doesn't bite the handler in the face out of fear) the dog will, eventually, "relax" and when released will be "calm" and "subservient".

Let's review what has actually happened. The dog has been physically forced into an unnatural and highly vulnerable position, most likely also yelled at and perhaps even bitten or slapped while in this vulnerable position, and held there until it realizes it can not escape.

If fear doesn't freeze the dog, then learned helplessness (where uncontrollable events "produce passivity in the face of trauma, inability to learn that responding is effective, and emotional stress in animals" 1 ) will cause it to appear to "relax". Upon release from this very scary event, we shouldn't be surprised that the dog appears subdued. It has not changed its "energy" as some popular trainers claim, it is most likely trying to avoid another attack, and moving slowly and cautiously is a reasonable response to unprovoked aggression.

We should be asking ourselves, what is the effect on the relationship we have with our dog when we grab them and place them in a highly vulnerable position and perhaps also yell at them or slap them? What are we TEACHING our dog when we do this? Are we teaching them to not chew the remote control? Are we teaching them to not poop in the house? Are we teaching them to not jump and bite? No, we're teaching them that we - their owner - are scary, unreliable, threatening. We are not proving our dominance, rather we are proving our unpredictability. We are teaching our dogs that we may, at anytime, physically assault them and scare them. Is that a reliable partner? Is that a team mate you want to work with? Is that a relationship that empowers, that breeds confidence?

There is only one response to the technique of the "alpha roll". Don't do it. If you have done it in the past, stop now. We want confident, forward dogs that embrace new experiences, that are willing to try new things, new places, new people. We need to be a reliable partner to our dogs, one that they can count on to protect them, to be clear in what we want, to never be erratic, unpredictable, baseless. This is how we teach our dogs to face new situations with confidence and joy, and to look to us for learning and leadership. Hire a professional, credentialed trainer to help you lean how to help your dog learn, and leave the roll-over to Beethoven.

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