Rolling the dice
The alpha-roll consists of physically rolling a dog onto his side or back and holding him there until he stops resisting or struggling, supposedly submitting to your superior authority.
Popularized by the monks of New Skete in their dog-training books (such as How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend) in the 1980s, the technique is a truly unfortunate and dangerous interpretation of a normal canine social behavior. When approached by a higher-status dog, a lower-ranking member of the pack may first avert and lower his head and shoulders, then voluntarily lie down on the ground and perhaps roll onto his side or back as an appeasement or deference gesture. Typically, when an appeasement gesture is used, the higher-ranking canine has no need to assert himself by forcibly flattening the lower-ranking dog to the ground; the subordinate is already there!
Job Michael Evans, one of the New Skete monks responsible for writing "How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend," later left the order, and subsequently stated he regretted including the now-controversial technique in the book. While he didn’t go as far as to say the alpha roll was ineffective or inappropriate, he did say he felt it wasn’t safe for use by the general public.
Despite compelling evidence that physical intimidation does more harm than good, some trainers today (indeed, some very high-profile ones) are stubbornly attached to the forced roll-over, cloaking it in new-age terms and turning a blind eye to the damage done to relationships between dogs and their humans in the process.
Canine as a second language
Again, the alpha roll is supposed to mimic the behavior of the “top dog” in a pack, and send the message, “I’m the boss of you!” But one huge error in alpha-roll logic is the belief that we can successfully pretend to be dogs in our interactions with our canine companions. Dogs know we’re not dogs, and any attempt on our part to mimic their language is doomed to failure.
Dogs are masters at speaking and reading canine body language. Their communications to each other are often subtle and nuanced, a furry ballet designed to keep peace in the pack. Our efforts to use canine body communications are oafish in comparison – and I imagine that our dogs are alternately amused, confused, nonplussed, and terrified by our clumsy attempts to speak their language.
Violence occurs between dogs within established social groups when the communication system breaks down; it’s a sign of an unhealthy pack relationship. Ethology studies from the 1970s and 1980s suggest that canine social structure holds together because appeasement behaviors are offered by subordinate members, not because higher-ranking members aggressively demand subservience. Instead, successful pack leaders were observed to calmly control the good stuff – an approach frequently suggested by today’s modern, positive trainers as a much safer, more appropriate, and effective method for creating a harmonious mixed-species social group.
The Monks, and others like them, didn’t have it all wrong. It is important that your dog perceive his humans as higher-ranking member of your collective multi-species social group. It is far better, safer, and ultimately more effective, however, to accomplish this through offered deference rather than forced dominance.
In his text, Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Volume Two: Etiology and Assessment of Behavior Problems, Steven R. Lindsay, a dog behavior consultant in Philadelphia, says, “A wise lupine leader avoids unnecessary dominance contests and assertions of authority.”
Lindsay also cites a 1988 study (E. Fonberg, “Dominance and Aggression”), noting that dominance that is established without resorting to aggression appears to be more stable than dominance that is maintained by constant vigilance and displays of strength.
There is a multitude of ways to establish appropriate social hierarchy without resorting to aggression. No, you don’t have to go through all doorways first, nor do you have to eat before your dog does. You can simply wait for and/or encourage your dog to offer deference behaviors in order to make good stuff happen, while at the same time you make sure that pushy behavior doesn’t result in him getting good stuff.
Your dog’s driving ambition in life is to get good stuff. Some owners and trainers express concern that teaching the dog that he can get you to click! and give him a treat by offering certain behaviors elevates his status because he’s controlling you. In reality, a dog’s psychological response to deference behaviors appears to so hardwired that if a dog repeatedly performs them, he becomes deferent. It’s not just a role he’s playing, like an actor. If he does deference, he is deferent. He can’t help it.
In each case, the dog learns to offer deference behavior in order to get the desired “good stuff” result. Appropriate (deference) behavior moves him closer to his goal; inappropriate behavior makes the good stuff go away (see “Oops, You Lose!” below).