Dangers of Alpha Rolling

Greta Kaplan, CPDT, CDBCDog rolling over copy

I read a tragic news article:  “Puppy Owner Pleads Not Guilty for Choking Animal to Death,” Associated Press, February 26, 2010.  According to the article, the owner admitted holding the 10-week old Labrador puppy down for 20 seconds after the puppy bit the owner’s girlfriend on the nose, causing what the Animal Services officer called “a minor scratch.”.  According to the officer, the puppy was taken to an emergency vet where he “couldn’t walk, was breathing poorly and had reddish saliva and blue gums.”  The puppy died.

Without further information, of course, we do not know what motivated the owner.  Perhaps he was really angry and lost his temper, badly enough to kill the puppy.  Certainly, this does not match the description given.

If we acceTraining the dogpt the description given, the owner deliberately held the puppy down, using quite a lot of force.  It appears this holding-down maneuver was intended as a consequence for a bite to the girlfriend’s nose.  It’s reasonable to conclude that the owner believed two things:  First, that the bite to the nose was a seriously unacceptable, even aggressive act that justified severe discipline; and second, that holding a puppy down with severe force is an appropriate way to discipline a dog, including a ten-week old puppy.

Both of these propositions are false.  First, puppies this age bite.  It’s developmentally normal and almost never “aggressive.”  (Serious aggression in puppies this age is so rare that it causes a flurry on trainer email lists if observed; many trainers simply never have seen it.)  Second, holding a dog or puppy down as a form of discipline is dangerous and unnecessary.iStock_000002920809XSmall

The danger can be to the person if the dog is an adult, particularly a large one.  Holding a large adult dog down puts the person’s face near the dog’s mouth, and a dog who panics, or decides not to put up with the human aggression, is very likely to target the face simply because it’s nearby.  It can also be dangerous to the dog, as in this case, where the size and strength disparity was extreme.

This type of discipline is unnecessary.  Dogs simply do not use “holding each other down” or “rolling other dogs over” as a way of punishing or enforcing status.  Wolves may do it, but they do so extremely rarely; but in any case, dogs are not wolves; and even if they were, we are not wolves and do not remotely understand how and when to apply this type of serious, dangerous consequence.  There are numerous other safer, saner and more effective ways to influence your dog’s behavior.

Where, then, would an owner get the idea this was a good tactic?  One popular dog training book by The Monks of New Skete advocated the “alpha roll” in its first edition, about three decades ago.  The second edition, much more recent, retracted that advice with an apology.  However, the original edition is still out there; I recently saw a client who’d done a few alpha rolls on her young dog, based on that very book, which she’d picked up secondhand.

Realistically, though, not many people read that book any more.  On the other hand, every week, millions of people watch a television star who often performs maneuvers very like the one that killed this puppy.  You can watch, on YouTube and the National Geographic website, as this entertainer grabs dogs and pushes or slams them onto the ground.  In some clips, you can literally see the dog’s tongue turning blue after some time on the ground.  No wonder many pet owners might get the idea that this is a potentially Border Collie (5 years, 6 months)appropriate response to perceived aggression from the dog.

And, this same performer often delivers this type of consequence for behavior described as “dominant.”  I don’t doubt that he might describe normal puppy biting as “dominant.”  So again, it’s no wonder that a pet owner might be led to perceive normal puppy biting as “dominant,” and to respond in a way he’d seen repeatedly modeled on TV.

I do not know whether the owner of the dead puppy, who is being charged with felony animal abuse, has watched “The Dog Whisperer” on TV.  However, I don’t know one competent behavior consultant who did not immediately, on seeing this tragic news story, make the same guess I did.  This type of human behavior is repeatedly modeled by a charismatic, persuasive, and apparently effective role model on an extremely popular television show.  It is inevitable that someone was going to “try this at home” with disastrous results; and this puppy’s death might be that disastrous result.

Comments

  1. I agree that alpha rollovers are not warranted and a reprehensible action ( I can’t bring myself to call it a training technique). It does not hurt us to be reminded of this from time to time. But I do find a couple of things bothersome about this article.
    First, in my days as an AHT I worked in an emergency veterinary clinic for seven years and I was married to a police officer for 13. That gives me disturbing insight into things humans are capable of, especially when they loose it. Reading this article, I could imagine this person choking this pup to death or hanging by a collar, killing it without using the alpha rollover.
    Second, stating that alpha rollovers can be seen in books, on videos,and even on television is enough without name blasting.
    I think the person mentioned gets enough press without talented trainers who use safe, humane methods giving him more. People read that name, and the googling begins. When it does, good press does exist about this guy and when read could indicate our motives are in question.
    Keep spreading the good word!

  2. Puppies need nurturing and guidance not cruel confrontational episodes from people who do not understand dog behavior and communication. Puppies chew, try to bite and of course, their are kinder ways to show pup what to do, the right thing. Great blog article Greta!! Forced alpha rollovers are never necessary and I say that coming from the point of working with aggression, reactivity, shy/fearful behaviors daily.

    Humans are and can be much more horrible than any aggressive dog I’ve met to date. Very sad people take these techniques as gospel, because incidents like this will continue to happen. I think showing what to do instead is the mission of all positive reward-based trainers and just understand wherever this particular person learned the method, they were using the only knowledge they understood – confrontation. Hoping this poor puppy’s death wasn’t for nothing and a way to get the word out as to how some techniques can go terribly wrong and are never needed.

    Thanks Greta for writing this!

  3. Thanks for the comment, Cathy. You’re right; the person I mentioned certainly gets a lot of press. I think if I hadn’t mentioned it explicitly, someone would have asked me to, so instead of beating around the bush I just said it.

    Anyone who wishes to question my motives is free to do so; I don’t silence debate. I work with so-called “red zone” dogs, and have saved dogs’ lives, I’m not losing any business because of this person, and I’m not envious of his alleged success. My only motive is to expose dangerous techniques and promote safe, effective training; if someone wants to expose that, they are welcome to!

    Thanks for adding your perspective from your ER vet work and your husband’s work. I agree; this could have been simply anger, but the story certainly didn’t have that feel about it. We may never know. I went with what was reported, and I hope that by disseminating the contents of this news report, I can prevent other puppy owners from thinking an alpha-roll technique could possibly be a good idea with a tiny puppy.

    Greta Kaplan, CDBC, CPDT
    Companion Animal Solutions

  4. Greta, that was a good article. thank you for putting it out there. We need the media to spread more accurate information and education about living with pets, particularly dogs. Most families in the U.S own dogs, and it is about time that good information like this is available to all, so dogs and their families can have long lasting, fulfilled lives together. More education could lead to less dogs being harmed, euthanized, or sent to spend their lives going from one foster or owner to another…or even behind bars. It could also lead to less bites to people, particularly children. Thanks for being such a rational, educated advocate for canines!

  5. Thank you, Bonnie. Although the event that prompted this essay upset me greatly, I’m glad to be able to help get this important information out.

    Greta Kaplan, CDBC, CPDT
    Companion Animal Solutions

  6. Thank you for your comments, Diane. Of course I explain to all my puppy clients how normal their puppy’s behavior is (usually), and show them gentle, clear ways to start helping the puppy use other ways of communicating with us. If only I got more chances to do that, preventing the problems I otherwise end up seeing later. I’m sure you know what I mean.

    Greta Kaplan, CDBC, CPDT
    Companion Animal Solutions

  7. Hey, cool website. I actually came across this on Yahoo, and I am really happy I did. I will definately be returning here more often. Wish I could add to the post and bring a bit more to the table, but am just absorbing as much info as I can at the moment.

    Thank You

    Dog Toys and Clothes

  8. Skye Anderson, MS says:

    Thank you, Greta, for this greatly informative post. I especially like the terms you use for the TV ‘trainer’ – you call him an entertainer and performer. Perfect!

  9. Thank you, Berta, for visiting. We try to provide a variety of informative articles and welcome visitors, old and new.

    Thank you, Skye, for your comment. As you allude to, this topic is a touchy one to discuss. I wrote it the same day I read the article, and really had to struggle with my tone! I’m glad this article, and similar ones, are getting some visibility as we struggle to bring appropriate training to a wider audience.

    Greta Kaplan, CDBC, CPDT
    Companion Animal Solutions

  10. Please, can you PM me and tell me few more thoughts about this, I am in fact fan of your blog…

  11. Edward Douglas says:

    I am enjoying your blog…however, in my dog’s case, the “alpha roll” technique has worked great.

    My dog is an Australian shepherd mix (retriever?) about 14 months old now. Very much bigger than his litter mates, he has always been very “alpha”, especially when he thinks activities should be going in a different manner. He is a very smart, high energy neutered male, and has been a pleasure for the most part. But, sometimes he blows a fuse and runs wild, nipping at any family members nearby.

    He responds well to verbal commands and positive rewards (food/toy) under almost all situations except when he “blows the fuse.” Under that circumstance, I have found NOTHING works except grabbing him, and essentially pinning him. At this point in his development, he expects it, he accepts it, it is no big deal. He almost goes down willingly. Almost like a relief.

    I know that may seem odd. But, it is as if he doesn’t know how else to end his frustrating moment, and is relieved to have it end in our little ritual. I am not rough, but firm (and gentle). These occasions are more and more rare now that he is maturing of course, but this technique was helpful to us, and believe me, I would welcome a different solution if there was one!

  12. Hi Edward,

    Given that dogs (and wolves) don’t use rolling or pinning among each other to control behavior, why do you think this rolling technique seems to work so well with your dog?

    Greta Kaplan, CDBC, CPDT
    Companion Animal Solutions
    Portland, OR

  13. @Edward . . . and if it “worked” then why do you have to keep doing it? It would be great to find a trainer that is knowledgable and can help you find out how to communicate with your dog so that you never have to use an “alpha roll” again. I have worked with clients who have done this, supposedly “successfully” (that never is correct in my experience) then one day the dog snaps and wa-la you have a dog with some serious problems!

    You say you would welcome a different solution and I can honestly say there are tons of them! Find someone to help you thru http://www.apdt.com!

  14. Totally awesome….i am still amazed at the great info i come accross on the web….this is very helpfull…thanks

  15. Robert Paul says:

    Two things. I think you were absolutely right in naming this ‘charismatic’ TV performer who advocates the alpha roll. Many people aren’t aware that this and other procedures he advocates are not only counter-productive but dangerous. Second, regarding the alpha roll itself: in the 1980s, my wife and I had a Bouvier pup. The Monks of New Skete book had just been published, to great acclaim, and I’m sorry to say that we, not knowing any better, followed most of its recommendations, especially the use of the alpha roll as a ‘training’ technique. Before many months had passed, I was ‘flipping’ a 70-80lb. dog and pinning it to the ground with my hand at its throat. Luckily for me–but probably unluckily for him–he didn’t decide that two could play at the ‘dominance’ game, but neither did he learn from having a naive 150lb. human’s behaving that way.

    We’ve since had two Wheaten Terriers, one of whom lived past fifteen, but by the time they came to live with us positive reinforcement had become the guide for training, and the fictions generated by a mistaken understanding of wolf behaviour had mostly disappeared.

  16. Beatrice Bartley says:

    There are many trainers and as many techniques for training our canine companions – it seems obvious that this fellow did not know a thing about puppies, training or discipline. It is tragic that the puppy died.
    For each dog and each circumstance an experienced trainer/ dog person will tailor the techniques he or she uses to fit that dog. Alpha rolls even among wolves are not meant to harm or kill just put said animal in its place, it is usually brief and may even involve eye contact or a snarl. With a youg pup or any dog putting pressure on the throat with enough force to cause injury – is heinous, under any circumstance.

  17. Hi Beatrice, thank you for your comment. I agree with you that the man in the article did not know anything about puppies or about training.

    I don’t agree with your other premise, though. Wolves do not use alpha rolls to put another wolf in its place, period. There is, in fact, no animal species that forces another animal onto its back as a method of showing dominance or discipline. If you see a wolf on its back, it rolled itself there as a gesture of submission; a very different action! It is simply a myth, and an unfortunate one, that wolves roll other wolves.

    If wolves don’t use this technique with each other, it boggles the mind to think that humans could use it successfully. First, dogs aren’t wolves. Behaviorally, they are very distinct species. Dogs descended from wolves, but the split took place long enough ago in evolutionary time to achieve speciation. If you take a newborn wolf pup and cross-foster it with a Labrador mom, socialize it like a Labrador, and completely and utterly pretend it’s a Labrador… it will still be a wolf, with rigid social rules, a high degree of predation, a long flight distance, and so on. So, applying an (alleged, and false) “wolf technique” to a dog doesn’t make sense. Dogs also do not alpha roll each other to establish discipline and dominance, by the way — again, a dog who ends up on its back during a social interaction has rolled itself that way in a submissive signal.

    Finally, WE are not dogs, OR wolves. And they know this! It’s absurd to think we can accurately execute such a dangerous (not to mention mythical) move appropriately to achieve dominance or discipline, especially since it’s a completely foreign notion to the dog or wolf in question.

    With respect to the Dog Whisperer, there are a couple of episodes I’ve seen where not only did he use this completely artificial technique, but you can actually see the dog’s tissues losing pink color as anoxia sets in. This takes a fair amount of force to the neck! Again, this is what leads me to conclude that the man referenced in the article had been watching the TV show to learn how to care for his puppy.

  18. BlahBlah says:

    First of all, you cannot compare a TV dog trainer to some guy who didn’t know what he was doing and ended up killng his puppy.
    Never have seen Cesar Millan alpha roll a dog and pin it by the throat until the dog could no longer walk or breathe, and spit up blood…
    Cesar Millan is not afraid to push a dog into learning, instead of coercing the dog wth bribes and calling it training. He uses physical touch just as dogs do. You’ve never seen a dog alpha roll another? Well i have. Haven’t seen a dog use cookies to bribe another dog though…
    So tired of these completely biased blogs using some idiots mistake as an excuse to blast Cesar.

  19. Hi “BlahBlah”,

    First, I didn’t compare the man who killed his puppy to Cesar Millan. I hypothesized that the man might have gotten the idea from Cesar Millan, and that’s not the same thing. Cesar most certainly does, on occasion, hold dogs in some kind of choking position until their tongues turn blue, and he’s a very popular entertainer. It’s entirely predictable that someone watching the show might get the idea and run with it. Did I say this happened here? Of course not. I don’t know it happened, and you don’t know it didn’t happen, either.

    Second, if you’ve seen a dog “alpha roll” another dog, then you saw one of three things: (1) Play, usually by immature or poorly socialized dogs; (2) Aggression that was totally inappropriate and would get a dog or wolf ostracized by its companions; or (3) (most likely), the subordinate animal flipped itself over on its back to demonstrate submission. This is actually very well studied and any competent actual biologist will tell you that there is no animal species whose natural ethogram includes forcibly rolling another individual on its back to show dominance. So whatever you’ve seen, it was not what we’re told by some that an alpha roll is. It was something else.

    Regards,

    Greta Kaplan, CDBC, CPDT-KA
    Companion Animal Solutions

  20. BlahBlah says:

    Quite like how you totally side stepped how dogs do not bribe each other with treats and toys to communicate what correct behavour is. Guessing because we both know it doesn’t happen, yet that is the form of reward system trainers like you advocate. Dogs use physical touch and movements to correct behaviour yet when a trainer does it, they are all of a sudden abusive.
    I have watched damn near every episode of The DW and never have I seen Cesar pin a dog by the throat until the tongue turned blue. Never have I heard Cesar say that the pinning of an 8 week old puppy, until the point of death, is an acceptable form of punishment. I saw a lady treat a dog while trying to calm anxiety, maybe I should feed my dog treats until he pukes and then blame it on Victoria Stilwell! I will make sure to tell everyone we meet that my dog got sick because of +R training and in no way did it help to correct his behaviour. All forms of training methods have the ability to be negative. Unfortunately, not every single dog owner out there knows what they are doing.. is that a singular trainers fault??
    I knew of alpha rolling before Cesar was a household name.. blaming him an irresponsible dog owner who choked their dog to death is udderly ridiculous!

  21. BlahBlah,

    You know, I’m not a dog, and I know it. Do you actually think you are one? All other-animal trainers use food. You don’t see zoo trainers struggling to express some form of “giraffese” when they need the giraffe to hold still to get a blood draw. And by the way, dogs really don’t communicate by touch so much. Most of their communication is by body language, without touching. If you think they have to get to the point of touching to communicate, you’re missing 90% of it and no wonder you have to resort to physical bullying to scare the dog into not resisting!

    Regardless, this blog isn’t about you, nor is it about me. It’s about a tragic news story and a warning to our readers to avoid a dangerous technique that (whether you care to admit it or not) is definitely promoted by Cesar Millan. Apparently, you have nothing better to do than hunt out old blogs that you don’t agree with so you can pick the same fight again and again, and you don’t even have the guts to sign your name. I’m done with this conversation and further posts from you will not be approved. I also am not going to get into a debate about Mr. Millan. I’ve said what I wanted to say. If you disagree, feel free to write your own blog proudly proclaiming that Mr. Millan cannot possibly bear any responsibility for the death of the Lab puppy in the news article I wrote about.

    Greta Kaplan, CDBC, CPDT-KA
    Companion Animal Solutions
    Portland, OR

  22. I’m really late to this blog, but I wanted to applaud you for mentioning Cesar Millan. Too many good-intentioned owners have no idea that many of his “training” methods are considered downright inhumane and I get weary of hearing “Cesar this, and Cesar that.”

    My dog was attacked at the dog park yesterday by a dog that I’ve witnessed in a fight with a prior dog and my friend also told me she’s seen this dog attack others. Thankfully my dog only came out of it with some hair and scrape to her side. The fight I witnessed earlier was pretty intense and both dogs were hurt. This owner’s method for discipline for the fighting: the alpha roll and holding her dog down. I was going to provide her with a copy of the fairly recent Science Daily studies that indicate an aggressive owner begets an aggressive dog, as well as the one that says the dominance theory is old hat.

    May I also give her a copy of your blog post?

  23. “BlahBlah” said, “All forms of training methods have the ability to be negative.”

    Dogs will put up with aversive stimuli in training. That doesn’t mean that aversive stimuli ought to be routinely used in dog training.

    As for successful application of training where only non-aversive stimuli are used, one need look no further than falconry. For centuries, mankind has used the same sort of principles that are now formalized in operant conditioning with great success. Would-be falconers who try aversive stimuli are quite likely to soon be bird-less.

  24. This clip shows CM choke-collaring a dog until it ends up laid out on the ground with an obviously blue tongue.

    http://xfinity.comcast.net/video/shadow-jake-riley-and-norton/698484858/

    1:05 into the clip.

  25. Alpha rolling has worked for me on my dogs. One of the things though is that I have to stay calm, yet firm when I do it. Without any aggression. Also, I never choke the dog, I’ve placed my finger tips against their throat, but never applied pressure, and my face is never close to them. Now that they’re older I don’t need to do it, they know when they’re in trouble. As for rarely seeing it? Someone recently was at a dog park when a neighbors dog started growling and bit theirs. The non-aggressive dog pinned the other dog on it’s back, laid down on it’s chest, and held it by it’s throat [gently], until the owners ran up. She could have easily ripped the other dog’s throat, but instead didn’t leave a mark. The owner of the aggressive dog thanked the other owner for having such a controlled dog, and offered to pay the vet bill for the bite.

    Any method can be good or bad, it all depends on how it’s applied, and the animal it’s applied to. Too many times people do things without fully understanding the consequences if it is done wrong, and that’s when the trouble starts.

  26. Nathalie Malette says:

    Hi,

    I just wanted to add that I am a huge fan of Cesar Millan. I have a very dominant Alaskan Malamute. She is totally awesome with people (kids and adults) but with other dogs, like’s to be boss. I have never used the rollover method with her for training and if she does get into a fight with another dog, she automatically flips them over and holds them there in position. So although I am by far no way a dog trainer, I must say, I have witnessed it among my own two dogs at home playing as well.

  27. Hi Paul and Nathalie. A couple of comments:

    Paul – I think your comments illustrate what most animal experts are trying to say. Unless you have studied dogs for years, the general owner is not experienced enough to alpha roll and when done incorrectly may cause aggression issues, so in the long run it’s best to find other methods to control your dog.

    Additionally, a dog that growls and bites should never have been at the dog park in the first place. The rule is NEVER take a dog to the dog park unless you are virtually certain it will not have a problem with other dogs. That’s why I no longer frequent dog parks–I don’t trust many of the other owners to know whether their dog should be there in the first place. I’ve witnessed too many incidents like the one you described.

    Nathalie – Could it perhaps be that the more submissive dogs are voluntarily rolling over rather than your dominant dog “flipping” the other dog over? Really, what it comes down to is that dogs understand dog speak; humans mostly do not. Dogs do not relate to humans the same way they relate to each other. So if there is some form of alpha roll among dogs, it’s best left to the dogs and not humans to do the rolling.

  28. Ralf Tiede says:

    I think I understand the point of some of the people who commented here, and ironically everyone is basically saying the same thing: nobody knows for sure how humans and dogs are supposed to interact, because our history together is very short (compared to that of wolves), and the widespread dissemination of training techniques is even shorter.

    I am also an admirer of Cesar Millan, but I don’t take everything I see on his show as the Scripture of dog training. I also listen to people who defend some more nurturing training methods. Common sense tells me: choking a puppy to death is bad.

    Although BlahBlah was a little ranty and aggressive, he/she has a point: while alpha-rolling is made up and rarely or never seen among dogs, so is treat-training and all other “nice” training techniques.

    Fact is, as Paul wisely pointed out, there are responsible and irresponsible dog trainers. An idiot who doesn’t know not to choke a puppy to death would eventually do something stupid, whether he got his dog training advice from Cesar Millan or Mr. Rogers.

    I don’t follow CM blindly, but I think his fundamental belief of restoring dogs to their natural disposition while humans fill the role of pack leader is brilliant. I also believe that training with treats is indispensable, and that bonding with dogs on a more emotional level can be healthy, and CM never does those things.

    My ultimate referee is common sense, but not everybody shares this extremely helpful ability (talking about the puppy-choking knucklehead, not anybody on this blog). I think the best we can do is help out those people who don’t by trying to give them good advice.

  29. How how so many lay people will sing Millan’s praises and brag about how they’re the “leader of their pack” when domestic dogs don’t form packs!

    Ethologists have studied feral domestic dog populations around the world and have found that they don’t form packs.

    Yet, dog owners swear up and down that they’re the “leaders of their packs” and like to go on and on about pack mentality when there is no such thing regarding our domestic dogs.

    Forcing a group of dogs to live together doesn’t constitute a pack either.

    There’s a real disconnect between reality and what television “trainers” and many dog owners think.

  30. And further more, referring to treat training for food motivated dogs as “bribery” shows a real ignorance of learning theory and behavioral science. It’s a proven fact that if a behavior pays off, such as with a treat, it will increase and be repeated in the attempt to secure more of the reward. Even when you phase out the treat, the brain still produces endorphins because it connects the behavior with the history of receiving a reward. Just the very act of performing the behavior is self reinforcing.

    I’d like to know how many of us consider our salaries and pay checks as bribery in exchange for our work. Yet some would still expect dogs to work for free. Hmm..

  31. I think what CM is trying to achieve when he alpha rolls a dog who doesn’t voluntarily submit is perceived dominance. For eg. There are times when he will raise an insecure dogs tail high in order for the dog to have perceived confidence. Is this alpha rolling meant to put the dog in a position that-in the canine world-means submission and that is what the human wants?

  32. Alpha rolling worked great with both of my labs. The guy in the article was obviously using way more force than necessary .

  33. I completely agree that Cesar milans training techniques are quite barbaric. But all this talk of wolves not “alpha rolling” other wolves is not necessarily true. They may not pin them down until their tongue is blue, but I have witnessed many wolves in the wild and at a sanctuary I volunteer for, pin eachother down not so much by physical force ,more of mental. ?ive witnessed the alpha wolf pin a subordinate Wolf down on its back with one leg. Or bite ?the wolves neck until it submits. So while I agree with most everything said here, I can say without a doubt wolves DO a form of alpha rolling. Do ?the research before you claim something to be true.

  34. What has happened to common sense??? Some things work better than others. CM has stood up for and protected dogs no matter what. He isn’t perfect, and yet he defends them to the end. He helps dogs that no one else wants to deal with. Maybe his way isn’t your way, but he does the best he knows how and helps so many. I’m very sad to see anyone criticized for doing good.

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