An alpha roll is a technique used in dog training to discipline a misbehaving dog. It consists of flipping the dog onto its back and holding it in that position, sometimes by the throat. The theory is that this teaches the dog that the trainer is the pack leader (or alpha animal).
The alpha roll was first widely popularized by the Monks of New Skete, in the 1978 book "How To Be Your Dog's Best Friend". (In the 2002 second edition of the book, the monks recanted and strongly discouraged the technique, describing it as "too risky and demanding for the average dog owner.") Although the 1976 book itself is widely regarded as a classic in dog training literature and highly recommended for people trying to better understand their dog, the alpha roll is now highly controversial among animal behaviorists, since the theory of canine dominance has been drawn into question. In the original context, the alpha roll was only meant to be used in the most serious cases. The theory behind the alpha roll is based on a research study of captive wolves kept in an area too small for their numbers and composed of members that wouldn't be found together in a pack in the wild. These conditions resulted in increased numbers of conflicts that scientists today know are not typical of wolves living in the wild. Behaviors seen in wolves (specifically the alpha roll) living in atypical social groups and crowded conditions does not translate to dog training especially since using the technique can be harmful to the handler and the dog.
Further, the name alpha roll is considered a misnomer by top wolf experts, such as David Mech, because the practice as used as a behavioral correction bears little relation to the natural behavior shown by wolves in the wild. Dr. Mech refers to this behavior as pinning, which he describes as a dominance behavior. These dominance behaviors are shown significantly more often by the breeding pair of the pack, but the purpose or role of the behavior is controversial.
This suggests that this ritual does not serve as a behavioral correction or punishment, nor as a reinforcement of the dominance of the breeding pair. On the other hand, dyadic play between wolves involves behavior like pinning. Wolf puppy play patterns demonstrate that puppies prefer to assume the dominant role in play (see dog behavior), and avoid the submissive roles such as being pinned. This suggests that dogs do not instinctually panic if they are forced into this submissive position against their will. Although neither of these positions speaks directly to the issue of whether the alpha roll is an effective correction tool, it does call into question the behavioral validity of the technique.
Position statements on dominance released by AVSAB and APDT in 2009 draw into question the science behind techniques that rely on dominance theory. It should never be used by inexperienced trainers, and never to correct undesired behavior caused by the dog's failure to understand your command. Used in a controlled way and coupled with praise and rewards when the dog changes its behavior appropriately, it may have positive effect, but there is disagreement about its long-term effectiveness and safety. A 2009 study by University of Bristol’s Department of Clinical Veterinary Sciences showed that methods of handling that relied on dominance theory actually provoked aggressive behavior in dogs with no previous known history of aggression.
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- Monks of New Skete, The (1978). How To Be Your Dog's Best Friend. Little, Brown & Company. ISBN 0-316-60491-7.
- Monks of New Skete, The (2002). How To Be Your Dog's Best Friend. Little, Brown & Company. ISBN 0-316-61000-3. "In the original edition of this book, we recommended a technique we termed "the alpha-wolf rollover"...We no longer recommend this technique and strongly discourage its use to our clients.... The conditions in which it might be used effectively are simply too risky and demanding for the average dog owner; there are other ways of dealing with problem behavior that are much safer and, in the long run, just as effective."
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