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The alpha roll is a controversial dog training technique. The theory behind the training method is to teach the dog that the trainer is the pack leader (or alpha animal). Misbehaving dogs are pinned on their back and held in that position, sometimes by the throat.
The alpha roll was first popularized by the Monks of New Skete, in the 1978 book "How To Be Your Dog's Best Friend", however, 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 1978 book 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 because the theory of canine dominance has since been questioned. In the original context, the alpha roll was meant to be used only 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 wild pack. 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 do not translate to domestic dog training, especially because using the technique can be harmful to both the handler and the dog.
It has been argued by some that a dog will only forcibly flip another onto its back during a serious fight where the intent may be to kill the opponent.
The name "alpha roll" is considered to be a misnomer by some wolf researchers because the practice when used as a behavioral correction bears little relation to the natural behavior shown by wild wolves. David Mech refers to this behavior as "pinning", a dominance behavior. These dominance behaviors are shown significantly more often by the breeding pair of the pack, indicating they do 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 demonstrates that puppies prefer to assume the dominant role in play and avoid the submissive roles such as being pinned. This indicates that dogs do not instinctively 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 question the science behind training techniques that rely on dominance theory. They recommend the alpha roll should never be used by inexperienced trainers, and never to correct undesired behavior caused by the dog's failure to understand a 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 the 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. The study also examined the development of hierarchy in domestic dogs and found that no definitive hierarchical structure developed within the group, leading study authors to question the alpha role in this group.
- The Monks of New Skete (1978). How To Be Your Dog's Best Friend. Little, Brown & Company. ISBN 0-316-60491-7.
- The Monks of New Skete (2002). How To Be Your Dog's Best Friend (2 ed.). 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.
- American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. "Position statement on the use of dominance theory in behavior modification of Animals" (PDF). American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. Archived from the original on 16 December 2011. Retrieved July 2, 2016.
- Adam Miklosi (2007). Dog Behavior, Evolution and Cognition. Oxford University Press. pp. 83–93. ISBN 978-0-19-295852-5.
- Yin, S. "New study finds popular "Alpha Dog" training techniques can cause more harm than good". Archived from the original on 15 August 2011. Retrieved 5 May 2011.
- Wilde, N. (2001). "Leadership vs. Dominance". Retrieved 8 October 2007.
- Mech, L.D. (1999). "Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs". Canadian Journal of Zoology. 77: 1196–1203. doi:10.1139/z99-099.
- Bradshaw, John W.S.; Blackwell, Emily J.; Casey, Rachel A. "Dominance in domestic dogs—useful construct or bad habit?". Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. 4 (3): 135–144. doi:10.1016/j.jveb.2008.08.004.