Tag Archives: Cesar Millan

The alpha roll myth

When scientists studied captive wolves (and I’m talking about research that dates back to the 1960s), they observed fighting for dominance within the group and extrapolated that information as relevant to domesticated dog behaviour.  Unfortunately, by studying captive wolves, the scientists were observing an artificial pack – wolves that were placed together in very unnatural circumstances.

Over the years and ‘informed’ by this research, the theory of being the Alpha Dog developed.  The alpha dog is the top dog of the pack, the dog who eats first (as an example).

Trainers who picked up on the alpha dog theory taught their clients to ‘alpha roll’ their dog.  That is when you force your dog to roll over on its back to signal your dominance.

It is true that wolves roll over as a submissive behaviour, but nothing in the record suggests that wolves force other wolves to roll over.   Wolves will roll over on their backs as a submissive gesture – they do it willingly and not by force.

This YouTube video shows a wolf rolling over as a sign of submission:

There are many trainers today who are adopting reward-based techniques, but others still adhere to a rigid interpretation of dominance theory including alpha rolls.  I’m saddened to say that when I first adopted Daisy eight years ago, I went to a local dog training club in Christchurch where the teacher believed in alpha rolls.  When Daisy didn’t go ‘down’ on my command, he took both of her legs on the right side and flipped her over.  I can still remember the frightened look in her eyes and I was almost in tears myself over the incident.

My advice is to stay away from any dog trainer that doesn’t use reward based techniques.  Make sure any trainer you use doesn’t have outdated ideas of what is true canine behaviour.

Before Cesar and Victoria

Before Cesar Millan and Victoria Stilwell, there was Barbara Woodhouse.  I have just finished reading one of Barbara’s books, Almost Human.  It made me realise that today’s craze of celebrity ‘dog experts’ isn’t new; we are just repeating a more modern version of what has gone before.


Barbara’s Great Danes, Juno and Junia,  appeared in many British television and films, acting alongside famous actors such as Sir Alec Guinness, Clark Gable and Roger Moore.

In Almost Human, Barbara writes:  My Danes were treated in exactly the same way as our children, and in so doing I learnt an awful lot about how much dogs like to be included in everything the family does…By the end of their lives I am sure they knew at least 250 words and their meaning.

Almost Human was published in 1976 and is a memoir about all her Danes: Jean, Jyntee, Juno and Junia.  There are chapters about owning and caring for a Great Dane.

Her other books included No Bad Dogs, Talking to Animals, Dog Training My Way, and A-Z of Dogs and Puppies.  In the 1980s, Barbara hosted a UK television programme called Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way.  Mrs Woodhouse even recorded an LP (the precursor to DVDs!) entitled Training Dogs Her Way.

Barbara suffered a fatal stroke in July 1988, she was 78.