Tag Archives: dominance theory

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  Make sure any trainer you use doesn’t have outdated ideas of what is true canine behaviour.

In Defence of Dogs

John Bradshaw, in his book In Defence of Dogs, explains that most dogs today live in urban environments where they are “expected to be simultaneously better behaved than the average human child and as self-reliant as an adult.”  Yet, many dogs still retain their natural traits such as herding instinct which are viewed as ‘problematic.’

Add on top of this the popularity of dog trainers who insist on the theory of dominance, and Mr Bradshaw says that our dogs are in crisis and need our support.

Mr Bradshaw’s book is about breaking down misconceptions.  He says in his Introduction, “We must strive to better understand their needs and their nature if their niche in human society is not to diminish.”

Mr Bradshaw is a passionate supporter of dogs and his book demonstrates his beliefs clearly.   If you are a dog owner who is concerned about the increasing restrictions on dogs in our modern, living environments or you are simply open-minded enough to explore other ways of looking at canine behaviour,  then this book is for you!