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 Make sure any trainer you use doesn’t have outdated ideas of what is true canine behaviour.