Alpha Rolls are for Omegas

It took more than 6 years before Kita would do a ROLL OVER for me.  Now, Kita is a very smart dog and very willing to work.  Show her a treat and offer her the chance to earn it and she’s ready to go — and she doesn’t get bored easily!  Even though I hadn’t learned some of the more efficient training methods I use now, I was still a pretty decent trainer.  Kita learned how to SIT in about 5 minutes and DOWN in just a couple of sessions.  She had no trouble with lots of other tricks, including DEAD DOG. So, why so much trouble with ROLL OVER?

When I adopted Kita, nearly 9 years ago, the shelter said her Black-Lab mama-dog had been turned into the shelter with her puppies.  But looking at Kita and her two brothers, everyone said “German Shepherd!” so daddy-dog must have been of that persuasion!  Kita’s double-coat, black-and-tan markings, size (50 pounds at 4 months), much of her conformation and almost all of her temperament said “German Shepherd,” so I decided to treat and train her as one.

A friend gave me a book about training GSDs, written by the monks of New Skete who raise and train them.  I was delighted!  This was before I started studying for my “doggie” career, and I wanted advice from the experts!  For the first time, I read about forcing a mis-behaving dog into what is commonly called an “Alpha roll.”  For anybody who is unfamiliar with this technique it involves rolling a dog over onto it’s back and holding it there until it “submits” to your authority.  The experts had spoken, so I forged full speed ahead.

The monks advocated judicious use of the Alpha Roll — not for mistakes or avoidance, but for deliberate disobedience.  Kita was rarely disobedient, except for chasing the cat.  So, whenever Kita ran after the kitty, I’d run after her, chase her down, and after much struggle, sweat and (sometimes) a little swearing, succeed in heaving her belly-up. Kita would stop struggling — after she was on her back — and her eyes would kind of glaze over. Since the book didn’t specify how to tell the dog had “submitted” I took that as good and let her up. Each time, it took more and more work to get her on her back and since it never seemed to have any effect on her cat-chasing, I eventually gave up on the technique.

Even back then, something about it just didn’t seem right to me. I didn’t like the look of “shutting down” that would come over Kita’s face. I didn’t like what seemed like frantic fear as she tried to avoid being rolled over in such a vulnerable position. Looking back, I’m not surprised that Kita refused to learn to roll over on cue. I am convinced that she knew what I wanted, but wouldn’t do it BECAUSE I HAD DESTROYED HER TRUST by wrestling her into an Alpha Roll.   She probably never connected her action of chasing the cat with my response. She probably had no idea why I would suddenly turn ballistic and chase her and throw her on the floor.  it was a mystery and frightening and I’m very lucky that it didn’t make her distrust me in other areas and/or turn aggressive.

I’ve since learned that those and similar techniques were developed through study of wolf packs. The theory was that the leaders, the Alpha wolves, throw the subordinate wolves on their backs to keep them in line. There’s two problems with that: 1) dogs aren’t wolves, and 2) even in wolf packs it’s the SUBORDINATE wolf that VOLUNTARILY puts itself in a submissive posture on its back.

It’s kind of a hold-over from puppy-hood where a puppy flips over on its back and probably wees a bit as a signal that its just a baby. I’ve seen lots of dogs give that signal to each other. I’ve had dogs voluntarily offer me their bellies. Some dogs do that a lot with people. Mostly folks think the dog is asking for a belly-rub (and most dogs will take a good belly-rub) but it’s really the dog’s way of saying, “You da boss!” occasionally, I’ve body-blocked a dog away from a resource-guarding situation and they’ve flipped over to tell me they give up. Sometimes, they don’t go all the way over, but just lean to the side with one front paw in the air.  Either way, it means, “You da boss!”

This is all good because it’s the DOG communicating compliance. The dog is using body language to tell another dog or a human that they consider themselves subordinate. In human-to-human interactions we call one person who forces physical compliance on another a BULLY, if not worse. And I felt like a bully as I was using the Alpha Roll on Kita. I will never use that technique again. As far as I’m concerned it doesn’t make the trainer a leader, but a loser. Not an Alpha, but an Omega.

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