I could see the bite coming before it happened, but was too far away to do anything. The German Shepherd puppy was adorable – fluffy and uncoordinated, with ears that couldn’t quite decide whether to stick up or flop over. He was also incredibly terrified. His eyes were wide and his tail was tucked so tightly to his belly that it touched his belly button. His body posture was low and he slunk rather than walked as his owner browsed the pet store aisles.
Nothing that cute can go unremarked for long, and the puppy was quickly set upon by an excited employee of the store. As she reached out to pet him, the shepherd puppy became very still, closing his mouth and turning away. His owner shortened his leash so that the puppy couldn’t run away, and when the employee grabbed the puppy to pick him up and hug him he yelped in fear and bit at her hand.
The next few moments seemed to slow for me as the puppy’s owner barked out a gruff “no” and grabbed her pup’s scruff. Picking him up, she forced him onto the ground on his back, holding him in place by his neck. The puppy’s little body became absolutely still, then he slowly looked away and licked his lips with wide eyes. The owner looked equally miserable as she held her tiny puppy down, apologizing to the pet store employee. “They have to learn, though. It’s the only way.”
Photo by Robert Neff
Whether used in response to unwanted behavior or simply to prevent aggression, alpha rollovers are still commonly practiced with many dogs. This technique was originally recommended by the Monks of New Skete as a “natural” way for people to teach their dogs who was in control, although the monks later stopped recommending it as too many people were bitten when they attempted to replicate the technique with their own dogs. Simply put, the goal is to roll a dog over on his back with his belly facing the sky and to hold him there until he stops fighting to get up. This technique is supposed to teach dogs that people are in charge and that the dog should always submit to people in times of conflict.
Alpha rolls first gained popularity when researchers noticed that lower-ranking wolves would go belly-up for higher-ranking animals. Dog people quickly latched onto the idea that the belly-up posture was a concrete way to ensure or prove their pup’s submissiveness. The practice of rolling pups (and misbehaving adults) over and holding them down spread like wildfire.
The problem with this idea is twofold. First of all, wolves don’t actually force one another down. And secondly, dogs are not wolves.
Let’s start with the first issue. The original theory was that higher-status wolves would physically force their less important pack-mates down and hold them there. This was quickly proven to be false, as video after video and interaction after interaction showed the lower-status animal willingly offering this behavior as a cut-off signal to avoid aggression. In nearly every case, the higher-status wolf never even touched the wolf who was offering their tummy.
In fact, neither wolves nor dogs physically force one another into this position, except with one exception. If a Canid is about to kill another, he may physically flip the victim over before disemboweling them.
Think about this for a second. Most of these behaviors are quite instinctive. As far as your puppy is concerned, you mean to kill him when you flip him on his back and hold him down. No wonder so many puppies panic! Whether your pup’s panic manifests as freezing in place, screaming, flailing, or biting at your hands, this is quite literally a terrifying situation for dogs to be placed in. Your dog has no way of knowing that you don’t intend to do her serious harm when you flip her on her back, and thousands of years of evolution telling her that she’s in mortal danger. It hurts my heart to think about.
Even if this weren’t the case, it’s important to remember that dogs are not wolves. While dogs and wolves share common ancestors, their behavior and physiology is still distinct. Wolves have shorter critical socialization periods and display more ritualized behavior than the neotenized dogs we live with. There’s a reason why wolves make horrible pets, and it’s the same reason why dogs don’t respond the same to body language as wolves. They’re not identical.
Furthermore, making conclusions about wolf behavior from observing captive animals is in and of itself a problem. Just as trying to judge human behavior based on the actions of people living in a concentration camp would give us very false interpretations of normal behavior for people, captivity does not allow us to see the normal expressions of wolves’ behavior either.
In the case of the shepherd puppy, I quietly approached the owner after she’d let her puppy up and handed her my card. I hope for both her and her puppy’s sake that she considers training class and private lessons sooner rather than later, so that we can help them both be successful together. Living with a fearful puppy isn’t easy, and living with a fearful dog is even worse. Alpha rollovers will not fix most behavior issues, but they can cause quite a few.
Whether your dog is fearful like the shepherd puppy or has other behavioral issues, we can certainly help. But alpha rolling your dog is not the answer.
What do you think: were you taught to roll your dog on their back? What happened? What alternatives would you suggest if you met the shepherd’s owner in the pet store? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!