My encounter with the alpha roll

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By Steve Dale, certified animal behavior consultant

In June, I attended Blog Paws 2012, a conference of pet bloggers, held in Salt Lake City. The conference was attended by hundreds of people and many toted their pets along.

Tan Pomeranian looks at the camera

We hope that whoever adopts KC from the Utah Animal Advocacy Foundation won’t try to alpha roll her.

I was merely walking down a hallway when I asked if I could pet a Pomeranian, who bolted to the end of the leash and mustered a half-hearted bark. The dog’s owner instantly squatted down, and gently rolled over the dog to force the pup on his back.

Gentle roll or not, this move is referred to an alpha roll. She held the dog there as I also squatted, attempting to engage the owner in conversation.

I realize we can all train dogs as we like. After all, we live in America. Still, I couldn’t help it, I asked why she was rolling her dog over, as she continued to hold the dog (who was not struggling). She responded that this way the dog would learn not to protect her.

I suggested that the truth is that her dog is not trying to protect her but instead fearful (explaining the mildly aggressive response). I asked who offered this misinformation to her, and she said “my dog trainer.” I tried to tell her this thinking was very cutting edge back in1940. However, today, most enlightened professionals have lost those antiquated notions and techniques.

When she finally (after about a minute) let go of her dog, I asked for a treat.

Her dog came up to me, and sat when asked, for the yummy. Still hesitant about me, the pup was happier to visit with a woman attendee who also squatted to pet the dog. I asked if it was possible that the dog is most often “concerned” about men. And the owner, said “yes.”

I think the owner knew the dog is fearful, but also apparently believed her trainer. I suggested that rolling the dog over might ultimately make her dog more fearful, and might eventually even cause mistrust in her. No matter, certainly there’s no real helpful message being communicated having anything to do with protecting her I suggested that if 100 strangers — especially men — offered a yummy tidbit as I did, and she continues to take her dog places where she can set her pup up for positive experiences, eventually her (moderately) fearful dog will “get over it.”

Note — I offered this advice based on my observation that her dog was only moderately fearful. And that she might even be playing into it. I observed she pulled back on the leash, offering a predictable cue to her dog when I approached.

I know there’s actually science behind my advice. And hopefully, I communicated it a logical and calm manner.

Still, I don’t believe she bought what I said … and probably just thought I was being rude and nosy. And I kind of was — but then this was at Blog Paws, an educational conference of pet bloggers. I realize the same thing might have occurred at a dog trainer conference. Obviously, some trainers are still espousing these archaic theories. I was later told that a colleague certified as a dog behavior consultant had a similar conversation with this dog’s owner.

My guess is that this woman’s trainer believes alpha rolls demonstrate dominance. Of course, that is ridiculous — while offering dogs consistent direction is a good thing, we are not dogs and dogs know that. There is no reason to even attempt to be “dominant” over dogs. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has a great position statement regarding their concerns about dominance theory. (Learn about positive-reinforcement training here.)

I don’t mean to call anyone out in a blog, clearly this individual owner cared greatly about her dog. My hope is others will understand, and if you think about it logically — it makes sense. Rolling a dog over never communicates the message intended unless your message is to actually to be adversarial.

Steve Dale is the host of the nationally syndicated radio shows Steve Dale’s Pet World and The Pet Minute with Steve Dale. His column, My Pet World, is carried in more than 100 newspapers nationwide. He also serves on the board of directors for the American Humane Association.

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