“Alpha” Stands for Abuse

Golden retriever rolls happily in the grass
This is the only kind of rolling I want my dogs to experience.

A few weeks ago, I saw someone essentially “alpha roll” her dog.

This week, I saw Patricia McConnell’s review of a book by the same folks who initially “popularized” the alpha roll, the Monks of New Skete. I don’t know what the Monks suggest in their new book, but I am confident that it is bad for dogs.

It’s well past time for this abuse to stop. We know enough about dogs to put to rest the notion that they “need” a strong leader who keeps them in check using force.

The alpha roll, for those fortunate enough never to have encountered it, is an abusive technique presented by incompetent, ignorant individuals who call themselves dog trainers. It’s based on the thoroughly debunked idea that dogs’ “packs” need to be ruled by an “alpha” who demonstrates “leadership” by beating up on other members of the pack. And that if you, the human, do not repeatedly enforce your “leadership,” the dog (any dog) will try to take over.

All of the elements of this belief are pure hogwash. But those beliefs have led to many cruel practices, including the alpha roll as discipline. Basically, if your dog does something you don’t like, you are supposed to punish him and reinforce your “leadership” by grabbing him and throwing him onto his back (rolling him if he’s too big for you to flip easily) and holding him down as you yell at him, shake him by the scruff, do both, or perform whatever other “disciplinary” tactics the abusive “trainer” has taught you.

So, the alpha roll I saw went like this: I was walking down a busy street. A woman was walking her smallish terrierish dog. Another person walking a larger Labish dog went by. I am not sure whether the dogs only sniffed at each other or whether one or both vocalized. Whatever the small terrier did was unacceptable to the woman who grabbed him, flipped him over, shook him, and yelled, “No! Bad! No!” several times.

Why?

What did she think she was teaching him?

Who knows what she thought she was teaching him. What she was teaching him was that she, his human protector, was crazy and unpredictable. That walking down the street with her, simply being a dog, was dangerous. That she might attack him out of the blue for no reason.

I was silently rooting for the dog to bite her in the face. A major downside of the alpha roll is that the person doing it is often ideally positioned for a really nasty (and richly deserved) face bite. That so few dogs snap and deliver the “discipline” that the people deserve is an enormous testament to dogs’ self-restraint and their long-suffering and forgiving natures — not to the effectiveness of the “discipline.”

The alpha myth is based on incorrect assumptions about wolves. See Alexandra Horowitz’s explanation in this link for more information, but in short, people who observed the behavior of captive wolves extrapolated from the behavior between males all kinds of nonsense about dogs. For openers, captive wolf behavior is nothing like wild wolf behavior, so the observation that, in captive groups made up of unrelated wolves thrown together by humans, males jockeyed for control — including fighting with other males — says nothing about wolf pack dynamics. Natural wolf packs are families. The so-called alpha pair are the parents or grandparents of the other pack members. True alpha wolves rarely use physical discipline, but the alpha pair does lead the pack and teach their offspring how to behave.

And even if natural wolf packs did behave as alpha theorists described— so what? That little terrier mix getting abused on the sidewalk has less in common with a wolf than you and I have with the average chimpanzee. Do we discipline children and rule workplace hierarchies based on the way chimps treat their troupe-mates? I certainly hope not! Thanks to thousands of years of partnership leading to domestication of dogs, and also thanks to generations of human-influenced genetic changes, dog behavior is very, very different from wolf behavior. And dog-dog behavior is, and should be, different from dog-human behavior.

Dog behavior is relationship-based; dogs are very social. That is about the only element of the dog pack mythology that is true. Humans are also social. Social animals have rules, whether formal or informal, that govern their interactions. Some involve status differences and even hierarchies. But leadership is about navigating and negotiating these relationships and differences and influencing the behavior of those with lower status or who are dependent on the leader in some way. There are lots of ways to lead. Sure, force is an option. But as anyone who’s survived an autocratic parent or boss knows, it is not terribly effective, it destroys relationships, and it is far from the only way to “lead.” In fact, I do not consider force or autocracy to be leadership.

McConnell’s blog offers alternative visions of leadership. I agree with her; our leadership of our dogs should be about building a relationship, letting the dog know he can count on us and trust us. It’s also about letting dogs think for themselves and making it safe for them to make mistakes sometimes. That is the polar opposite of what “being the alpha” accomplishes.

Please don’t buy into the alpha myths; instead, buy any (or all) books by McConnell and other positive, progressive trainers who treat dogs as the thinking, caring, sensitive beings they are.

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3 thoughts on ““Alpha” Stands for Abuse

  1. Yes, totally agree with you and thanks for taking time to post this observation and perspective. This misguided method of discipline and training is an act of bullying something that is subservient and reliant upon you. I ran into a similar situation a couple of years age while walking Kali. Kali who at the time was prone to bark at other dogs she met along our walks barked at a dog as we passed. The other dog responded and as we went passed I heard the owner yell “stop that or I will punch you in the face”. I wanted to go back and punch the owner in the face but wisely walked on grateful for the nurturing and loving environment Kali and I had created together through cooperation and rewards.

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  2. Sadly, the concept of physically showing that you are in control was heavily adopted courtesy of Cesar Millan’s books on dog training. Those proponents of his methods should take the trouble to read his latest books where he admits there is no scientific basis for his training. He is methods simply worked.

    Threatening a teenager with a 2 x 4 will work, until the teenager just leaves home. Threatening a dog will also work… but it does not have the eventual “leave home “option. It will probably bite.

    In the context of what is appropriate, I like the statement “If you wouldn’t do it to a young child, the perhaps you shouldn’t be doing it to your dog?”

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