A couple years ago at a Shiba meetup in NYC, there was a young, female Shiba. She was a bit overwhelmed by the other dogs in the run. From what I remember, she was communicating appropriately with the other dogs… giving calming signals so they knew she wasn’t a threat, but also some warnings to keep them from crowding her. Another dog pounced on her anyway, she snapped at him and a tussle broke out. The female’s owner yelled at her, ran over, grabbed her, flipped her on her back and held her down, staring into her face. The other dogs were still right by them – over her – which must have made her feel extremely vulnerable and frightened. Her owner said something to the effect of her being aggressive and needing to respect him.
If she’d been my dog, I would have stepped between her and the other dogs, to let her know I was there to protect her and to break the attention of the dogs that were in her space. Hopefully, that would have given her more time to get accustomed to the situation and to gather the confidence to explore without feeling like she had to protect herself from overly boisterous dogs.
I think the primary difference between her owner’s take on the situation and mine was that he saw her actions as aggressive while I saw them as defensive. Was rolling her the right response if he was right? I don’t know. Did her owner even do it right? I don’t think so. I’m not sure what he really taught her that day, but I’ll bet it was not that she could count on him to protect her in new situations.
I think about this incident every time this training method comes up in conversation. I’m not a dog trainer, so I’m not qualified to offer recommendations on how other people should train their dogs, but it’s frustrating to see people misusing techniques that they see on television, hear about at the dog park, or read about online.
A couple weeks ago, someone posted to a Shiba mailing list that their otherwise friendly ten month old dog was becoming overly aggressive with their other dog and had bitten that dog and a couple of human family members during fights. There was no other information given about what was happening before the fights or about the other dog’s behaviour. One lister’s response was "I would put her on the floor and put your hand on her chest and don’t let go until she stops struggling to let her know that you are in charge."
This seemed like dangerous advice to me. My thoughts were that if a dog is not actually aggressive (like the one I remember in the dog run), rolling it would be uncalled for and just frighten and confuse the dog, which would damage the owner/companion relationship. If the dog is truly aggressive, the alpha roll might be effective but if the human doing the rolling doesn’t know what they are doing, they could easily get bitten in the process.
The dilemma stuck in my head, so I emailed Pete Campione of Kindred Souls Canine Center in New Jersey and asked for his thoughts on the alpha roll. Pete is an experienced dog trainer who teaches owners how to socialize their dogs and communicate with them. I’ve found Pete to have a special insight into aggression cases and I have a lot of respect for his ideas. This is what Pete had to say:
The Alpha Roll is a viable and integral part of canine communication and ritual. It has many versions hence ongoing debates. The Alpha Roll, like many canine rituals, must be done correctly and it takes time to learn as it requires a good "read" of canine body language (this means many people dismiss it rather than take the time to study the nuances of how to use it effectively). It is also done differently on puppies vs adults. The key to the "Roll" is in the release (loads of praise and precise timing) and the key to proper release is recognizing submission in the dog. Done correctly it is highly effective. But it must be done specific to the dog.
I guess I’m one of the people who has dismissed the alpha roll instead of learning about it. Funny… this post started off to be about how evil it is, but I guess I’ve learned along the way that isn’t the case. I’d like to learn more about it now – when it’s useful, when it’s not, how to do it correctly. The thing that REALLY bothers me though is that most people won’t learn those things… they’ll either dismiss it or use it incorrectly.
I wonder how often that happens with other training ideas?
And why does it seem that there are always more questions than there are answers?!?!?
To learn more about Pete Campione and his training philosophies, visit the Kindred Souls Canine Center online.