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What is an Alpha Roll and Why it Should Never be Done

Updated on October 27, 2013

An example of a ''submissive roll''

Alpha rolls
Alpha rolls | Source

Dogs are social animals that among each other follow a complex, yet fluid hierarchy; despite what you may have heard, they weren't put on earth to try to challenge and dominate humankind. While dogs derive from wolves, they are quite different entities. The first studies on wolf pack behavior were conducted by Shenkel but they involved wolves in captivity. David Mech was able to study wolves in a more natural setting which brought a whole different portrait of the behavior of wolves in the pack. Among the interesting body language and social interactions among wolves, the alpha roll in particular, seemed to grab a lot of attention.

The alpha roll is believed to be carried out by a higher ranking canine and consists of pinning a subordinate canine to the ground, rolling it on its back. Not many are aware of the fact that this is usually a method of last resort used quite sparingly and under some extreme circumstances. There is still much controversy on the subject with claims of wolves only using this method with the intent to kill the opponent dog and claims of wolves even never really resorting to such rolls.

In dogs, much more common than a dog forcefully pinning down another dog, are natural and spontaneous alpha rolls. In this case, a submissive dog will automatically and voluntarily roll on its back and show its stomach area up as a way to surrender and demonstrate submission towards another dog or person.

In a domestic setting, an alpha roll is accomplished by humans by forcibly pinning the dog on its back, with often the owner straddling the dog or staring it into submission. In some cases, the pinned dog is kept down until he stops struggling. While the alpha roll method was once recommended by various dog trainers (there's a chapter recommending this method in a book by the Monks of New Skete) to help owners establish leadership, nowadays, with the dominance myth debunked, many have fortunately come to realize how dangerous and outright wrong using an alpha roll may be.

In some circumstances, alpha rolls have exacerbated aggression in dogs, and in some cases dogs have resorted to bite the owner in the face, something the dog would not have resorted to if the alpha roll did not occur in the first place. The reason why dogs may react to alpha rolls in such a manner is because they often may react out of fear and defensiveness.

Alpha rolls may also cause the dog to lose trust in their handler. These dogs will learn to fear their owner, believing him or her to be unjust and quite unpredictable. The owner, therefore, is perceived as a bully, somebody who they no longer find pleasure training with. The bond between dog and owner may be really hurt as well.

While alpha rolling are used by people of television shows, dog owners should never attempt to alpha roll their dogs. This could turn into serious injury and may even turn fatal. There are several safer and more effective ways to train a dog using positive training methods which modern professional dog behaviorists and dog trainers may recommend.

Debunking the alpha role myth

A natural alpha roll in submission


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    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      10 years ago

      Ok, thank you for clarifying.. it makes sense now..

      Dogs were originally classified as ''Canis familiaris '' by Linnaeus in 1758. However, later in 1993, dogs were reclassified as a subspecies of the gray wolf, and therefore re-named as ''Canis lupus familiaris'' by the Smithsonian Institution and the American Society of Mammalogists.

      And I think Coppinger's theory about wolves having less flight distances makes sense (yes I did read his studies a while ago). I also think Mech's studies on wolves in the wild were a great contribution.

      After reading the book ''Wolves at our door'' I still find that many behaviors in wolves are very similar to those in personally, I still think that they share many common behaviors..and I can list many I observe every day with my dogs.. however back to the topic, I am addressing in this article to be precise, the ''alpha roll'' and therefore I do not think I am making any claims that wolves and dogs are a Xerox copy of each other. If you watch carefully the video of the wolf doing the alpha roll and then the video of the domesticated dog doing the alpha roll you will see the two behaviors are very similar and done under a the same context...

    • profile image


      10 years ago


      OK, let me refine my comments. Dogs come from wolves, yes, but not the ones people think of. Around the turn of the ice age, when humans began to settle, wolves with short flight distances went through an evolutionary process and changed into something that resembles more of a village dog than a wolf. From that man created the breeds we have today. So they are very different to wolves. Yes, dogs live in packs, but they don't have the same social structures as wolves. Go to any wolf sanctuary and they'll tell you the same thing. Dominance and rank reduction theory came out of a study they did on wolves in the 60's. The only problem is that the enviroments in which those wolves were studied in, the environment that wolves live in naturally and the environment that our domesticated dogs live in are very different. For more info on this read Coppinger, he has done many studies on this subject.

      We're splittin hairs here though. Bottom line. Don't Alpha Roll your dog...and that includes certain TV personalities.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      10 years ago

      You make some good points, but some points I have to contest. You are right when you say dogs and wolves are not exactly the same, but let's not forget that they share an almost identical genetic makeup and share 78 of the same chromosomes!

      “The domestic dog is an extremely close relative of the gray wolf, differing from it by at most 0.2% of mtDNA sequence..'' says Robert K. Wayne, Ph.D.

      Researchers have discovered a plethora of facts regarding our domesticated canines by simply watching wolves in the wild. David Mech's studies have been a great contribution and have debunked common dominance myths and revealed that the actual alpha pair are the male and the female allowed to mate. Yes, they are the ones with the right to ''procreate''

      Dogs DO follow pack behavior. You can see this mostly when you own more than two dogs. There will be dogs at the top of the hierarchy and others at the bottom. If there was no pack behavior dogs would live in a democratic world and as a dog trainer and dog owner,I reassure you they do not.

      Dogs do come from wolves... at least there are plenty of supporting studies claiming that wolves are the actual ancestors of the dog. In particular the gray wolf (Canis lupus)is believed to be the ancestor. You can read this here:

      If you can supply me with reputable studies confirming that dogs DO NOT come from wolves and that dogs DO NOT follow pack behavior, please send me the links. I am always open to learning more and keeping myself updated on the latest discoveries..

      kind regards..

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      There's a serious fundamental flaw in your argument.

      Firstly, dogs don't follow pack behaviour. Wolves follow pack behaviour, but dogs don't come from wolves. They are two separate species.

      Dogs also don't dominate, neither do they submit. Dominance in the animal kingdom is the "right to procriate". Physically, the alpha female wolf will release a pheramone which prevents the other females from coming into season. Thus she becomes the alpha female. Your dog does not want to procriate with you or any other human.

      Dogs know that we are humans. They understand this and its a common misconception that dogs and humans are part of the same pack. Rank reduction training is flawed (and unethical) because we are forcing our dogs to submit against their will.

      What we humans consider dominance is 90% of the time just Resource Guarding. The dog will grow at you when he's on the bed and you try and push him off. Not because he thinks he's the alpha male, but more because the bed is so damn comfortable and he doesn't want to move. He can't Flight, so he fights (growl). He needs encourangement and positve reinforcement to get off the bed.

      Although I fully agree that an Alpha Roll is unethical, its for different reasons to what you beleive they are.

      Thanks for the article though, I'd love to see someone Alpha Roll a Great Dane, English Mastiff, German Sheperd or Rottweiler.

      Bring it on!


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