Alpha Roll
by Jane Fink

Photo by M. Duffy


The alpha roll is used to express to the dog in terms it can understand that you WILL NOT tolerate threats such as snapping, biting, growling, or any other warning type behaviours. In a pack of dogs, an alpha, the leader, may at some point roll a subordinate dog on it's side or back to indicate that he or she is still head honcho. You will notice that young puppies will automatically do this to an adult dog, it is not a sign of being a sissy but a brilliant safety mechanism mother nature has given puppies, no adult dog in it's right mind (or of stable temperament) will attack a puppy in a submissive position. When we practice it on young puppies, it is to test their willingness to accept authority.

When I test a puppy, I lay it on it's back with my hand firmly on it's chest. I don't say a word to the pup, I just observe. You will get one of three responses: a puppy who will completely submit, meaning it gives in instantly, back legs totally relaxed and loose, OR you'll get a puppy that struggles slightly for a few seconds then relaxes, the third response comes from very dominant puppies, they fight and struggle without giving in, and even if they stop struggling, their back feet are pressed tightly against your forearm. The latter group of puppies are the ones who will challenge you for pack leadership, and are more likely to use their teeth to get their point across. With these pups you just keep holding until they do give in, which may take 30 seconds, but always release the pup the second it relaxes. As long as pups understand what your position is, you won't have a problem, even with the very dominant ones.

When I lay a dog on it's back, I make sure my hand is over it's chest with thumb and middle finger under each armpit of the dog, that way if a dog decides to bite, my hand is protected. I may or may not hold the scruff of the neck, usually I don't. I only do the alpha roll in adults dogs who have completely dominated their owners to the point of fear, or have the audacity to threaten me. Westies are a piece of cake. Timing is everything when doing the alpha roll as a sign of authority to a threatening dog. It must be quick, precise, and not last any longer than it takes for the dog to relax, and that includes no screaming at the dog or staring it down.

Putting a dog belly up makes it vulnerable, which is the point about doing it in times of a threat, but in less dominant dogs, I find it easier to tell my students to refer to it as tummy rubs. Many dogs will willingly go belly up for you, alpha pack leaders simply refuse to go belly up to their subordinate pack members but should always respect their person as head honcho.

Years ago, my first rescue Westie, Kelsey, was an adult dog, quite used to getting her way and was a serious biter, she bit me three times the first week I had her. I did not yell at her, I did not hit her, I quickly flipped her belly up and held her there until she quit thrashing and yowling and totally relaxed, which took all of ten seconds. The very instant she relaxed I let her up and said "good girl". She learned very quickly I was not to be bitten, snapped at or growled at. The praise came the second she relaxed, I never dwelled on the fact that she bit me and I didn't keep holding her down once she relaxed. Those three times is all it ever took, she never threatened me again.

When I do an alpha roll demo in class, I place the dog on the floor and get down on my knees beside it so I am as close to the dog's level as possible, in other words, so I am not standing at my full height towering over the dog.

The alpha roll, when done properly, is a very handy exercise to have experience in, that way if a dog ever threatens it's person, for whatever reason, the person will know how to handle it. If the person ever flinches and backs away from a dog who threatens, the dog will quickly learn he is in total control, and all he needs to do is flash some teeth or growl and he has the person exactly where he wants them.

A quick true story retold by a trainer in Massachusetts ...

A couple had a Springer Spaniel they loved dearly but never established who was boss, so naturally the dog assumed he was the boss. As the dog grew into adulthood he realized he could get away with more and more by simply issuing a minor threat to his people. One day the couple gave the dog a chew toy. He became so possessive of the chewie that he wouldn't let the couple in the same room while he was chewing it. As they tried to enter, he bared his teeth and chased them out. They were so frightened by his actions all they could do was grab the cordless phone and jump onto their dining room table, safely out of his reach, and phone their obedience trainer for help. When the trainer arrived she walked into the room where the dog was going ballistic, threatening her, she said to the dog, "You have got to be kidding!" and immediately put him in the alpha roll position. The owners were shown what to do and there were never any more problems from their pet.

It works.


Copyright © 2001 Jane Fink and Westie World.


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