Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Started Training Dogs – Gus, the Dominance Myth, An Alpha Roll, and a Damaged Relationship

By Don Hanson

In a recent interview, I was asked a series of questions about how to choose a dog trainer. One of the questions was “What would you like to have known when you started training dogs?

Hanson with Gus in 1991, before the “alpha roll” Ⓒ Don Hanson

In the spring of 1991, I had a new 12-week old Cairn Terrier puppy named Gus. I had no knowledge of dog training, but a desire to learn. I started to learn by reading two of the most popular dog training books at the time; How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend and Mother Knows Best. The basic premise of both books was that a dog is a wolf and the best way to train and care for a dog is to dominate it like an alpha wolf would dominate a wolf pup. My wife and I also enrolled ourselves and Gus in a puppy kindergarten class offered by the local dog club.

Our first night in puppy class was a complete disaster. I was told to command Gus to sit, and Gus failed to comply. Now, this was not a big deal to us nor a surprise, as we were well aware that Gus had no clue what we wanted him to do when we said the word “Sit.” However, Gus’ failure to comply was a massive deal to the two instructors. They told me, in no uncertain terms, that Gus was exerting his dominance and that I had to alpha roll him to show him that I was the alpha. The alpha roll was precisely what the books we were reading recommended, so not knowing any better I did as I was told. As I grabbed Gus by the scruff and pinned him, he immediately began thrashing around underneath me, growling and snapping, and trying to connect his teeth with me, so that I would let him go. I know now that Gus was terrified but at the time believed I was doing the right thing.

The instructor now became even more adamant: “We can’t have that! Grab his muzzle and clamp it shut!” My instincts said “Whoa! That’s not safe!” but these people were the “experts” so I tried grabbing Gus’ muzzle in my hand. Instantly, I felt his canines puncture my palm. As my blood started dripping on the floor, Gus broke free and moved as far away from me as he could. There is something to be said for listening to your gut instincts. Gus followed his; I failed to pay attention to mine.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, everything that I had read and been taught about the alpha wolf rollover was based upon flawed knowledge. My puppy was afraid for his life, and it was my fault.

When we got back home, it was evident that the relationship between Gus and I was severely damaged. I was no longer being asked to “throw the ball” by the puppy with the vibrating tail. Gus did not trust me, and I did not trust him. Over many months Gus and I learned to trust one another again, and training and behavior became something we both enjoyed. We were fortunate to discover Dr. Patricia McConnell where we learned about the wonders of reward-based training. We had fun; our dogs had fun.

So this is what I would have liked to have known before I started training Gus:

  • Just because something is in a book written by an alleged expert does not mean it is good advice or even factual.
  • The study of wolf packs in the wild has taught us that a wolf pack is a family working cooperatively to survive to pass on their genes. Their survival depends on cooperation, not competition to be the alpha within the pack.
  • The violent alpha roll described in the books I read has never been observed happening in a wolf pack. A wolf pup may voluntarily roll on its back and submit to an older wolf, but it is never physically forced to do so.
  • Dr. Karen Overall, in the 2017 documentary, Dogs, Cats and Scapegoats sums it up very well when she states: “In the evolutionary literature “alpha” was just a shorthand for breeding. I’m the alpha – that you feel that you have to compete with a dog in your household over some imaginary rank, what does that say for how you live with people?
  • The entire concept of dominance is not only an erroneous understanding of the dog-human relationship, but it is also counterproductive to a harmonious relationship with our dog and may cause aggression as it did with Gus.

Unfortunately the same bad advice I received in 1991 is still being promulgated today, in spite of the fact that major canine organizations such as the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), and  the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) all warn of the use of dominance-based training.

Resources

Hanson, D. (2017, May). Thank You PPG, and Gus too!. BARKS from the Guild (24) 58-59.

Mech, D.L.  (2008, February 15). Alpha Wolf? [Video File].

Pet Professional Guild (2018). Position Statement – Dominance Theory in Animal Training.

About the Author

Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop in Bangor, Maine where he has been helping people with their pets since 1995. He also produces and co-hosts The Woof Meow Show heard on AM620 -WZON every Saturday at 9 AM. Podcasts of the show are available at here. Hanson also writes about pets on his blog. He is committed to pet care that is free of pain, force, and fear. 

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