An alpha roll is a technique previously used in dog training to discipline a misbehaving dog. It consists of flipping the dog onto his back and holding him in that position, sometimes by the throat. The theory is that this teaches the dog that the trainer is the pack leader (or alpha animal).
This method is now known to be unsafe for both the trainer and the dog. Even the authors of the book that originally introduced the idea have changed their position and no longer recommend it.
The alpha roll was first widely popularized by The Monks of New Skete, in the 1976 book "How To Be Your Dog's Best Friend". The book itself is widely regarded as a classic in dog training literature and highly recommended for people trying to better understand their dog. However, the monks themselves later expressed regret that they had included the alpha roll technique in the book, as it was often taken out of context and misused. In the original context, the alpha roll was only meant to be used in the most serious cases and always in combination with positive reinforcement techniques.
It is now known that by nature, a dog will only forcibly flip another animal onto his back during a serious fight back where the intent may be to kill the opponent (this should not to be confused with the behaviour when a dog rolls over on his own to show submission). So in other words, when you perform the alpha roll your dog will believe that you are trying to kill him. Many dogs, not only dominant or aggressive ones, will instincively try to defend themselves, which can be very dangerous or even fatal to the trainer.
It can also traumatize the dog, causing serious psychological disorders, and leading to further undesired behaviour such as fear-biting or submissive urination. For aggressive and dominant dogs, it may increase aggression rather than reduce it.
The alpha roll can also irreparably damage the relationship between the trainer and the dog.
Despite the dangers, a few trainers (rarely behaviourists) still use the alpha roll or recommend its use. Even then, it is usually used only with the most dominant dogs to correct very serious transgressions. It should never be used by inexperienced trainers, and never to correct undesired behaviour caused by the dog's failure to understand your command. This will increase anxiety in the dog. Used in a controlled way and coupled with praise and rewards when the dog changes his behaviour appropriately, it may have some (often short-term) positive effect, but there are better and safer alternatives.
If the alpha roll appears to have any positive effect, it is usually due to the fear it instills in the dog rather than establishing true dominance. An animal controlled by fear can become anxious, emotionally unstable, and unpredictable. The dog will learn that using violence is acceptable behaviour and may attack people or animals he percieves as being weak when you are not around.
If a dog is showing dominant behaviour and challenging his trainer, there are many safer and better ways of dealing with the problem. Some of these are listed below. In the most serious cases, a canine behaviourist should be consulted.
In nature, an alpha animal does not maintain its position by fear and violence. Instead, the subordinate animals respect the leader for being firm but fair and making good decisions for the pack and naturally follow. The key point is to reinforce your dominance over the dog using non-aggressive means that emulate those seen by alpha animals in nature. These include, for example:
If you are unable to cope with a dominant animal on your own, a dog behaviourist will usually be able to help. There are also several books on dog psychology that may help you better understand the dog.
What kind of life a dog . . . acquires. I have sometimes tried to imagine by kneeling or lying full length on the ground and looking up. The world then becomes strangely incomplete; one sees little but legs.
Paper and canvas prints of "Growing Up Chinese Shar-Pei" by Barbara Keith are available online.