Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Selected My First Dog – Gus, the Dominance Myth, An Alpha Roll, and a Damaged Relationship

< Updated 2JAN19 >

< A version of this article was published in the September 2018  issue of Downeast Dog News >

< A short link to this article on my blog – >

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?” This post will be the first of a series of article inspired by that question.

This series of articles has since been renamed Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Selected My First Dog, and you can find a complete list of posts in the series at < >

Don & Gus in 1991, Before the Alpha Roll

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 joyously 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 and that should be a primary focus of training.

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.
  • Karen Overall is a veterinarian who is also one of the few vets that is also a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior. She also has a PhD and is certified by the Animal Behavior Society as an Applied Animal Behaviorist. In other words, she is one of the leading experts on the planet on dog behavior. This is what she said about dominance at a PPG conference in 2016. “Dominance theory has shut off scientific research and has crept into medicine to the point where we think we can do things to animals whereby we are asking them to ‘submit’….dominance theory is insidious and has crept into everything we do with dogs and it’s wrong. It has gotten in the way of modern science and I’ve just about had it. Every single thing we do with dogs hurts them because we don’t see them as individuals or cognitive partners.” [ Emphasis Added ]
  • In the 2017 documentary, Dogs, Cats and Scapegoats Overall 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?” [ Emphasis Added ]
  • 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), the Pet Professional Guild (PPG), the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT),  all warn of the use of dominance-based training.

Recommended Resources

Articles on Don’s Blog ( )

Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Selected My First Dog Link Page

Dog Behavior – Dominance: Reality or Myth

Thank You, PPG, and Gus Too! – from the May 2017 issue of the Pet Professional Guild journal, BARKS from the Guild

Podcasts from The Woof Meow Show
( )

The Dominance and Alpha Myth –

Prof. Chad Montrie and the documentary Tough Love: A Meditation on Dominance and Dogs

Other Publications

BARKS from the Guild – May 2017 – Thank You,  PPG , and Gus Too!


Tough Love: A Meditation on Dominance and Dogs, Anchorhold Films, 2012

Dogs, Cats and Scapegoats – The Mind of Cesar Millan

Dr. L. David Mech talks about the terms “alpha” and “beta” wolves and why they are no longer scientifically accurate

Position Statements

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior AVSAB Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals

Association of Professional Dog Trainers –  APDT Position Statement on Dominance and Dog Training

Green Acres Kennel Shop Position Statement on Pet Friendly, Force-Free Pet Care

Green Acres Kennel Shop Position on the Use of Dominance and Punishment for the Training and Behavior Modification of Dogs

The Pet Professional Guild – Position Statement – Dominance Theory in Animal Training –



Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog, Linda P. Case, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018read a review at

Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution, Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Dominance: Fact or Fiction, Barry Eaton, 2002.

Dominance Theory and Dogs Version 1.0, James O’Heare, DogPsych Publishing, 2003.

Don’t Shoot the Dog – The New Art of Teaching and Training (2ndedition), Karen Pryor, Bantam Books, 1999.

On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, Turid Rugaas, Dogwise Publishing, 2006.

Stress in Dogs, Martina Scholz and Clarissa von Reinhardt, Dogwise Publishing, 2007.

The Culture Clash, Jean Donaldson, James & Kenneth Publishers, 2005.

The Power of Positive Dog Training, Pat Miller, Howell Book House, 2001.


©2JAN19, Donald J. Hanson, All Rights Reserved
< Click for Copyright and Use Policy >

Canine Behavior – Myths and Facts – Part 1, Where do we get our knowledge about dogs?

< A version of this article was published in the May 2016 issue of Down East Dog News>

Don and Muppy-Fall 2015-1I recently asked listeners of The Woof Meow Show to email me questions that we could answer on the show. A dog training colleague who listens to the show asked: “What is the one thing you wish every dog owner knew about dogs? My answer was that I wished people knew more about canine behavior, specifically what is factual, and what is not.

According to the American Animal Hospital Association’s 2015 AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines,Behavioral problems affect more dogs and cats than any other medical condition and are one of the most common causes of euthanasia, relinquishment, or abandonment of pets.” This document posits that mistaken or misinformed beliefs about canine behavior are a major reason for these behavioral problems, This column is the first in a multi-part series where I hope to educate readers and dispel some of these myths. However, first, I think we need to look where we get our information about dogs.

Interestingly, society has many misconceptions about dogs and what constitutes normal canine behavior. Many of those misconceptions go back to what we “learned” about dogs as children. For some of us, that goes back to Rin Tin Tin and Lassie. Both dogs were portrayed as canine perfection; however, whether it was a book, movie, or television show or all of the above, it was a marvelous, heart-wrenching piece of fiction.

In my case, in addition to fictional stories, I was also greatly influenced by two dog training books we purchased when Paula and I brought our first puppy home. The Monks of New Skete How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend was published in 1978 and Mother Knows Best by Carol Lea Benjamin was published in 1985. These books were very popular at the time. Both authors insisted that dogs are essentially wolves and thus the best way to train a dog is to treat it the way a mother wolf would treat a wolf pup. This “motherly love” often involved lots of intimidation, fear, and pain. [see Gus and the Alpha Roll below for my experience with how these techniques worked.]

For some, their knowledge of dogs is based on what a family member or friend has told them about their experience with dogs. This is may be someone with no formal training but who will tell you that they have been training dogs since “Pluto was a pup” and know all that they need to know. They often insist that this is the way they have always done it and scoff at doing anything differently for any reason, even if it is easier or offers other benefits. Sadly this approach is also often counter-productive to our relationship with our dog.

Today, many people reach their conclusions about canine behavior based on “reality” television which in reality is not very real. The Dog Whisper, broadcast by the National Geographic Channel, involves “self-credentialed” “dog psychologist” Cesar Millan solving serious behavior problems while using force, intimidation, and pain because that is all part of being the pack leader. It is the same misinformation from the two books I’ve mentioned, formulated for television. Because the National Geographic brand has a long standing reputation as being based on solid science, it gives the show an aura of credibility that it does not deserve. Since its inception, it has been challenged by experts in the field of canine behavior. For example, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist credentialed by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University said this back in 2006: ”My college thinks it [The Dog Whisperer – Cesar Millan] is a travesty. We’ve written to National Geographic Channel and told them they have put dog training back 20 years.” Yet versions of the show continue to air today.

Lastly, there is the internet. I know of very few professionals that do not have mixed feelings about the “Dr. Google” and the misinformation spread via the internet on a daily basis. Sharing information is great when the information is factual and reliable; however erroneous information can be very harmful. And as State Farm Insurance has taught us, just because it is on the internet does not mean it is true. Unfortunately, too many people think otherwise.

The fact is, much of what we think we know about dogs, is incorrect. Sadly, this misinformation has done a great deal of harm to the dog – human relationship and the dog’s wellbeing. To repair that damage, in future columns, I will examine the most significant and damaging myths about dogs, and then discuss the facts that counter those myths.

Gus and the Alpha Roll

My experience in my first puppy class with “experts.”

Gus and Don on lawn-croppedThe instructors in the first dog training class I attended advocated training that viewed the dog as a wolf. Gus, our Cairn Terrier, was about 12 weeks old our first night in class and had no prior training. I was told to ask Gus to sit and when Gus failed to comply, remember he had never been trained to sit, the instructor told me that Gus was being dominant and that I needed to alpha-roll him.

The Monks of New Skete described the alpha wolf roll-over as the ultimate punishment for the most severe disobedience. It involves grabbing the dog by the scruff of their neck, and firmly and rapidly rolling the dog on its back and pinning it while making eye contact and yelling at the dog. In their book the Monks asserted that these disciplinary techniques are what a mother wolf would use in the wild to discipline her pups.

Not being a dog trainer at the time, I did what I was told to do and alpha-rolled Gus. Gus reacted immediately, wildly thrashing around, growling and snapping his teeth. It was at this point the instructor told me to grab Gus’ muzzle and hold it closed. This did not sound safe or smart to me, but I believed that the instructor would not tell me to do anything dangerous, so I did what she said. Instantly Gus’s canine teeth pierced the flesh of my palm; I instinctively let him go, and we both pulled away from each other. Gus and I were wary of each other for several weeks. The trust we had built in the few days we had him was destroyed in one senseless act of violence.

Years later I learned that by alpha-rolling Gus’ I had probably caused him to fear for his life. How this was supposed to make him understand “sit” means to sit, is still unclear to me. We now know that those professing to treat dogs like wolves really did not understand either species. Sadly, these methods are still popular and recommended by some breeders, dog trainers, and even veterinarians. They are clearly responsible for much of the misinformation about canine behavior.

Gus and I eventually reconnected and became pals, but to this day, I regret the damage I caused because I blindly followed the advice of an alleged expert.

Recommended Resources

Articles on Don’s Blog (

Dog Training – How science and reward-based training have pulled dog training out of the dark ages –

 A Rescue Dogs Perspective on Dog Training –

Canine Behavior – Understanding, Identifying, and Coping with Canine Stress –

Dog Behavior – Dominance: Reality or Myth –

Dog Training: A Holistic Approach to Dog Training (Parts 1 & 2) –

Dog Training – The Four Essentials For A Great Dog – Part 1 –

Dog Training – The Four Essentials For A Great Dog – Part 2 –

Dog Training – What Is Clicker Training? –

Green Acres Kennel Shop Position Statement on Pet-Friendly, Force-Free Pet Care –

Green Acres Kennel Shop Position Statement on the Use of Dominance and Punishment for the Training and Behavior Modification of Dogs –

The Unintended Consequences of Shock Collars –


Podcasts from The Woof Meow Show (

<Click on the title to listen to the show>

2015 Dog Training Classes at Green Acres Kennel Shop

Canine Behavior: Myths and Facts

The Four Essentials to A Great Dog  

Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 1

Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 2

Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 3

The Dominance and Alpha Myth

Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop ( in Bangor. He is a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP), Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (ACCBC) and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). He produces and co- hosts a weekly radio show and podcast, The Woof Meow Show heard on The Pulse AM620 WZON and streamed at every Saturday at 9 AM. A list of upcoming shows and podcasts of past shows can be found at Don also writes about pets at his blog:


©2016, Donald J. Hanson, All Rights Reserved <Click for Copyright and Use Policy>