Downeast Dog News

Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Started Training Dogs

Gus, the Dominance Myth, An Alpha Roll, and a Damaged Relationship
By By Don Hanson, ACCBC, BFRAP, CDBC, CPDT-KA | Sep 01, 2018

In the spring of 1991, we adopted a 12-week old Cairn Terrier 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 class.

Our first night in puppy class was a complete disaster. I was told to command Gus to sit, and Gus failed to comply. This was not a big deal to us nor a surprise as we were well aware that Gus had no clue what the word “Sit” meant. However, his failure to comply was a massive deal to the instructors. I was told that Gus was dominant and that I had to alpha roll him to show him that I was the leader. The alpha roll was what the books we were reading recommended, so not knowing any better I did as I was told. I grabbed Gus by the scruff and pinned him, and he immediately began thrashing around, growling, and trying to connect his teeth with me. I know now that Gus was terrified, but at the time believed I was doing the right thing.

The instructor now became 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’s 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. There is something to be said for listening to your gut instincts. Gus responded to his instincts; I ignored 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 me 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 and after we discovered reward-based training, Gus and I learned to trust one another again, and training and behavior became something we both enjoyed.

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.

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.

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), and others all warn of the use of dominance-based training.

FMI - Dog Behavior – Dominance: Reality or Myth –



Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop ( in Bangor 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 Don also writes about pets at his blog: He is committed to pet care and pet training that is free of pain, force, and fear. The opinions in this column are those of Don Hanson.