Submissive Roll , Alpha Roll and Strategic Roll, What’s the Difference?

Dog behavior and nuances in body language are a life long study, the simple behavior of a dog rolling onto his back can have many implications. In the context of play a dog will quite often roll on his back without any submissive or deference intended. Many dogs happily sleep on their back and still others like rolling over and stretching as they wake up.  A nice patch of grass is bound to get a dog on his back for a good scratch and roll. In this article, we will only be covering the submissive roll, alpha roll and strategic roll. Submissive rolls, alpha rolls and a strategic rolls all end with the dog on his back or side but physically and emotionally, they are quite different in look, execution and tactic. First let’s talk about the submissive roll.

rolling in grass

A roll in the grass

The submissive roll is an offered behavior, not a forced one. Puppies that have had a proper amount of social interaction with their dam and other older dogs become very adept at it. Submissive rolling is an act of deference and is meant to convey a non threat to the other being. In a submissive roll the tail is generally tucked, sometimes wagging nervously and the body is tense. This is not an invitation to interact, the correct response is to ignore and or move away from the offering dog. Interacting with a dog in a submissive roll can have many different consequences, one of the most common being urination by the displaying dog. Instead of interacting, try moving away and when the dog moves to follow, ask for a sit. Reward the sit with a treat.

puppy submissive roll

Puppy submissively rolling to the older dog

The alpha roll is a human creation. It consists of physically putting the dog on his side or his back and holding him there until he stops struggling. Since the dog is not a willing participant in this interaction, what the human is looking for is basically an absence of behavior. Depending on where you stand on this type of interaction you will either consider it ‘calm submission’ or reaching ‘learned helplessness’. The alpha roll is specifically meant to show the dog that you are the ‘alpha’ in the relationship. Personally I consider it reaching learned helplessness.

alpha roll

Alpha roll

The strategic roll is often misunderstood. Some people think it is still a form of submission, some think it is a form of play. The strategic roll is often employed in play; however, it is also a serious defense mechanism. A standing dog has his mouth and possibly his two front paws, but a dog on his back can employ all four sets of claws and his teeth. If you have ever tried to put a leash or collar on a dog that doesn’t want it, you have likely observed and interacted with the strategic roll. Trying to force a dog that is using this defensive mechanism can end in some pretty deep scratches if not some well delivered bites.

strategic roll

Strategic roll in the context of play

In play, both with humans and with other dogs, it is important to realize that when the dog goes into a strategic roll, if the energy between the two continues to escalate, that play can move over to true defense and possible physical damage.



Negative Punishment, What is it and How Does it Work

My last blog was about Positive Punishment. ( ) We are now going to talk about Negative Punishment, what it is and how it works.

In the world of psychology, the definition of Negative Punishment is removing a desirable stimulus or opportunity in order to make an unwanted behavior decrease.

pitty pulling on leashA good example of negative punishment is the ‘be a tree’ scenario where you stop moving forward as soon as the dog puts pressure on the leash. Negative… you took away forward motion; punishment… the behavior decreases. In human terms,  a monetary fine is a negative punishment. They are taking your money in order to make your associated behavior decrease. As with any training method, you must be totally consistent and your punishment well timed. You must also make it as easy as possible for your dog to give you the right answer, thereby avoiding the punishment. To this end, start working in a very low distraction environment and give ample reward for correct answers. As your dog becomes more reliable, up the distraction level.

Negative punishments are not meant to be fun or enjoyable, this means you may get reactions of displeasure from your dog. Those reactions might include heightened energy, frustration, etc. This is by no means a reason not to use this technique, in fact, negative punishment paired with positive reinforcement is a very powerful team of training techniques. As with any training technique, it is always a good idea to research it and understand it before you begin using it to train  your dog.





What is Positive Punishment and How Does it Work?


Let me start by saying that this article is not meant to supply a moral judgment as to the humane or inhumane nature of positive punishment, it is only meant to explain what it is, how it works and how it can have unexpected side effects.


This type of punishment can create a confused, fearful and even aggressive dog.

In terms of psychology of the dog and how it pertains to training, positive punishment means something is added to make a behavior decrease. Sounds pretty simple but there are many variables including the emotional makeup of the dog, the intensity of the punishment, level of reinforcer for bad behavior and how well timed the punishment is. In the simplest form, in order for a punishment to be effective, it must be well timed and be stronger than the level of reinforcement the dog feels when performing the undesirable behavior. If the punishment is ill timed or not strong enough, the dog will continue the same behavior.  Examples of positive punishment are leash yanks, yelling at the dog, hitting the dog, shocking the dog with a collar, etc.


Stinging nettles are masters of positive punishment!

Many fully positive reinforcement trainers will say that positive punishment does not work. This is not true, positive punishment works quite well, even when delivered by a plant. Anyone who has had a run in with stinging nettles, poison oak, poison ivy or any number of thorned or spiked plants can attest to the power of positive punishment.


The immediacy of the pain is what makes this an effective punishment

With positive punishment, timing has to be impeccable, otherwise the dog may associate the punishment to something unintended. In human terms, lets say you had never seen a bee before and were stung by one, if the pain was immediate, you would easily connect the pain to the bee and avoid them in the future. If instead, you didn’t feel anything immediately, but seconds later when the bee was long gone, you felt a stinging sensation just as you brushed against a bush, how likely would you be to connect the sensation to the bee? How likely would you be to connect it to the bush? Without prior knowledge of the insect, you would be much more likely to connect the punishment to the bush rather than the bee. Your behavior toward the bee would be unchanged; however, you would probably immediately develop a fear towards any and all bushes of similar appearance.

prong and e collar

This dog is wearing a prong and e-collar. This dog’s body language suggests anxiety and discomfort.

There are also emotional considerations. Dogs are individuals and as such, react to things on different levels. Some dogs accept mild to moderate positive punishment with little to no negative affects while others can be deeply damaged by it. You must be able to temper the level of your punishment not only to the reinforcement level of the unwanted behavior, but also to the emotional strength and temperament of the dog.

The first picture in this article gives a very clear indication of the effects positive punishment can have when administered harshly and by someone uneducated in techniques and ramifications. This woman  is poised to strike her dog who is cowering in the corner. Though we have no idea the context of this punishment, we can make an educated guess that since this is a puppy, it has to do with soiling in the house. This punishment is ill timed since it is well after the fact and is absolutely not going to stop the soiling in the house, in fact, it can have a completely opposite affect where the dog soils more out of anxiety or fear. At best this punishment will teach the dog not to soil in front of the owner, at worst, it will teach the dog distrust or fear the owner. This association can create a timid, fearful, extremely submissive or even aggressively defensive dog when in the owner’s presence, especially if the owner is in this posture. Further, it can create a dog that will react in the same manner to anyone that attains anything even similar to this posture, such as someone getting ready to throw a ball.

Positive punishment is an extremely powerful tool of learning which is much more complex than the normal dog owner realizes. There are multiple schools of thought as to its positive and negative aspects. This article only scratches the surface and I suggest before you decide to use any level of positive punishment in training your dog, you educate yourself on all aspects involved in using it.


Compulsion Techniques -vs- Positive Reinforcement Techniques in Training

The definition of compulsion is that by force or pressure the being acted upon produces the desired behavior.

Compulsion training is often called punishment training. While the two often go hand in hand, it is not a fully accurate description. Compulsion trainingbucklingseatbelt has its basis in negative reinforcement; negative meaning that something is taken away and reinforcement meaning the behavior increases. An example of negative reinforcement in the human world is that irritating chime your vehicle makes until you buckle up. Once you buckle up, the chime
stops (negative) and your buckling up reliability increases (reinforcement). An example of this in dog training is pulling up on the leash while pushing down on the bottom to get the dog to sit. As soon as the dog sits, both pressures are released (negative) and the dog sits reliably in order to avoid the pressure (reinforcement). If you or the dog do not produce the desired behavior in the future, you know the threat of the chime or the pressure is there. This is also known as avoidance training.

Positive reinforcement training is often called treat training. Again, while these two often go hand in hand it is not a fully accurate description. Positive Reinforcement training has its basis in exactly its namesake; positive meaning something is added, reinforcement meaning that the behavior increases. Let’s take that seatbelt scenario; instead of the chime for not being buckled, as soon as you buckled up, your insurance company gives dog sit with childyou five dollars (I know, unlikely, but bear with me). To learn sit, the dog is guided into position by following a treat. When the dog sits he is rewarded with the treat. Both of you have been positively reinforced for a desired behavior.

Which training techniques would you rather learn by?

Where people go wrong with positive reinforcement is that they have not learned how to apply a variable reinforcement once the dog understands the cue. Variable reinforcement is one of the strongest behavioral tools in existence; Las Vegas is built on it! We will talk about variable reinforcement soon!



The core of dominance theory is that the life of a dog is a day to day struggle to reach the position of ‘pack leader’ within your household. To reach this position it is often theorized that the dog must perform certain behaviors to assert and maintain dominance. These leashpullbehaviors include demanding food, winning games, being first out the door, pulling on walks, taking your place on your bed or chair, jumping on you, etc. Training under the dominance theory dictates that you must ‘correct’ any of these behaviors to maintain your position as ‘pack leader’.

The dominance theory has roots in a study on captive zoo wolves done by Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel. This study was performed in the 1930s and 1940s, concluding with the theory that wolves within the pack fight to gain and maintain alpha status along with all of the perks that go with it. L. David Mech built on this theory and wrote the very popular book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species”. This book was written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in 1981 and is still in print mech_daviddespite the author’s repeated pleas to stop publication. His reasoning for wanting printing discontinued is simple; through continued study he and others have proven some of the theories presented in the book erroneous. One of the primary theories is the ‘alpha wolf’ theory. They have gone so far as to change their terminology completely removing the ‘alpha’, instead using terminology such as ‘breeding pair’, who are generally the parents of the rest of the pack.

It has been estimated that the domestication and creation of the ‘dog’ began over thirty thousand years ago. Through selective breeding and gene manipulation, our current dog feraldogpackspecies is so far removed from wolf ancestry that even if the dominance theory were true within the wolf pack, it is highly unlikely it would have any bearing on dog relationships. While feral domestic dogs do form ‘packs’, it has been noted that the packs are loosely formed with members coming and going as well as indiscriminant breeding between all members. There is no ‘alpha’ and squabbles generally happen over resources such as food, etc.

Before the ‘alpha theory’ was debunked, it progressed to cover wild wolves and then domestic dogs. The theory grew exponentially in the dog training venue through the efforts of The Monks of New Skete, William R. Koehler, Colonel Konrad Most and a long list of others including the most recent popular tv personality Cesar Milan. The methods advocated by these individuals include the ‘alpha roll’ in which the handler forces the dog to the ground and holds him there, ‘helicoptering’ in which the dog is held off the ground, utilizing the leash and collar to hang him, the ‘scruff shake’ in which the dog is held on both submission wolfsides of his face or neck and shaken vigorously, as well as many others. Though these interactions are meant to somehow approximate interactions between alpha and lower ranking animals, none of them does. The reality of the ‘alpha roll’ between two animals is that it is an appeasing behavior which is willingly offered, not forced. At no point do you see a dog or wolf ‘helicopter’ a ‘subordinate’, though you may see them do something similar with a prey animal or a toy. The ‘scruff shake’ doesn’t even have the weak association that the former does.


There are at least two sides to every conversation whether that conversation is verbal or physical. It is hard enough for conspecific individuals to communicate; it is infinitely more difficult when the participants are from different species with different body configurations and communication techniques. How can we possibly think we can convey something so deep as interpersonal/interspecies relationships and culture?

If the alpha theory were valid, it would still necessitate our fluency in dog body language in order to communicate our dominance. Without that fluency we can only approximate the message we are trying to instill. We have long misunderstooddogbodylanguage even the most common body language such as mistaking appeasing signals as acknowledgment of guilt, which all too often leads to the punishment the dog is trying to avoid. If we can misinterpret something so basic, imagine what we can do with the more intricate body language they use.  Subscribing to the dominance theory can easily set both dog and human up for failure. Both can become confused, impatient, angry, etc. In addition, the dog can become mistrusting, fearful and even aggressive. This certainly does not happen in all cases, in fact, dogs seem to be the most relentlessly trusting and endlessly forgiving creatures on this planet, but why put your dog or yourself through it.


Merriam Webster’s dictionary describes compulsion as 1. a very strong desire to do something, 2. the act of using force or pressure to make someone do something and 3. the state of being forced to do something. Compulsion training is defined by items 2 and 3, the animal is required to comply through force and/or pressure.

While compulsion is most certainly a large factor in alpha theory, the theory is not the definition of compulsion training. Many trainers that use compulsion training subscribe heavily to the alpha theory but a large portion of them do not. Compulsion training is a subject unto itself and a future article will address it. Compulsion is only mentioned here to dispel the belief that the two are one and the same.

Dogs may see light on the ultraviolet spectrum!

A recent study performed by Professor Ronald Douglas of City University, London concluded that dogs and cats may have the ability to see light on the ultraviolet spectrum. This means that our peUV-Lightts can see, interact with and react to much more of the environment than we can.

This could explain the cat that meows at something invisible and the dog that is reactive ‘with no trigger’. For example.. To the human eye, a street lined with power poles is visually commonplace, to a dog, the ultraviolet light coming from the power lines may look like bright swirling masses of erratic color. A dog that has not been exposed to this at a young age might be terrified by this.

For the purposes of training, this gives another tidbit of knowledge into the workings of the dog. We can more easily understand the fearful dog and what might be driving the fear. We can acknowledge and react to our prey driven dog responding to visual cues left by prey animals such as urine trails. With these things in mind, we can study the training environment; identify things that might be putting off ultraviolet distractions and tailor our training program with those distractions in mind.

The Correlation Between Negative Reinforcement and Positive Punishment

forced retrieve There are four ‘quadrants’ to learning for any being capable of learning. Those quadrants are positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement and negative punishment. Positive means something is being added, negative means something is being taken away, reinforcement means the behavior will increase and punishment means the behavior will decrease. For this article we will be discussing negative reinforcement and the correlation it has with positive punishment.

The picture to the left is of a dog learning a ‘forced retrieve’. This is also known as an ‘ear pinch retrieve’. In this technique, the handler pinches the dog’s ear causing discomfort, once the dog takes the item the ear is released, the discomfort is removed and the dog learns to retrieve. This is a negative reinforcement training technique. Many field dogs and service dogs learn to retrieve in this fashion. Handlers also use toe pinches and basically choking techniques in order to gain the retrieve response. Here is a link to where this picture comes from that fully describes the ear pinch technique. Personally I am absolutely not a fan of this technique.

Because this is a negative reinforcement technique, you are doing something physical to the dog that causes discomfort. The dog can interpret this as a positive punishment, which always has the possibility of what is called ‘fallout’. Fallout can be in the form of fear, aggression or emotional shut down to name a few.

It is important to understand that the dog’s interpretation of the technique is the determining factor regarding what quadrant is being used. No matter what technique is being used, the handler must be able to read, understand and react to the dog’s response.