Sunday, July 4, 2010

Pinning and Alpha Rolling

The belief that forcing a dog on his side or back, and holding him down till he stops struggling, is how a person must communicate dominance is as persistent as the view that nose halters, such as the Gentle Leader, is a humane walking tool.
I can understand why the layowner would think that. After all, it is on TV every week. And even though there is a disclaimer warning NOT to repeat pinning at home, it is portrait as the natural way dogs correct each other; something a dog might even desire cause it relaxes him.
What I don’t get is that professionals still apply and advise this. Trainers and rescue people teaching dog owners how to physically overpower someone weaker are my big peeve. I recently had two consultations where a trainer, and a shelter staff, had demonstrated and recommended alpha rolling to their clients; in one case it was part of the puppy class curriculum, in the other the dog was mislabeled dominant. In both cases the attempts backfired and the pooches’ behaviors worsened.

Proponents justify that aggressive treatment with the explanation that it is the way mother dog corrects her pups. Steve White (, who was a keynote speaker at the recent CAPPDT conference in Calgary, disputes that. He said that he’d give $100.00, probably US$, not that it matters much, to the first person who forwards video footage of exactly that: a mother dog pinning her puppy. Steve White said the challenge went out years ago and he still has his 100 bucks. Maybe not that much longer, cause a trainer from Ontario, John Wade (, claims to have such footage, although I couldn’t find it on his website.
I agree with Steve White, and many other trainers, behaviorists and ethologists, that pinning is not the natural way dogs correct dogs who belong to their social group and/or they like and have an affable relationship with. A decent mother dog walks away when her offspring is annoying, or gives them a dirty look, or might give a warning growl and flash her pearly whites, or muzzle corrects. The same, minus the walking away, is true for seasoned dogs who remind rookies to toe the line and cool it a bit.
People that look into nature to find a behavioral model to emulate often forget to also look at the intention “nature” has when it acts one way or another - and the consequences it elicits.
In my opinion, pinning is always antagonistic. The pinner is either stressed, or socially abnormal, or doesn’t give a rat’s tail about a future relationship. Doesn’t care about the dog he pins. A dog pinning another does not intend to be friends with that dog, but wants him to stay out of his face for good.
If we pin and force a dog on his back, and hold him down till he stops struggling, that is the message we are conveying; that our relationship is a competitive and confrontational one, and that he better be aware of that and wary of us. That is the stage we are setting, not the dog.
Let’s not forget that in most cases mother dogs and her pups are together for about 8 weeks or so, feral dogs a bit longer, but rarely for life. We share ours with the dog for some 10-14 years. A companionable bond is much more important for us than mother dog.
So what if someone has footage that shows a mother dog pinning her pup. Without investigating what happens next and what the long-term consequences are, it is meaningless as a template how we should act.
We should understand the effectiveness of a method before we embrace it, shouldn’t we?
Did the pinner successfully change unwanted behaviors, or did she just get the pup out of her face for the moment? Was the pup more polite towards other dogs, or just her? How did he turn out as an adolescent and adult? Again, towards her and other dogs. Did the pinning result in a polite and well-mannered adult? Or an anxious, or offensively aggressive one?
Our Newf Baywolf was the most amiable of dogs, but pinned one dog in his 9 years of almost daily off-leash outings. For a period of 4 months or so, Bay nailed my friend’s pup Rudy every time we met, preemptively and leaving him alone for the remainder of the walk. When Rudy was 18 months, he attacked Baywolf over a sniffing spot.
And that brings up another aspect where dogs and humans differ. A dog who pins has no recourse when the pinnee retaliates. Neither mom dog, nor the one in the park, has the option to boot the dog who resisted to the nearest shelter, back to the breeder, or the veterinarian’s euthanasia table. But that’s exactly what people do when the alpha rolled dog returns aggression and bites. And that is also what many trainers advise when what they taught ended up in the ditch.

Most socially normal dogs don’t pin another. And if they do, the purpose is mostly self-preservation. The dog in the park who pins aims to stop the other from doing what he is doing to HIM. Rarely does it matter to the pinner if the unruly pooch pesters any other dog. We expect our dog to be well-mannered with everybody.
So, keep all that in mind when you have the urge to alpha roll your pup or newly adopted dog. And if you pin to punish your dog cause he acted badly against another, it’s like slapping the 10-year-old cause he slapped the 8-year-old to teach him that it’s wrong to slap weaker people.


  1. I enjoyed this, another of your thoughtful posts. I especially appreciated the discussion of whether a dog that pins another dog even cares about a future relationship, because of course that is at odds with what humans say they are trying to develop by doing it.

    My own dog resorted to sitting on a dog's head to get him to stop bothering her: she weighs 40 pounds, he was a giant schnauzer! A creative solution.

  2. Yes, Margarat, dogs can be quite creative. I heard anecdotally about a Newf who carried a Shih Tzu who bothered him into the bathtub (no water in it), and a standard poodle who split arguing dogs by carrying one away on his harness.