Are Pyrs Pancakes?

Or, Should We Flip Our Dogs?

by Jane Gill

With some fear and trembling I feel that I should discuss this issue, which is a somewhat controversial one in dogdom. Flipping a dog on its back, also known as the alpha roll- over, is a move that was popularized in a book by the Monks of New Skete entitled How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend. I have read this book many times, and certainly learned a lot from it. And I would recommend it to the person who doesn't understand what all this "alpha dog" talk is all about. But then you should also go to your local library and check out "Jellybean and Dr. Hyde", by Masterson, which talks about the possible consequences of the alpha roll-over move.

What is the roll-over? It's a total dominance move, which involves moving in on your dog VERY QUICKLY, flipping him on his back, and holding him there while you shake him by the ruff and use very hard eye contact. On the scale of dominance doggy body language, this is about as alpha as you can get.

To dogs, the simple down position is a submissive posture. (This is why I strongly recommend that owners who want to emphasize that they are in charge teach their dogs the obedience down-stay and use it often! Want to make the obedience down an even stronger message? Once you have developed a steady stay, straddle the dog and stand over him.) To dogs, top dog can be VERY LITERAL.

The ultimate in submission, however, is the belly up position. When dogs roll and show their bellies voluntarily to another dog, it is sort of the human equivalent of waving the white flag. I SURRENDER! The thing to remember, though, is that when an alpha dog in a pack situation moves to PUT a dog on its back, this is the ultimate and last step before a real fight. And this is a fight that either dog could lose. It is also usually NOT something that an alpha dog does regularly, to everybody, just for drill. It is a "special challenge" sort of thing.

The trouble that has arisen with humans using the alpha roll-over stems, I think, from the fact that it can be used at the wrong time, in the wrong way, and for the wrong reasons. If we are going to use such extremely strong dog language, we had better fully understand the whole message. While the alpha roll-over CAN be an appropriate response in an extreme situation, you had better understand a few things before you use it.

1. Extreme messages are perhaps better left for extreme situations. Some trainers have begun advocating using the alpha rollover "just for drill", to show the dog who's boss. In obedience class, they have people just flip their dogs. I talked to one obedience instructor who had a young Mastiff come into her class who had been flipped this way in another class. It took MONTHS of work for the owner to get that dog off its belly and ready to trust again. Litters of young puppies who have been flipped as part of temperament testing have gotten so upset that the rest of the test had to be postponed. Gentler techniques to demonstrate dominance can be used: gently pinning a pup on its side for a few seconds; gently rolling the pup onto its back as you rub its belly; clasping the muzzle between your hands and shaking it back and forth slowly. For open rebellion, where discipline is called for, less drastic moves include the obedience down-stay, (which, if resisted by the dog, can be fairly enforced physically), or hard eye contact as you grasp the dog by its ruff and perhaps administer a few shakes.

2. You had better be able to pull it off. If you move to flip a dog, and you fail, you have just sent the message that you are not as alpha as you think you are. This can make a bad situation much, much worse. Flipping a fully-grown male Pyrenees requires timing, total confidence, not a little strength, the element of surprise, and probably some luck. If you are not sure you can do it, DON'T TRY.

3. Accept that the dog may interpret your move as an attack. In dog language, it is. How the dog responds to this will depend a lot on past history, the dog's temperament, and the nature of your relationship. Reactions can range from shocked surprise and submission, to a lunge and a bite. People HAVE been bitten while doing this move. If you have done this to a dog several times, and each time he has reacted with less surprise and more resistance, consider that the next time you try it you may get nailed.

Have I ever flipped my dogs? I flipped Conrad once, when he had filched an entire pound of specially purchased country-smoked bacon from the kitchen table. I was furious to see the key ingredient for a killer Spaghetti Carbonara disappearing down the hall, but I was even more terrified at how sick it was going to make him. It was early in our relationship, he wasn't well trained, and I flipped him, pinned him, and inserted my entire hand in his mouth to pull the bacon out. Dinner ruined, but diarrhea avoided. The next day, however, when I moved quickly toward him for some reason, he cowered and growled. I fully believe he was expecting another flip. I also fully believe that if I had at that moment chosen to move in on him and flip him for growling at me, we would have been on the start of an unhappy cycle that would have eventually led to a destination I don't even want to contemplate. I dealt with the growl WITHOUT touching him (hard eyes, stern voice, shake can). I have never flipped Marple, nor do I have any desire to do so. Our dominance issues have been worked out with enforced downs, and a few hard eye-contact ruff shakes (twice with front feet elevated off the floor - another escalation tactic not recommended for those with little arm strength!)

Yes, there are times, places and occasions when an alpha roll-over may be an appropriate and workable answer in an extreme situation. But in the meantime, work on gentle alpha language, and general obedience training, and you may never, ever have to even contemplate doing it!

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