The Alpha Roll, A Dog Training Fail



Honestly, it sounds like bad sushi. In reality it’s simply bad dog training.

An alpha roll is dog-directed human aggression. It’s when a person tackles, knocks over, or picks up and slams a dog to the ground, pinning him there. Variations include the human showing his teeth, growling, and / or putting his face next to the dog’s. I was once instructed to bite my dog’s neck. She looked at my like I was an idiot, which I was.

Do not do this. Period.

It is dangerous to the dog. Depending on the force used it can strain joints and break bones. It is also dangerous to the person doing it. If you’re lucky the dog will simply think you’re stupid (as mine did back in the day). More than likely, though, your dog will try to defend himself. They do that with their teeth. Your arm and hands are good targets. If you go for the face-near-face version of the move, then it’s your face that could end up bloodied.

Plus, alpha rolls are ineffective. They do not teach your dog that what he just did was wrong. Anger-driven attacks are random and emotional. Effective punishment is consistent, immediate, and measured (Think: video games and red light cameras). Even the noblest attempts at punishment-based or balanced dog training have gaping holes and terrible side effects. At best alpha rolls teach your dog that you are weird. At worst they teach him that you are dangerous and unpredictable, not to be trusted.

Alpha rolls turn us into buffoons. Actually, it’s the trainers who convince us to do them that turn us into buffoons. Question the trainer who has you yell “baaaa” at your dog or pin him to the ground while growling. If it feels ridiculous to do those things, trust me, you look ridiculous doing them. Just don’t. And, if the trainer’s answer is that momma dogs discipline their puppies that way, fire them on the spot. Mamma dogs also eat their puppies’ poop. Case closed. You’re a human being. Not a dog.

What was your dog doing that led you to become a cartoon version of yourself and alpha roll him? Now ask yourself this: what should your dog have been doing instead? That’s real dog training.  Did the dog growl over a toy? Okay, not nice. Let’s teach him to bring the toy to you. I can show you how. It’s totally doable. No need to burden yourself with that dominant dog training nonsense. Just train. You’re smart enough, I promise. Is your dog ignoring you, running away from you, stealing things, eating poop (I think we covered that one), or generally being unruly? Leave the rolls on the sushi cart. Now. Train. Your. Dog.  What do you want him to do? Look at you? Run to you? Fetch your things? Quit the shit show and settle down? Those are all trainable tasks. You can do it with easy (yes easy) positive reinforcement methods.

I like my clients. I want you to look smart. I want you to discover how smart your dog is, too. More than anything I want you and your dog to have a happy, peaceful, and safe life together. Your dog deserves that. And you certainly do.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX. He specializes in the use of positive reinforcement techniques to help aggressive and fearful dogs. No actual sushi was harmed in the making of this blog.

The Promise



You come to me full of promise, a gift from heaven or the universe or wherever it is sacred things derive. You are the dream incarnate, the promise still unsullied of the dog I always wanted. You are the promise of memories lost and found, of my dog at 13, unbuckled on the bench seat, head out the window, tongue out the mouth flapping like a cartoon at 40 miles per hour. You are the living potential of my own hopes, the dog with whom I will run agility, or learn dock diving. You are the promise of a more joyful life, smiles, security, naps on the sofa spooned and snuggly. You, my puppy, are filled with this sacred promise.

Cuddled, so small now, you can fit in the dips and curves of my chest, breathing in a rhythm so close to mine I could weep. This is the most perfect puppy ever, I think. You shift and make a muffled high-pitched grumble, slipping just under my chin. I catch just the faintest hint of your breath, puppy breath, so intoxicating. This sacred promise, this puppy, this living and breathing moment, it seems to be missing nothing. And, then I remember there is one thing, one important missing part, a humble thing maybe I can offer in return. And I close my eyes as if in prayer and offer this sacred promise to you, my puppy.

I will love you even as I do this very moment for as long as we live, even when you become flawed (because life is hard and this world claims its tolls), even as I am flawed, even when it’s inconvenient or hard, even as you navigate your most challenging years, and even (most especially) as you come to the end of your years. This I promise you.

I will learn all about you. I will learn your kind, the way you carry your body and express your face, the way you communicate without words (so elegant). I will learn with you and teach you how life in a human world works. I already told you it is sometimes hard. I’m so grateful you’re here. I’ll do my best to make it as easy for you as I can. I promise. We will make learning fun, together. I promise that as well.

I will speak on your behalf. Your language, perfect and complete, is still a mystery to too many of my kind. I will be your human voice. You can count on that. I will interrupt anyone who means you harm – emotional or physical – either by their malice or their ignorance. I will speak loudly if I must, clearly always, without shame or hesitation ever. You are from a place of sacred things and I will remember that when I speak. This is my promise.

We will spend time together. I don’t know yet if we will win ribbons or prizes or likes on social media. I’m assuming you don’t care. That is part of what makes you so wonderful. We will simply be with each other and that will be enough for me and for you, I hope. We will do things together. I don’t know what yet. You are so young. You can help us decide. But, it’s going to be you and me and maybe some other friends and some doggie friends. This is important. So, I promise.

You get to make choices. I promise. Sometimes things just suck and we have to do what we have to do (Honey, I get it). But, I will let you make choices in your everyday life. It might be scary at first – or maybe not, but after a while it’s fun. I’ll help make it fun. There are so many choices and you get to choose them. Who will you play with or not? What will your favorite activities be, your favorite games? Where will you like to go and where would you rather steer clear? How do you like to be petted? Will you be a cuddler like now? What do you want to learn? I’ll teach you. Even when you have to experience icky things, I’ll show you how to let us know when you are ready. You can choose that too. I’s a promise.

If I could I would promise you forever. Of course, as long as we both live we will spend forever together. This is true. But, little one, none of us gets to have forever here. Our lives are short, yours so very much so. You are a gift whence sacred things come and when it’s time for you to return I will be with you. Even as I breathe in your sweet breath now I will breathe in your last because I will be that close to you, right next to you, so close I could travel with you were that possible. And If I am the one to go first I promise you will live with someone we both love. I’ll see to it. This is as close to forever as I can promise. It is my promise, nonetheless.

But, let’s not think too much on that. All this has just started. You have my promise now and you can hold me to it. I have you now, overflowing with promise, and I will hold you dear. The years ahead are filled with promise too, dreams and memories yet to be made. (But that car thing, little one, isn’t happening. That was the 70s). Now, let’s rest. My breathing and yours are one rolling hill toward sleep. We have today. Tomorrow. So many ahead. What will we do? How wonderful will our lives be together?


Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He specializes in aggressive dog behavior and other behavior related to fear and anxiety. 

Dog Training and the Dominance Question



A whole lot of dogs lovers are carrying around a heavy burden. I want to take a moment to lift it off our shoulders. Well-meaning friends, family, even some of my fellow trainers set it on us. It’s just words really, but those words weigh us down and too often we end up dragging them around like shame. The most common variations of this verbal yoke sound a bit like this: You need to be your dog’s pack leader. You aren’t dominant enough. You need to show your dog who is boss. Like all words, these are illusory until we assign them meaning. What do they mean to you and how hard must they be to carry around? This kind of  “advice” (and really it’s just cheap reprobation) is a huge disservice to our dogs. The implication is that we need to assert ourselves over them with violence (Cut their airways; Pin them; Shock them). It’s also a disservice and an insult to our own human intelligence and accomplishment.

We humans split the atom. We turned the ancient remnants of dinosaurs into fuel and made cars and airplanes and leaf blowers. We learned to roast coffee beans, grind them and press them in hot water. And, we discovered how to ferment the press of grapes. We invented jazz. Humans created spoken and written language, more than 7-thousand of them. There is no place on earth to which humans have not laid claim. Most of it we’ve cleared, burned, paved over, built out, and lit up. That is dominance. We have, for better or worse, clearly won the evolutionary race.

Street Dog in Saigon

We have nothing to prove to our dogs. We are all that and more, and we have been since the beginning of dogs. Most dogs are not really “owned” by humans. All around the world street dogs simply live near us, but depend on us nonetheless. They survive on our wasted food and our generosity, taking shelter under our lean-tos and outside our doors. Dogs in the U.S., for the most part, live in our homes, eat from bowls in our kitchens, pass their days in comfort and good health. But, they do so only if we see to it.

They die, too, at our discretion. It’s usually because of behavior we deem unfit for dogs or unacceptable to us. They die by the needle, by the gun, by the knife, by our hand. They die, too, abandoned and alone. They die from convenience and inconvenience. They die and live, just as we decide. There is, in fact, no dominance battle between us and dogs. It was over before it started. We win. Always. No matter what.

Stewie Enoying a Private Concert

That leaves us with a question that spans much wider than our life with dogs. What do we do with all this power? That’s a big philosophical ask for evening chats drinking wine or coffee. Maybe the more immediate question is how do we responsibly use this power to help our dogs, who are so much farther down the evolutionary ladder? How do we help them fit in to our complex and often dysfunctional human lives? How can we give them what they need from us and still get what we want from them?

Here’s my answer. Lead with compassion and intelligence. We don’t have to be rocket scientists or nuclear physicists. And most of us have the compassion part at least started (We love dogs, after all). But, there is a science of dog training that is grounded in kindness. There have been volumes written on this and the data dates back a century or more. This is the bottom line. We can use our superior intelligence (Think: dominant species) to 1) teach our dogs what we want them to do without frightening or hurting them and 2) teach them to enjoy learning – to love learning – dare I say, to do our bidding with enthusiasm and joy. It works. It’s measurable and reliable. It works with easy dogs and with hard dogs. Intelligent human-driven training works with aggressive dogs, too. In fact it works especially well with them. And, it works with more than just dogs.

If that’s the case (and it is), then why are we so hung up on dominating our dogs? Why do we turn to harsh dog training methods when easier more effective ones have been available all this time? I have some ideas (and some links for deeper dives). 1) Punishment is reinforcing for the punisher; our brains fool us into thinking it’s the best choice. 2) Celebrity dog trainers lie to us (Real dog training is rarely as glitzy or simplistic as a well-edited TV show). 3) We humans are fixated on dominating (wait for it) each other. Humans, like many primates, have a hierarchical social structure. We are all about power, who has it, where we can get it, and how we can keep it. And, a big part of dominance for us in our broader lives is fueled by punishment. The scientific term is coercion. We conquer; We take; We oppress. Underlying all that is fear, pain, and the threat of death. How ironic that we so often use the phrase, “it’s a dog eat dog world,” when the reality has nothing to do with dogs at all. We are describing ourselves.

We humans are carrying around this heavy burden and really I just want to lift it off our collective shoulders, ease our suffering. It’s too big to do all at once. So, let’s start where we can. Learn what coercion is and then forget about ever using it again. Even better, seek out inspiration for ourselves, for each other, and for our dogs. Teach the way we already know we love to learn – joyfully, patiently, intelligently. Cast this burden to the side and leave the reprobates behind.

Let us all, together, boldly reclaim what it really means to be the dominant species on the planet. Be smart enough to be kind. Be powerful enough to care deeply. Let’s make our evolutionary victory lap a celebration of healing. And, let’s begin with our dogs.

Michael Baugh is a human being in Houston, TX. He specializes in aggressive dog training and other behavior related to fear and anxiety.