Does 'alpha roll' dog training cross the line?

Posted at 11:27 AM, May 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-27 00:24:01-04

UPDATE: A director with the Humane Society of the United States says CBP’s use of the alpha roll will be discussed at a director’s meeting next month. Kenny Lamberti confirmed for Team 10 that he will add the matter to the June 10 agenda. Count on Team 10 to let you know what they decide.

Roy doesn't work for U.S. Customs and Border Protection any more. The German shepherd was released from service with the agency after he was deemed "not well-suited to to CBP work."

Sources tell Team 10 Roy bit a civilian kennel worker and attacked his handler the day after a controversial and rarely-used technique called the "alpha roll" was used in an effort to put an end to the canine's bad habit of growling and becoming aggressive whenever anyone tried to come between him and food.

The alpha roll is a tactic used to show dominance over the dog. The goal is to get the dog to "submit."

Team 10 obtained a video shot during a training session early this year at the Bonnie Tischler Canine Facility in Otay Mesa. The video shows Roy wagging his tail as a man enters his cell shaking a bowl of food. When Roy growls, his handler jumps on top of him, forcing Roy to the ground. Roy continues to struggle, as the handler puts his face near the dog's neck growling loudly. A voice outside the kennel is heard coaching the handler to "increase the tone," and the human growling gets louder.

That same voice, identified by a source as the K-9 trainer, instructs the handler to put his hand on Roy's neck, "like teeth." He tells the handler to push down on the dog's neck "like a bite."

Twice, the dog manages to struggle back to his feet. Twice, his handler gets on top of him, holding him down until finally Roy submits.

"Well done," the voice outside the kennel is heard saying.

In a second video clip, Roy is walked back into his kennel. His two muzzles are removed, and so is his leash. When a bowl of food is placed in front of him, Roy ignores it.

"What I see as a result of this is not that the dog is afraid of the food, the dog is clearly afraid of the person," said Sarah Surritt, a dog behavior and training specialist. "He's really, really in conflict and he's in a lot of stress."

Surritt told Team 10 the dog's body language clearly showed fear. She and other animal behaviorists say that's no way to train a dog.

"Alpha rolling a dog is ... its from the 1980s, you know, but studies over 10 years ago show that by instilling aggressive behavior onto an animal, those dogs and those studies continue to show aggressiveness," Surritt said.

The day after the alpha roll, Roy attacked and bit a civilian caretaker when he opened the kennel door. That worker required treatment at a local hospital for lacerations on his left hand, sources say. Later that same day, sources claim Roy attacked his handler, who injured his ribs trying to control the dog.

Roy was kept in his kennel for two months, kept calm on tranquilizers, sources say.

A spokesperson for CBP says Roy was not suitable for his role and was transferred to a different law enforcement agency in another state. CBP declined to say where.

CBP sent this statement to Team 10:

The "Alpha Roll" technique is a well-known canine training technique that is taught to canine instructors within U.S. Customs and Border Protection. While it is not commonly used, it is taught at the academy to our instructors. Because of the demanding environment they work in, CBP has very high expectations of the canines that we work with, and has a robust canine training and canine handler program. Our canines are crucial in helping to identify hidden narcotics, persons, firearms, currency, and agriculture products, depending on the canine's training. Because of the environments they work in, searching confined spaces in cargo containers, searching the public in our pedestrian environments, searching moving vehicles, etc., not all canines are well-suited to the work. CBP has an extensive process that begins with a breeding program and training at the academy in Front Royal, Virginia, or El Paso, Texas, and continues with ongoing training throughout a canine's work life with CBP. With more than 1,500 canine teams, the CBP Canine Program is the largest and most diverse law enforcement canine program in the country.

Team 10 pressed for answers about whether an internal investigation was conducted. Again, we received a written statement:

The Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) did receive a complaint about the use of the technique. During OPR's initial research into the complaint, they determined that the use of the technique was within CBP policy, and it was determined that an OPR investigation was not necessary.

The San Diego County Humane Society has launched an investigation.

Team 10 reached out to law enforcement sources who did not want to be interviewed for this story. Some with K-9 handling experience told us working dogs have strong drives that sometimes require drastic actions so handlers can maintain control. The alpha roll is one of the tools in their tactical toolbox for those occasions when a K-9 has the upper hand and the handler wants it back.

They were referring to "bite" dogs that capture criminals using their teeth. Dogs used by CPB are detection dogs. They are not trained to be aggressive.

Many law enforcement agencies are getting away from the use of domination tactics, and relying on positive, rewards-based K-9 training. Phoenix PD is an example. They sent Team 10 this statement:

In the early 2000's, the Phoenix Police Department embraced a more operant conditioning program within its canine unit. Through a variety of sources, canine officers and our administrators learned updated training techniques that placed the majority of emphasis on rewarding canines for desirable behaviors instead of correcting them for undesirable behaviors. In general, we believe the acceptance and implementation of this reward based system has been exceedingly successful. The success of the program can be attributed to many factors but in relation to training techniques, we are confident that our reward based system provides us with dogs that are stronger and more sound than dogs that may be more on edge because they are anticipating harsh or misunderstood corrective actions from their handler.

The Humane Society has also taken a stand against aggressive training techniques.

"That kind of pack leader alpha-dog mentality is really antiquated," said Kenny Lamberti, a Director of Strategic Engagement for the Humane Society of the United States.

He said behavioral science and dog training has evolved over the past several decades.

"The general consensus is that building the relationship in more positive reinforcement-based methods actually gets better performance out of dogs," Lamberti said, adding that's true no matter whether the canine is a working dog or a household pet.

"You have a better chance for a long-term sustainable success when you keep a positive relationship and you build trust and the dog is working in collaboration with the handler versus only performing out of fear that it might be hurt, or it might be scared or it might be intimidated. That's just not a recipe for long-term sustainable success," said Lamberti, who added that fear is never something that should be instilled in dogs.

Lamberti said he hopes CBP will review its tactics.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has a position statement on the use of aggressive dog training tactics. Click here to read the statement.