Wolves and dominance: The myth of the alpha dog

In the memoir-ish book I’m writing—more on that to come soon!—I was introducing my dear dog-friend Sapphire, who shared my life for ten good years.

Writing about Sapphire led me to musing about dog training, and from there, of course, I had to talk about what dogs have to do with wolves. Doing some research for the chapter uncovered a few surprises.

An aside: Sapphire in most of her life was dignified and polite. But she had one silly, endearing habit. She loved to chase rocks. And bark at them. The bigger the rock, the better. Here she is in 2005 at the age of twelve, just two months before she died, showing that rock where to go:

But I digress!

When it comes to dog training, one popular trainer, Cesar Millan, says that dogs are wolves, and wolves live in packs. Every pack has a leader, he says, and when it comes to good behavior in your mixed human-dog pack, it’s up to you to be the alpha dog, the leader of the pack. You are to be calm-assertive, and if you are, you will be rewarded with a calm-submissive dog.

Only there are a few problems with this theory:

Surprise #1: Wolves live in families, not packs.

Wolves, like all other mammals, live in families. Each family is led by a mother and father. A family may sometimes absorb an unrelated member or two. And very occasionally, two or three families may join together in a pack.

I read this info to my writers’ group, and everyone was just as amazed as I. All of us are nature writers of one sort or another. How did we not know this simple fact about wolves? I figured if five savvy women didn’t have a clue about wolf culture, probably a few others out there didn’t know either.

Surprise #2: There is no alpha wolf.

Instead, the father and mother together lead the family. The rest of the family is made up of children who are one or two years old plus the pups of the current season.

Here is animal scientist L. David Mech explaining. Dr. Mech is Senior Research Scientist for the US Department of Interior. He has researched wolves for more than fifty years:

Mech is honest about taking some of the rap for coining the term alpha wolf. But now, he says, it’s incorrect.

Surprise #3: The wolf parents do not dominate the rest of the family.

They lead, same as other mammal parents. They do not walk ahead of the others or do all the hunting or even all the training. The older offspring help socialize the pups and provide for them.

There is one sense in which the parents do dominate: They monopolize the food to ensure their own breeding ability and to prevent anyone else in the family from breeding. They also parcel out the food, sometimes preferring to give it to the newborn pups over the older siblings.

Surprise #4: Becoming the leader of a wolf family has nothing to do with dominance.

It has to do with growing up. Young wolves disperse when they are one or two years old, leaving the family unit to go find their own mate and their own territory. Most young wolves grow up to become a parent and leader in their own family.

Surprise #5: The father is not dominant over the mother.

At different times, the mother and father take turns deferring to the other. The mother might defer to the father in matters of food. But when she is holed up in the nursery with pups, the father approaches her with the same ears-down, tail-down, respectful posture.

Surprise #6: There is not a pecking order among wolves.

Some classic studies of wolves, done in the 1940s, found a pecking order among wolves similar to that among domestic chickens. But these studies were done on wolves in captivity, not in the wild. It would be about the same as inferring human behavior from people in refugee camps. Or people in prison—locked up, under surveillance, and under great stress.

Surprise #7: Wolves and dogs have different cultures.

They may share a similar physiology, but in terms of social organization, dogs have developed something wolves never did: sensitivity to humans. This study shows dogs being sensitive to human glances or body language at about the same rate as human infants—and both of them far more sensitive than wolves.

So how did the idea of dominance and submission come to rule dog training? It’s the topic for another day.

For more information:

  • L. David Mech, “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs,” Canadian Journal of Zoology 77, no. 8 (Aug. 1999): 1196–1203.
  • Carlos Drews, “The Concept and Definition of Dominance in Animal Behaviour,” Behaviour 125, nos. 3–4 (1993): 283–313.
  • James O’Heare, “Social Dominance: Useful Construct or Quagmire?” Journal of Applied Companion Animal Behavior 1, no. 1 (2007): 56–83.
  • Lisa Mullinax, “The Dog Whisperer Controversy,” 4Paws University, available here.
  • Anything by these animal behavior scientists:
  1. Marc Bekoff—highly recommended, especially his recent work on a sense of morality among animals. See this post on “Wild Justice and Moral Intelligence in Animals” at Huffington Post.
  2. Ray and Lorna Coppinger
  3. Wendy van Kerkhove


Update: The book I was working on while writing this post is Kissed by a Fox: And Other Stories of Friendship in Nature, published in 2012 by Counterpoint Press. More about the book at kissedbyafox.com.


13 Responses to Wolves and dominance: The myth of the alpha dog

  1. Melanie Mulhall says:September 5, 2010 at 3:30 pm


    I’m stunned! Like so many others, I have been harboring misconceptions about the social behavior of wolves for much of my life. And the new scientific understandings about wolves over the past several decades have been completely unknown to me.

    Apparently unknown to Stephanie Myers, too, who has her werewolves behaving like a paranormal wolf pack of the old school in the Twilight series.

    Thank you for updating my understanding. This is absolutely fascinating.

    Melanie Mulhall

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:September 5, 2010 at 7:37 pm

      I’m astounded by how many of us don’t know these basic facts about our mammal cousins. Makes you wonder why the myth of the alpha dog is so powerful, doesn’t it?

  2. Herbert says:September 6, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    Great info and wish it could get out more. Many similar mis-conceptions abound in relation to many animals and humans; and between the human ‘family’ as well. Thanks for sharing, as very glad to discover your site thru the responses to Melanie M adventure.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:September 6, 2010 at 9:56 pm

      Hi, Herbert, and thanks for stopping by! Yes, our ideas about animals (and humans) can be pretty whacked. Our ideas reveal perhaps more about us than they do about the world we like to think we’re observing.

  3. Alan Belk says:September 7, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    If I understand your post correctly, you are taking the statement “Dogs are wolves”; presenting a bunch of ideas about wolf social behaviour; and then implicitly suggesting that the wolf ideas apply to dogs. I think there are two major things wrong with this. First, dogs are not wolves (I support this by suggesting that if you do some brief research on the phylogeny of dogs and wolves, they are presented as different branches; and that offspring resulting from mating between wolfs and dogs are considered to be hybrids). As we know from our own lineage, we humans are genetically similar to chimpanzees but we don’t usually make the assumption that chimpanzee behaviour is parallel to human behaviour. Second, the fact that wolves often form familial rather than non-familial packs doesn’t justify the inference that it it is inevitable they are somehow “hard wired” to do this. It justifies the inference that they have a propensity to do this and that in certain environmental circumstances they will do so; in different environmental circumstances they may not. In general, the dog’s habitat (being domesticated, living closely with humans) is pretty different from the wolf’s (being wild, avoiding contact with humans except to eat them, or at least their grandmothers) so I would be extremely wary of arguing similar behaviours in totally different environments. Thirdly (and no-one expects the Spanish Inquisition) All this is presented in anthropomorphic terms. I’m not an expert in canine or lupine psychology, but I would wager that they don’t possess the same set of family values that humans do. Most of the stuff I’ve read on animal altruistic behaviour with respect to related organisms does not suggest that such behaviour is conscious in the sense that we understand consciousness. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to suggest that wolf behaviour is of no use in dog training; it may very well be – but I am trying to show that the justification you present for it is extremely flawed.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:September 7, 2010 at 8:07 pm

      Actually, Alan, I’m criticizing the dog=wolf equation in some similar ways you are. I am taking issue with the dog trainers who base their training on theories about wolves that are (a) mistaken on the culture of wolves and (b) not applicable to dogs because dogs have a different form of social organization. (Which places me about 180 degrees from where you think I am–and very close to your position.)

      But I disagree that this is presented in anthropomorphic terms. If you read wolf researchers–David Mech here is a good example–they are using talk of “families” and “respect” and “deference.” And why wouldn’t they? These are social practices that are shared by various (most? all?) types of mammals, including us. And I would like to point out that reluctance to use terms of “family” or even “love” to describe how mammals behave toward each other within families sets up a false dichotomy between humans and other mammals–as if humans are the only ones capable of such emotions or behaviors. The works of Marc Bekoff and Jane Goodall and many other animal researchers are challenging this dichotomy as outmoded and inaccurate.

  4. Beth Partin says:September 8, 2010 at 10:14 pm

    Priscilla, I loved this post. I was not aware that wolf relationships were so complex. I think the myth of the alpha wolf has more to do with patriarchal structures (or wishful thinking) in human societies than with anything about wolves.

    Also, I did not notice you anywhere implying that the information you present about wolves applies to dogs.

  5. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:September 9, 2010 at 8:28 am

    Beth, I like your comment about projecting human fantasies onto animal behavior. I heard a physicist say last month at a conference that “research is me-search.” She was referring to how students gravitate toward the research projects that satisfy their own needs and wishes. But it could easily be understood in psychological terms too–that we see in the world what we are predisposed to find.

    A couple of social science researchers twenty years ago studied the published articles of primatologists in East Africa, comparing the vocabularies of the male and female researchers. Women primatologists used the word female and related words (like mother) more frequently than the male scientists. They also talked more about cooperation and its related words (bond, affiliation, connection) while their male colleagues talked more often of competition (and related words, agonistic, aggressive). The researchers were all watching primates in the same region of Africa, but they had brought different lenses to their work and so saw different things. That citation, for anyone who is interested, is Adams & Burnett, “Scientific Vocabulary Divergence among Female Primatologists Working in East Africa,” Social Studies of Science 21 (1991): 547-60.

    So I am sympathetic to the concern that we not anthropomorphize animals. I have a really hard time with dressing pets up in human clothes and treating them like little extensions of ourselves, as if they existed only to satisfy human fantasies. But these days most of the caution against anthropomorphizing comes instead from an old belief in the scientific community, stemming from Descartes, that humans are set apart from other animals. It was a religious/philosophical belief–that humans have souls while other animals do not, so they cannot feel pain. (Descartes vivisected dogs, saying their screams were only the rumblings of squeaky machines.) It was a belief Descartes brought into the laboratory, not a conclusion he reached through careful observation. Darwin 150 years ago was less bound by Descartes’s dualism. He saw more emotions and feelings in animals than many contemporary people do. I think I’ll have to write a post about that sometime soon.

  6. Laurel Kallenbach says:October 14, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    Fascinating! And I’ve been surprised about wolves too. A few years ago, I visited Mission Wolf, a refuge in southern Colorado for injured wolves and those who cannot ever be returned to the wild. A few of the wolves are “ambassadors” and will come meet people face-to-face. Visitors are tutored in wolf language–especially that a wolf uses his/her mouth like we use hands. Whereas humans might shake hands upon meeting someone, a wolf licks. When I “met” a wolf, I sat and had my face licked exuberantly by my new acquaintance. And guess what? That “dog” breath I’d expected was completely missing. My wolf friend had the sweetest saliva around!

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:October 14, 2010 at 1:28 pm

      Love it! And I’m jealous you got up close & personal with a wolf, though I used to know some coyotes and foxes when I was doing wildlife rehab. Good to know about Mission Wolf. Thanks.

  7. Julia Provonchee says:November 13, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    Hi Priscilla great post! I see it’s a year or so old but I was thrilled to find it. I’m currently working on a paper for grad school on the subject of dominance theories in domesticated dogs and much of my bibliography matches the one you have here for this essay! Great work!

    If it’s okay I may send a question or two your way over the coming weeks?

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:November 13, 2011 at 7:55 pm

      Sure, Julia. Good luck with your studies.

  8. Lucy Jordan says:November 22, 2011 at 6:34 am

    I too have just found this wonderful website. Very interesting article Priscilla. Coincidentaly, I watched The Secret Life of Dogs http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJQdYG2WHoE a couple of days ago. It was absolutely fascinating. I’ve shared my whole life with various doggy companions however I have now an even greater appreciation of these amazing creatures.