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.