Dogs are not trying to be the Alpha Wolf !
Updated: Jun 15
The internet is full of people saying dogs try to be the ‘Alpha Wolf’, that they are trying to dominate their carer’s and be the pack leaders, suggesting the dog needs to know 'who is boss' or they will take that role. They will incorrectly attribute normal canine behaviours to the idea that the dog is asserting its dominance. If a dog growls when you try and take food off it this is straight forward resource guarding, the dog has something of value and wants to keep it, it isn’t the dog saying it is the boss, it just doesn't want to lose this valued resource. If the dog pulls ahead of you out of the door, when going for a walk, this isn’t the dog saying I am the boss, it is just excited to be going out. If a dog is threatened and feels afraid it could well respond with a growl, or attempt to bite, as it wants the thing causing it fear to go away, again not the dog saying it’s the boss but the poor dog is afraid.
Trainers who believe in these concepts also often apply aversive training techniques, which will lead to the dog having stressful and miserable experiences, and often lead to worse behaviours. The relationship between dog and owner is damaged by the aversive training. Techniques like pinning the dog to the floor, hanging it from it’s collar and kneeing it in the chest can all be promoted by these trainers as necessary to show the dog who is boss. Even if the trainer does not use these terrible training techniques, they can promote ideas which just aren’t necessary, for example not letting the dog on furniture as that is reserved for the pack leader. This is nonsense and the carer is missing out on bonding with their dog (of course you may not want the dog on the furniture for other reasons which is fine). They misdiagnose behavioural issues and thus don’t give good advice, for example how to deal with resource guarding.
Trainers who believe in Alpha Wolf theories are badly out of touch with what is now known to be true, their knowledge is out-dated and won’t lead to the right advice for dealing with many behaviour issues. No reputable training organisation currently teaches these theories to canine behaviourists and trainers.
Where did the Alpha Wolf theory come from
Dave Mech, a research scientist, produced a book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in paperback in 1981 which proposed the theory of hierarchy in wolf packs with an Alpha Wolf. He has since retracted this theory, stating on his website: “One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack.” He has tried to stop publishers from continuing to sell this book.
Other researchers also proposed the Alpha dominance theory, starting with animal behaviourist Rudolph Schenkel in the 1930's and 1940's who studied wolves in a zoo and those findings were extrapolated to wolves in the wild, and then to dogs. These experiments with wolves in zoo’s appeared to show a wolf taking the position of Alpha Wolf. There is also a 'celebrity' behaviourist (Cesar Millan) who continues to push the Alpha Wolf theory, and other trainers who are too foolish or stubborn to accept the now scientifically proven truths over their outdated views.
Why were these experiments flawed
The issue with the early research into how wolf packs worked was that it monitored wolves bought together in a zoo, they were not living in a free and natural environment, wolves from different families were captured and forced to live together and cope in a stressful environment, in the wild wolves from different families would not live together like this.
The way the wolves were bought together, and kept in such confined conditions, was entirely unnatural and as such the behaviours shown were not reliable or typical of real wolf behaviours.
How do wolves actually live together
Wolves live in family units, there is a breeding pair (who could be called the alpha pair) and they live with their extended family, children and siblings. It is a peaceful environment where the wolves work together for the good of the pack, they communicate well amongst each other to avoid conflict and rely on each other to hunt and catch prey for the whole pack. Aggression within the pack would damage the whole unit and their chances of survival. Thus, even in wolf packs, the alpha dominance theories are nonsense, the breeding pair are the responsible parents of the pack and will teach other members of the pack and lead them. The parents in the wolf pack can be viewed just as human parents looking after their family.
Social interactions between wolves and dogs is mainly designed to avoid confrontation and live peacefully as a group, and hierarchies are fluid with one animal being more assertive than another in one scenario but less assertive in another. These fluid hierarchies are also seen between dogs in a multi dog household, one dog may be more assertive around food while another is more assertive around toys, it depends on the value of that object to each dog. The wolves and dogs will show dominance or deference to each other based on what they most value.
Wolf packs do not have Alpha Wolves who exert their dominance over the whole pack.
Are dogs even like wolves
There are many differences between how wolves live and how our dogs live (Hartstein 2020):
In a wolf pack the males help with the rearing of the young, the whole pack will cooperate to provide enough resources for all the young. With dogs the father does not help with the rearing of puppies, the mother will see to all her puppies needs.
Wolves hunt to get food, as a pack, by working together they can take down much larger prey. Dogs on the street are scavengers and foragers and do not need another dog to help them get the food. At home the dogs in a household will be individually fed well and many breeds have, over time, lost the drive to go out hunting food. Many dogs have become totally dependent on humans to provide food and would struggle to survive if turned out onto the street.
Wolves cover large areas and have freedom to choose their areas and social relationships. Dogs in homes have not chosen those homes and do not generally choose mates. They will live by the owner’s house rules, and have adapted to live successfully like this, as part of a family.
Wolves will sometimes need to fight off threats, and cope with environmental threats which can require pack co-operation. Dogs rely on their human families to protect them from outside threats.
Wolves are born into their family. We choose our dogs to live within our family units. Wolf puppies can choose to leave the family unit and start their own pack, when mature. A puppy does not make this choice.
Wolves do not play with toys, people or by themselves, they will play with other members of the pack to learn and practise behaviours. A dog will play with all the
Thus, behaviours wolves develop to survive can often not be extrapolated to dogs.
How dog’s descended from wolves
Dogs are not ancestors of the wolves which exist today. Dogs are descended from a now extinct wolf population similar to the modern day grey wolf. The wolf studies done, which led to Alpha Wolf theories, were flawed in many ways, and were using the North American wolves, not the European ones which are closer to Dogs genetically. The genetic divergence between the dog's ancestor and modern wolves occurred tens of thousands of years ago. The early wolves started to become domesticated in Europe and Asia between 15 and 25 thousand years ago. Over many generations the wolves started to become dogs changing in appearance and behaviours, the earliest dogs being called proto-dogs.
The proto-dogs developed further away from their wild wolf ancestors and spread through Europe and Aisa between 10 and 20 thousand years ago. While dogs and wolves share more than 99% of their DNA, with some breeds closer to their ancestors than others, all dog breeds, from Chihuahua’s to Great Dane’s, are more closely related to each other than to wolves. Dogs and modern day wolves have evolved differently, with wolves evolving to be successful in their packs, and dogs to be successful living alongside humans.
Dogs know we are not Dogs, even if they wanted to create a hierarchy with other dogs they wouldn’t apply the same thinking to their human family. They want to live in harmony with us and have evolved to do so. Everything about the Alpha Wolf dominance theories is wrong, and largely absurd - do we really think wrestling a dog to the ground and cruelly pinning it there will do good, or walking through a door before our dog, or forcing it to accept being dragged around and have its food taken away is going to achieve anything positive. Dominance based training is often aversive and cruel and we can only hope that the people promoting it will soon become extinct. There are reasons behind every behaviour a dog displays, trying to be pack leader over the human family is not one of them, if you come across a trainer who believes otherwise it is time to find another trainer.
Adda, M (2021) A metaphor on wolves [online] Available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iK7JO4v9tM0
Bradshaw, J (2011) In defence of Dogs, [e-book] Penguin Available from Penguin.co.uk
Hartstein, R (Sept 2014, updated 2020) Are Dogs Pack Animals? [online] Available from https://www.funpawcare.com/2014/09/17/8-reasons-why-dogs-are-not-pack-animals/