Alpha Wolf, R.I.P.

Alpha Wolf, R.I.P.

In a departure from the usual Q&A format, Dr. Bailey lays to rest an obsolete training concept.

Each month I receive 15 to 20 problems, questions or concerns about dog dominance issues. Most correspondents tell me how they are maintaining their alpha position over the dog because that is how wolves do it.


It seems we have become enamored with the idea that the dog is a pack animal having the same social structure as its wolf pack forebears. From this assumption we make a cosmic leap to the place where humans and dogs form a pack with the human in charge, giving orders, doling out the discipline -- the alpha member of the pack.

After all, wolves have the alpha male and the alpha female to keep the lower ranking wolves in line. Therefore the people-dog pack must do the same. The term "top dog" for someone who has reached a high place on the social or business ladder derives from this thinking.


The next leap of logic is that to train the dog, the owner/handler/trainer has to be the alpha member of the person-dog pack, with the person dominant and the dog subordinate. I went looking for where all these "alpha wolf equals alpha dog equals alpha trainer" leaps of logic came from.


When a random group of wolves, or any species of animal, is grouped together in an artificial situation, they will naturally compete and eventually form some type of dominance hierarchy. This idea was observed in flocks of chickens and a "pecking order" was described. This came to be called a social hierarchy or dominance hierarchy.

Those individuals that emerged as top ranking were referred to as the alphas, implying that they fought or somehow competed to gain the position. High rank presumably gave them preferred access to all the select resources, including mates for breeding. Those next in the rank order, primarily their offspring, were the betas and the lowest, usually lesser ranking parents and their offspring, were called omegas.

In the mid-1940s, Rudolph Schenkel published his classic monograph on how wolves interacted, based on randomly chosen groups of wolves placed in artificial enclosures. He stated that a top ranking male and top ranking female emerged from all the interactions and he referred to them as the alpha pair. Schenkel's monograph became the reference all wolf literature cited.

Twenty years later David Mech published his popular book, The Wolf, Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. The paperback version hit the popular market with all the alpha pair citations from Schenkel's population of captive wolves. Dog people, thinking today's dog is descended from today's wolves, grabbed the scientific-sounding alpha concept and misapplied it to everything.

But then Mech spent several years studying wolves on Ellesmere Island, observing the interactions of free-living wolf parents and their offspring. What he saw changed his thinking. He decided the existing literature on alpha status, including his own book, was misleading.

To formally correct and dispel all the published misinformation he published his 1999 article, "Alpha Status, Dominance and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs," in the Canadian Journal of Zoology. This was followed a year later by an article in Canadian Field Naturalist, "Leadership in Wolf, Canis lupus, Packs," further elaborating the parent role in wolves and in the social order of the pack.

The leader-follower relationship has replaced dominant-subordinate in the modern wolf literature. The word alpha has not been used for at least 10 years except to explain why the concept is outdated.

Science now understands that rather than being organized with a dominant "top dog" that fought its way up or a male-female pair that dominates by aggression, wolf packs are family groups which are formed in exactly the same way human family groups are formed. Boys and girls reach sexual maturity, leave the nest, find a suitable partner and start a family.

Unfortunately the dog behavior wannabes who love the alpha concept either haven't read the updated literature, haven't grasped the concept of wolf social ordering, or accepted it and are still flitting around spouting 40-year-old misconceptions.

Dog training, especially among the hunting dog fraternity, is usually based on the dominant-subordinate model, which in turn supposes that you must be the alpha member in order to be the leader of the pack. Many pet obedience trainers still preach the alpha patter (because it sounds so knowledgeable) but actually use the leader-follower relationship in their training.

As wolves really do, these trainers reward desired behavioral responses and mildly correct or simply do not reward undesirable behavior. Obedience trainers have found that leader-follower models for training work better because dominance-submission training models have to be frequently reinforced with forceful correction to maintain the handler's dominance status.

Most dog owners are a lot less capable of meting out correction as forcefully or as efficiently as a professional trainer. So their dogs are sent to a pro, are made "perfect" in a month or two, but quickly revert to misbehavior after a few weeks back at home. Or worse, the dog becomes aggressive because it quickly learns a threat works to keep the owner off its back.

Another reason the leadership model works better for training most dogs is a function of the dog's social make-up. Dominance is established in any species by force or by aggression with the purpose of getting controlling access to resources such as food, a preferred resting place or mates.

For training dogs, dominance is not appropriate for most things that people want from their dogs, such as coming when called, walking on a leash, or retrieving a dead gamebird. Dogs are not social climbers in that undesirable behavior is not motivated by the desire to become dominant in a situation.

A dog growling at a family member is not trying to displace that person in the family order, but rather, is defending what he sees as his; and he has learned that a threatening growl is going to get him space. Most perceived dominance aggression toward people has little to do with dominance. It is primarily the dog defending his stuff, not attempting to get yours.

Though a dominant individual may have priority in accessing desirable resources, they have to be present to keep subordinate individuals from sneaking the preferred resources.

When a subordinate sneaks some resource from a dominant, it is not attempting to increase its rank, only trying an alternative way of getting a desirable resource.

In the person-dog interaction where the person has established a dominance training model, being dominant over the dog does not give the person control when out of sight or at a distance from the dog. Out of sight, out of mind is very apparent. That is why we often have dogs burying game, or eating it when retrieving from a long dragged track, when out of sight in a hunting type test.

Certainly, leadership can be gained by dominance, but it must be continuously reinforced with aggressive gestures, signals or outright force to maintain the stability of the relationship. The dominant one must always be right on top of every situation, always ready with the properly forceful correction given at the exact right time. Leadership gained by dominance is often transient at best.

The leadership model requires the leader to be in control of all the desirable resources.

For our dogs this is food, quality attention such as praise or petting, water, preferred rest sites, the things necessary for the care of the dog. The dog wants these resources and is willing to work for them. The leader-follower relationship therefore parallels a care-dependency type of relationship.

When the dog does the desired task it gets paid by receiving some of the desired resources. The dog is working for a living, but because he is getting paid with something positive, he is willing to repeat the desired task. When the dog does something undesirable or refuses to do the desirable thing, the pay is withheld. Gradually the dog does only the correct thing because it pays off and the undesirable drops out because there is no pay-off.

In this situation, the dog corrects itself. A mild correction such as a "no" or "ah-ah" can speed things along and even a heavier correction when required can be beneficial. But the need for any correction gets less frequent as the dog learns that "If I do this I get something good and if I do something else it's just not worth it."

The research by David Mech showed wolves train their young pups using this technique.

Teachers in grade school train their charges this way. Wild animal trainers and psychology rat researchers give a pay-out for every small increment of correct steps toward forming a complex behavior and have termed this process "shaping."

There is a lot of evidence that animals that have been taught how to learn using shaping techniques are far better at solving novel problems and will work harder at it than control animals that were not taught how to learn. Hunting dogs respond the same way.

Wolf scientists moved away from the alpha concept long ago. They have re-evaluated the dominance-submissiveness model in parental care of pups and are now seeing it as a leadership model. Dog people, taking an opposite tack, seem to be getting more enthralled with alpha dominance as the way to go.

Dog people should catch up to the wolf people and drop the whole alpha thing from the vocabulary. And, like the wolf researchers, dog people need to rethink the dominance-submission model for training and realize that it can be counterproductive, cause problems, and that it may be good for making automatons but not thinking dogs.

They need to be teaching a dog to think, to put two and two together to get more than four. Why? Because for real hunting situations, a dog has to learn to think outside the proverbial box.

For solutions to your dog's behavior problems or behavior-related training problems, contact Ed Bailey at edbailey@uoguelph.ca

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