The alpha wolf is a figure that looms large in our imagination. The notion of a supreme pack leader who fought his way to dominance and reigns superior to the other wolves in his pack informs both our fiction and is how many people understand wolf behavior. But the alpha wolf doesn't exist—at least not in the wild.
Top Photo by Caninest
Although the notions of "alpha wolf" and "alpha dog" seem thoroughly ingrained in our language, the idea of the alpha comes from Rudolph Schenkel, an animal behaviorist who, in 1947, published the then-groundbreaking paper "Expressions Studies on Wolves." During the 1930s and 1940s, Schenkel studied captive wolves in Switzerland's Zoo Basel, attempting to identify a "sociology of the wolf."
In his research, Schenkel identified two primary wolves in a pack: a male "lead wolf" and a female "bitch." He described them as "first in the pack group." He also noted "violent rivalries" between individual members of the packs:
A bitch and a dog as top animals carry through their rank order and as single individuals of the society, they form a pair. Between them there is no question of status and argument concerning rank, even though small fictions of another type (jealousy) are not uncommon. By incessant control and repression of all types of competition (within the same sex), both of these "α animals" defend their social position.
Thus, the alpha wolf was born. Throughout his paper, Schenkel also draws frequent parallels between wolves and domestic dogs, often following his conclusions with anecdotes about our household canines. The implication is clear: wolves live in packs in which individual members vie for dominance and dogs, their domestic brethren, must be very similar indeed.
A key problem with Schenkel's wolf studies is that, while they represented the first close study of wolves, they didn't involve any study of wolves in the wild. Schenkel studied two packs of wolves living in captivity, but his studies remained the primary resource on wolf behavior for decades. Later researchers, would perform their own studies on captive wolves, and published similar findings on dominance-subordinant and leader-follower relationships within captive wolf packs. And the notion of the "alpha wolf" was reinforced, in large part, by wildlife biologist L. David Mech's 1970 book The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species (I'm linking it here, but please note that while the book has historical interest, some of its research is outmoded).
Mech spent several years during the 1960s studying wolves in Michigan's Isle Royale National Park as part of his PhD thesis work. Mech's book echoed Schenkel's notions of "alpha wolves" and competition-based pack hierarchies. Readers of Mech's book were led to believe that dominance played a key role in the lupine social order, and that wolves were naturally inclined to dominate one another. And Mech's book became a hit; it was republished in paperback in 1981 and remains in print (much to Mech's chagrin) to this day. It popularized a lot of our modern ideas about wolves, including competition-based hierarchies. Although Mech has since renounced the notion of the "alpha wolf," he admits that if you've heard the term, it's likely thanks to his book.
In more recent years, animal behaviorists, including Mech, have spent more and more time studying wolves in the wild, and the behaviors they have observed has been different from those observed by Schenkel and other watchers of zoo-bound wolves. In 1999, Mech's paper "Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs" was published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology. The paper is considered by many to be a turning point in understanding the structure of wolf packs.
Photo by Mats Lindh
"The concept of the alpha wolf as a "top dog" ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots," Mech writes in the 1999 paper, "is particularly misleading." Mech notes that earlier papers, such as M.W. Fox's "Socio-ecological implications of individual differences in wolf litters: a developmental and evolutionary perspective," published in Behaviour in 1971, examined the potential of individual cubs to become alphas, implying that the wolves would someday live in packs in which some would become alphas and others would be subordinate pack members. However, Mech explains, his studies of wild wolves have found that wolves live in families: two parents along with their younger cubs. Wolves do not have an innate sense of rank; they are not born leaders or born followers. The "alphas" are simply what we would call in any other social group "parents." The offspring follow the parents as naturally as they would in any other species. No one has "won" a role as leader of the pack; the parents may assert dominance over the offspring by virtue of being the parents.
While the captive wolf studies saw unrelated adults living together in captivity, related, rather than unrelated, wolves travel together in the wild. Younger wolves do not overthrow the "alpha" to become the leader of the pack; as wolf pups grow older, they are dispersed from their parents' packs, pair off with other dispersed wolves, have pups, and thus form packs of their owns.
This doesn't mean that wolves don't display social dominance, however. When a recent piece purporting to dispel the "myth" of canine dominance appeared on Psychology Today, ethologist Marc Bekoff quickly stepped in. Wolves (and other animals, including humans), display social dominance, he notes; it just isn't always easy to boil dominant behavior down to simple explanations. Dominant behavior and dominance relationships can be highly situational, and can vary greatly from individual to individual even within the same species. It's not the entire concept of wolves displaying social dominance that was dispelled, just the simple hierarchical pack structure. In response to the same piece, Mech pointed to a 2010 article he published detailing his observance of an adult gray wolf repeatedly pinning and straddling a male pack mate over the course of six and a half minutes. "We interpreted this behavior as an extreme example of an adult wolf harassing a maturing offspring, perhaps in prelude to the offspring's dispersal."
As research on wolves, both captive and wild, continues, we develop a more complex, nuanced picture of wolf behavior. But the easy notion of the "alpha wolf" still persists. Certainly in entertainment it has made for some nice stories; plenty of books and movies center around the notion of wolf—and werewolf—ranks. However, the outmoded idea of the "alpha wolf" still has some legs in a real-world area: dog training.
Just as, more than six decades ago, Schenkel extrapolated his wolf studies and applied them to domestic dogs, so too have many carried the notion of the "alpha wolf" over to dog training. Certainly, just as parent wolves hold dominance over their cubs and human parents hold dominance over their children, owners hold dominance over their dogs. Until my pup gets himself a credit card and a pair of opposable thumbs (and stops dissolving into delighted wiggles every time I tell him what a good little man he is), I'm pretty much the boss in our relationship. But some trainers take the idea of pack rank to the extreme; dog owners are given a laundry list of rules of how to maintain alpha status in all aspects of their relationship: Don't let your dog walk through the door before you do. Don't let her win a game of tug. Don't let him eat before you do. Some (famous) trainers even encourage acts of physical dominance that can be dangerous for lay people to execute. Much of this is a legacy of those old wolf studies, suggesting that we're in constant competition with our dogs for that pack leader position.
But, you might ask, mightn't domestic dogs behave much like wolves in captivity? Despite being members of the same species, wolves (even human-reared wolves) are behaviorally distinct from domestic dogs, especially when it comes to human beings. Take the famous experiment in which human-socialized wolves and domestic dogs are both presented with a cage with food inside. The food is placed inside a cage in a way that makes it impossible for either wolf or dog to retrieve it. The wolves will inevitably keep working at the cage, trying to puzzle out a way to remove the food. The dogs, after a few seconds of struggle, will look to a human as if to say, "Hey, buddy, a little help here?" Even if the hierarchical ranks were some innate part of lupine psychology, dogs have behaviors all their own.
Canine ethology is actually a very rich area of study. Researchers like Karen B. London and Alexandra Horowitz constantly contribute to our understanding of the domestic dog, and researchers like Mech (who has an updated book, Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation) continue to expand our knowledge of wild wolves. And perhaps someday, our popular culture will more closely resemble our modern behavioral science rather than the results of outdated research.