The ‘Alpha Wolf’ Is An Outdated Myth

“Dim with the mist of years, gray flits the shade of power.” —Lord Byron, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”

In A Nutshell

The idea of an alpha male leading wolf packs through superior strength or force is ingrained in our culture. Popular werewolf fiction usually involves the trope. The idea dates from the 1970s, a time when we knew a lot less about wolves than we do now. Research since has found that wolves don’t fight for control of a pack—males simply breed, and then look after their family. Wolf experts today simply refer to the “male parent” or “breeding male” when describing that position in a pack.

The Whole Bushel

One of the people responsible for the popular idea of the alpha wolf is L. David Mech. In 1970 he released a book (The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species) which promoted the concept. Yet science corrects itself in light of new evidence, and Mech was wrong. In fact, on his own website he says that the idea of the alpha wolf is outdated, as we have learned more about the animals in the last 40 years than in all of history before that. Mech has asked his publisher to stop printing the book for years, without success.

The idea of alphas and betas came about during a study of captive wolves in the 1940s. When animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel put random groups of wolves together the males and females did compete to form a dominant pair. Schenkel coined the alpha and beta terms. Unfortunately, that behavior doesn’t reflect the reality of how wolves live in the wild.

When a male breeds, its offspring become its pack. It is typically the sole male, apart from its sons. It doesn’t need to fight other wolves for charge. When the sons are old enough to have their own packs, they simply leave to find a female with which to breed. The status of offspring in the pack is based on age, rather than strength or anything else.

It’s not just supernatural fiction that has been impacted by this idea. It’s become a key idea behind the teachings of some dog training experts, including National Geographic’s “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan. He teaches that humans should use physical force to teach their dogs to be submissive, and to show that the owner is the “alpha.” This has been called outdated and cruel by organizations including the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Trying to assert your dominance over a dog can backfire. It can cause the animal to lash out and attack. Even if the dog doesn’t, then it is likely to be scared and stressed rather than simply resigned to a lesser position. As with humans, being constantly stressed out can cause a dog all sorts of health problems.

Show Me The Proof

TIME: Dog Training and the Myth of Alpha-Male Dominance
L. David Mech Official Website: Outmoded notion of the alpha wolf

  • Finally, I may call myself an alpha wolf.

    • Hillyard

      Which would make you out dated.

    • lbatfish

      Congratulations, my son! You are now qualified to wear the fabled “Three Wolf Moon” T-shirt, and add your life’s wisdom to those of the other 2727 proud Amazon reviewers.

      • SensiblePerson

        Where I live (Stockholm, Sweden) iv’e never even seen that shirt before, sorry if i’m a bit judgmental but that shirt looks like the 90’s puked all over it (Please don’t hurt me)

        • lbatfish

          Actually, it’s Amazon reviewers starting around 2009 that puked all over it. It started out as just another stunningly-lame-looking shirt, but then some reviewers began attributing mystical powers to it, and it “went viral” (on Amazon, at least), with the result being that it became one of the top-selling clothing items for that year. That’s why my comment included a link to the reviews. 🙂

          Similarly funny “viral Amazon reviews” also occured for other seemingly-random Amazon items, including Tuscan Milk and the now-infamous “Harry Potter Nimbus 2000 Vibrating Broomstick” (which Amazon took down for reasons of “bad taste”, but can still be read elsewhere on the internet with a little help from the Google).

      • Yahmule

        I would wear that shirt unironically and unapologetically.

  • edzyl blane

    But clearly, Cesar Millan’s technique works most of the time.

    • inconspicuous detective

      apparently, there are two ways to “train” a dog, though both require dominance asserted.

    • Yahmule

      Milan is popular and successful and one way unknown trainers try to get attention is by disparaging him.

  • Vanstarimin

    So, one person has changed his mind, after reviewing his research on captive animals when it was shown not be true in the wild. I am not sure what this proves, except knowledge evolves over time.

    Domesticated animals are neither captive nor wild and to conflate this with Cesar Milan is irrelevant. Anyone who watches him will know that his biggest thing is to exercise your pet. Something we don’t do enough. That is why we are having pet problems.

    Anyway if you observe animals, be they pets, captive or wild you will see that animals use physical corrections on each other. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about a litter of puppies or a pride of lions.

    I’m not sure what I was supposed to learn from this but it hasn’t provided anything that would make me change my mind.

    • Maf

      Dominance has nothing to do with the supposed caste system promoted and then deprecated by Mech. Also, dominance in ethology has little to do with the general meaning dominance in layman terms, much like theory in physiscs and in general usage.

  • SensiblePerson

    Take that, Jack London!

  • Errkism

    Wolves are one of the most badass animals on the planet.

  • Cynthia Groce

    The alpha is always a female . I know I raised them for years

  • mist42nz

    Actually using physical force is very effective – but it must be connected with other behaviours, as superior members eating first, and getting preferential seating locations.

    There is also the temperment of the dog to adjust for. Some aggressive individuals will find it hard to follow absent leaders, and some passive types will fret easily if abandoned for periods of time.
    When using physical force, it is best to start young, the most appropriate is just rolling the dog over and holding them down firmly until they submit. The only reason to fight (hit) is from challenges … so who is challenging who for control? Likewise barking (aka “yelling”) is a territorial warning system, so yelling is seldom effective, unless you are trying to chase the dog out of YOUR area, or yelling at a third party (thus _encouraging_ dog to do otherwise). with the physical challenge, younger challengers frequently only require firm or instant reprimands, its only when top dog is adled or feeble … that a battle is needed …. or worse, when people have accidentally applied their _cultural_ behaviours to the animal and the animal sees itself as territorial boss/leader (and thus it interprets the humans actions as challenges or out of line behaviour – eg growing at males when they go near their partner)

  • ftyjyry

    So now that you’ve dispelled the myth of the alpha wolf, you should probably correct that nonsense about Cesar Milan teaching people to physically dominate their dog.

  • RuthieSue

    Incorrect! Within a wolf pack, there is a distinct social hierarchy. As the wolf pups grow, they must find their place in the pack. The “alpha” male & female are the only wolves with breeding rights. A male adolescent MAY challenge the alpha or move on. The alpha status is relatively stable but can be challenged by an upcoming male or lone wolf that joins a wolf pack (either at once or later during a female’s heat). This has been observed in the wild.The hierarchy dictates feeding order too. The omega also has a distinct role. Hierarchy is stable until circumstances change (death, a fight, etc.) To say there is no alpha pair in a wolf pack is absolute nonsense!

  • RuthieSue

    Furthermore, failing to recognize the concept of canine dominance can lead to poor canine management, aggression and bites. The problem is people don’t understand the term and think they should physically dominate their dog or bully their dog into submission. Fear aggression is different than a dog that bites because he is schooling a human that he perceives as lower in rank than himself. Reward based training is first and foremost but reward ONLY training (failing to ever correct your dog) leads to behavioural problems.