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 In fact, on his own website he says that the idea of the alpha wolf is outdated, as we have learned more about the animals in the last 40 years than in all of history before that.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 This has been called outdated and cruel by organizations including the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior and the American Veterinary Medical Association.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.