Dominance And The Wolf

Over the past few months, I have been busy researching everything I can find on social dominance theory. My aim is to empower you to better understand the history behind the statement; “Your dog is trying to dominate you” and “You have to be the alpha of your pack”.

Let’s pay respect to the fact that dogs and wolves are related, and do have similarities. With this in mind, I feel it is important to give you some background on wolf studies and behaviour so that you can better understand social dominance theory in relation to your own dog training skills. Although, this should be done fairly loosely, as a wild wolf is not a domestic dog.

Social dominance theory has been around since the mid-1930s when Schjelderup-Ebbe studied the ‘pecking order’ of domestic chickens. Social dominance was also observed in the 1940s to the 1970s in captive wolves. These studies found that wolves live in a strict linear hierarchy, with an alpha male and alpha female reigning over the group, and that position is elevated by confrontations with superior wolves. 

Over time, these findings became a way to explain our own dog’s behaviour and our interaction with them. This research is what dog training used to be based on (and sometimes still is). However, scientists finally realised that in order to truly understand the behaviour of wolves they must be researched in their natural surroundings.

Enter L. David Mech*, a scientist who, in the summers between 1986 and 1998, observed a group of wild wolves on Ellesmere Island in Northwest Canada. Mech’s research found that in the wolves he had been observing, the hierarchy is governed by a breeding male and breeding female (breeding pair), with other wolves in the group automatically deferring to the breeding pair simply because they were the ones producing the offspring. Similar to our own family structure, with mum and dad being the head of the family. In all the years spent observing this wild group Mech did not see one ‘dominance’ contest.

The difference between Mech’s research and that of earlier findings is that in a wild wolf pack the wolves are all related, thus having a genetic vested interest in looking after each other. Wild wolves are also able to leave the pack (usually by three years of age) to begin their own pack. In captivity, the wolves researched were not related, did not need to hunt, and were obviously not able to leave once they had reached maturity.

These restrictions would lead to heightened anxiety and tension within the group, coming out in the form of contests and confrontations. It would be much like gaining an understanding of and treating free people, based on observing people in a prison- the environment can make a significant difference to the behaviour of all animals.

To be fair, the research done on captive wolves is still valid- for captive wolves, just like the research done on wild wolves is valid. But, what conclusions can you draw on typical wolf behaviour by observing them in an artificial environment?

Early research on the wolf lead to the following thinking on how wolf packs operate, this should sound familiar to many of you….

Dominant wolves walk ahead of the rest of the group.

Dominant wolves sleep together in higher and better places.

Dominant wolves ‘pin’ subordinate wolves to the ground in dominance displays.

Dominant wolves eat first, with other wolves following in order after the previous level has finished eating.

There are always challenges for the alpha role and frequent confrontations for this role.

Dominant wolves never move their position (physically) for subordinates.

Mech’s research found that on the whole, wolf packs are peaceful groups lead by the breeding pair. The packs are not strictly linear, with dominance and subordination being interchangeable depending on the situation. For example, subordinate wolves will successfully keep food away from more dominant members, and the breeding female has been found to be dominant when it comes to offspring rearing.

Also, the breeding pair usually do eat first, but not exclusively, and they also feed the young wolves, sometimes before themselves. There has been nothing, documented as observed, of a wild wolf forcefully ‘pinning’ another to the ground, instead the position is offered voluntarily by the submissive wolf. In addition, wild wolves will roam in all sorts of different arrangements depending on the goal of the outing, the breeding pair does not always lead. There is also no evidence of wolves ‘moving’ each other around, if others are in their way, they simply walk around.

At some stage in history, our pet dogs’ behaviour was linked with wolf behaviour from early wolf research. I do not have a problem with any of the early research, or how it was conducted, but I object to the jump from old captive wolf research as a way of explaining current domestic canine behaviour.

Granted, the dog is related to the wolf, and it is for this reason many people choose to explain our dogs’ behaviour using research outcomes on captive wolf behaviour. However, while dogs are related to the wolf, it makes no sense to me to use research on captive wolves to explain our pet dogs’ behaviour. Just as it would be like watching chimps to explain our current behaviours- similar, but not at all appropriate.

Now we have access to more reliable research, professionals in the dog training fraternity should know better than to base dog training on old and outdated research. Trainers should always be open to new research and be constantly looking to change their practice to keep it relevant. We owe it to our clients and our reputation as professionals.

Surely it would be better to look at free-ranging dogs to explain our own dogs’ behaviour, or better yet, a study on domestic dogs’ in a domestic setting- someone has done just that, and this will be expanded on in my next post, dominance and your dog– stay tuned.

*The following is a short video of David Mech talking about the reality of wolf packs……

Mech’s research:

“Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs” by
L. David Mech

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