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David Mech's Theory on the Wolf Alpha Role


Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Early Studies on Wolf Pack Structure

There have been several conflicting theories about how the hierarchy of a wolf pack is structured. One of the very first theories was based on the observations of a wolf pack in captivity. Animal behaviorist Robert Shenkel carefully observed the interactions between members of a wolf pack in 1947 at the Zoological Institute of the University of Basel in Switzerland.

His observations suggested that the pack was led by an authoritarian figure known as the "alpha wolf." Because at that time, dog behavior was assumed to be closely related to the behavior of wolves kept in captivity, dog owners and trainers started to believe that the best way to attain a high rank was by becoming an authoritarian figure and forcing the dog into submission. This led to an era of dominance-based training where prong collars, shock collars, and alpha rolls were seen in abundance.

David Mech's Studies on Wolf Behavior

Thankfully, more extensive research on the topic of wolf hierarchy was conducted by the American biologist and wolf behavior expert, David Mech. His studies started in 1986 by watching a pack of wild wolves in natural settings on Ellesmere Island, in Northwest Canada. His 13 summers spent there, carefully observing the pack's interactions, brought a whole different picture to the table.

Unlike Shenkels' studies, David Mech noticed that the leader role was not carried out by a single authoritarian "alpha wolf" but rather, by an "alpha couple" which comprised of a male and female wolf. David Mech compared Schenkels' studies on wolf behavior in captivity to studying human behavior in refugee camps. David Mech's revolutionary studies paved the path to kinder training methods since the pack in the wild no longer appeared to be hierarchical, but rather, closely resembled a family structure simply comprising a breeding pair and their offspring.

The alpha pair were observed carefully in their daily interactions for 13 summers. The female's main focus was protecting and taking care of the pups, whereas the male was mainly hunting and providing food. The goal of both was to raise litters of pups up until they matured and were ready to leave the pack.

Interestingly, when mating season arrived, pack members by default recognized the alpha pair's right to reproduce. To prevent conflicts, or perhaps, driven by a natural instinct, most adult wolves by the age of three voluntarily left the pack to form their own family pack so to reproduce and attain the alpha pair role, further allowing the cycle to continue.

Close observations of the interactions between pack members, suggested that the pack, including the alpha female, assumed active and passive submissive postures towards the alpha male. In active submission, the submissive wolf greeted the higher ranking member with head held low, tail wagging, ears down and licking. In passive submission, the submissive wolf voluntarily deferred by rolling over and exposing the belly, while allowing the higher ranking wolf to sniff the genitals.

When hunting time arrived, the alpha pair initiated the attack because they were more experienced. During meals, the pack ate together initially with no fighting taking place. Afterward, the alpha pair took possession of the carcass so they could eat more and hide some meat or take it to the pups. At this time, no other pack members were allowed to approach because this was essential for survival purposes.

David Mech's studies, therefore, implied that being alpha was no longer an innate quality of a a puppy with the potential for being "dominant" as previously thought. Rather, his theory concludes that in the wild, all young wolves are potentially ''alpha's'' once they reach maturity and are capable of obtaining "breeding rights" and creating their own pack.

Wolves in Captivity Behave Differently Than in the Wild

How Does Mech's Theory Apply to Dogs?

It is thanks to David Mech's studies on how the pack was more of a family nucleus that the dominance theory significantly declined. Further studies on dogs and the science of learning along with the appearance of positive training methods further proved that when it comes to their relationship with humans, dogs were not status seeking beings as previously thought. It is a shame that the dominance theory made a substantial comeback in 2004 with the airing of the National Geographic show "The Dog Whisperer."

While Shenkel's and Mech's studies vary greatly, it is ultimately a mistake to totally compare dogs with wolves. While both species share the same number of chromosomes and are capable of breeding, it is estimated that dogs separated from the wolves about 100,000 years ago. Therefore, it is totally wrong to assume that dogs enter our homes for the purpose of ruling and assuming a dominant role. It does not make sense to engage in assertive activities to make dogs submit. The old days of the authoritarian dog owner are finally over; dogs are simply beings that need gentle guidance and fair rules, qualities that ultimately the best parents should have.

David Mech Explains His Theory

Carlo on April 01, 2020:

Thank you for your reply, Adrienne. I agree, plus I want to make it clear that I'm all in favour of positive dog training methods, no doubt about that. It's just that too often I hear people deny not only the concept of dominance among canines but also the fact that we should not fulfil our role as leaders to our dogs and that's sheer nonsense. You also said that we as humans are already natural leaders, and that's true but dogs constantly assess our behaviour and if they judge us as incapable they will take on the leader role because in a dog's mind there is no such thing as a pack (family) without someone who is reliable and trustworthy and who is capable of providing guidance and direction keeping the pack alive, healthy and in harmony. In the wild when the pack leader dies, the pack simply cease to exist and the wolves either go found or join another pack. (This as a reply to mike's question).

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 01, 2020:

Carlo, no confusion between dominance and violence. Mech clarifies that in the wild, all young wolves are potentially ''alpha's'' once they reach maturity and are capable of obtaining "breeding rights" and creating their own pack. Violence is too costly in the wild.

I appreciate the links, but my main point in my response to imonetoremember was that we shouldn't apply to dogs what we see happening among wolves.

Mech emphasizes this as well when in the article you posted he says "we need to be very careful about generalizing from the behavior of wild and captive wolves (from whom dogs emerged) to the behavior of dogs."

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 04, 2019:

Hi Winnie, I used the terminology pack because David Mech used the term throughout the video.

winnie on January 17, 2019:

why do you still call it a "pack" when it's actually a family group that wolves live in?

Alexandra Bassett from Los Angeles on March 28, 2018:

Thank you for posting such an insightful article on authentic canine behavior. I’m a positive reinforcement dog trainer living in Los Angeles (www.dogsavvylosangeles.com) and I see the negative impact of The Dog Whisperer on a daily basis. Positive methods get far better results and are the best way to build a bond with a dog and will hopefully become the norm soon!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 03, 2012:

As a dog owner, you are already a natural leader, no need for chest "thumping' I am the boss so you do what I say. More than being alpha, you simply need to watch yourself from reinforcing the wrong behaviors. A dog that pulls is not dominant and trying to rule the home, a dog that jumps is just saying hello not trying to be as tall as you are, a dog that begs is doing so because he has been rewarded before, he is not trying to steal your meal and become the king of the burger! As opportunistic beings, dog just engage in behaviors that are worthy; but not to be dominant, just because it is convenient. I recommend reading APDT'S stance on this and Dr Sophia Yin' articles for a clearer picture on why the alpha role and dominance crap is outdated.

imonetoremember on September 03, 2012:

The thing is there is still dominance and submissiveness among the pack. I have to agree with the person that asked if we are arguing semantics. David Mech's study doesn't show that wolves don't have a hierarchy. The fact that it shows, "all young wolves are potentially ''alpha's'' once they reach maturity" further proves that being a "pack leader" is important. If dogs are left to run the show, they will and if they didn't there would be no behavior problems or any need for dog trainers other for tricks. I don't see why people think being the Alpha involves rough or inhumane treatment. In the past sure, but now even with the Dog Whisperer there's nothing that I see as being anything more than you'd see them do with each other and still nobody is getting hurt. But most people don't have the ability to utilize Cesar's method properly. Just like in nature, there are small subtleties that put you on top of the pecking order. Most people are not connected enough to animal physiology to employee any method that evolves changing negative behaviors whether it's treat based or not. David Mech's study still shows someone has to be the leader.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 20, 2012:

Why is father wolf more appropriate than "alpha"? Mike, watch David Mech's video above, nobody can say it better than him, he is the the person that actually conducted the studies and changed our views on the wolf pack structure clashing against Shenkel's studies. What happens when the parent wolves die? That would be interesting to know and I do not know if any studies have been conducted on that. It looks like though in a pack there are wolves "second-in-command" to the alpha pair. This information can be verified in this website:

Mike on May 20, 2012:

So what happens to the pack when the "parent" wolves die? Does it just cease to exist? There are no challenges for the... um... parent wolf positions, and the privileges thereof? Please explain again why "scientifically" father wolf is a more appropriate term than alpha, if the position changes hands (paws)... I must have missed that part. Or are we arguing semantics here?

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 19, 2012:

As an owner of Rottweilers which are erroneously perceived as ''bullies'' prone to being assertive and stubborn, I have noticed positive reinforcement also works wonders!

India Arnold from Northern, California on June 03, 2010:

Parenting our domestic dogs makes so much sense. Take a Golden Retriever, for instance, this breed would crumble with hurt feelings and a sense of abandonment if we attempt to Alpha train him. The sweet nature and loving soul screems for a loving, firm but fair parenting approach!

Very wondeful to find your hub! My hope is that all alpha trainers will find this information and utilize it accordingly! Thank you for a beautiful, compassionate hub.

Darlene Sabella from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ... on May 16, 2010:

I did a study and research project on the history of dogs, and this is an excellent hub, packed full of great information. Thumbs up, fantastic

marijanareynders from Toodyay, Western Australia on May 16, 2010:

Cannot agree more with the finding that we need to work with our dogs in a sensible and positive manner and not brutally enforce authority. Thanks for this informative hub

valeriebelew from Metro Atlanta, GA, USA on May 14, 2010:

That makes a lot of sense, and actually seems more logical than what I've always heard. Good hub, and interesting topic.


Training Alternatives to the Alpha Roll

There are more constructive ways to train a dog. Young puppies benefit from early socialization with people and other dogs. By offering your puppy exposure to a variety of new situations during this crucial development period, he'll learn to adapt easier to other changes that may come along later in life. This is easily accomplished by enrolling your pet in a puppy socialization class at your local dog training facility.

Obedience Training

Puppies and adult dogs benefit greatly from basic obedience training.

  • A typical beginning obedience course will teach you how to train your dog to common behaviors such as sit, down, stay and coming when called.
  • These classes are not designed to increase your dominance over your pet, but rather to show you how to communicate effectively with your dog.
  • When trained in a positive environment, your dog will develop a deep trust in you and happily follow your cues. This allows you to keep his attention when he may be otherwise distracted, and it could just save his life in a dangerous situation.
  • Even if you have a new puppy that is too young to join a class because of their vaccinations, you can still begin practicing at home.

Clicker Training

Clicker training is a reward-based dog training method popularized by Karen Pryor that involves using a sound to encourage positive behavior. When clicker training a dog, you use a clicker - a plastic and metal gadget that makes a "click" sound when pressed.

Clicker training involves the following concepts:

  • The dog learns to recognize that click sound means he did something right (and gets a treat).
  • You teach him this by using the clicker every time the dog performs a positive behavior and then give him a treat.
  • For example, when you tell a dog to "lie down," you hit the clicker at the exact moment the dog lies down to obey your command, and give him a treat as a reward.
  • It's best when first training a dog to keep your training sessions short, such as 10 to 15 minutes at the most.
  • Eventually the food rewards are phased out as your dog learns the behaviors.

The clicker training method is a good one for puppies as well as any age of a dog.


Why everything you know about wolf packs is wrong

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.

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.

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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.

"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.


Dominance, Alpha, and Pack Leadership – What Does It Really Mean?

Despite the fact that recent studies have reevaluated hierarchy models and have modified our understanding of behavior in the wild wolf, the concept of a hierarchical relationship among dogs and humans continues to be perpetuated. To ensure a well functioning family group, a family needs to know more about canine behavior than outdated strategies focusing on pack structure. In fact recent research has clearly indicated that the longstanding theory which maintained that alpha wolves control through aggression and relentless management is more myth than fact. These theories have been refuted by wolf biologists and if this theory is no longer considered true for wolves, then how can it be considered true for our dogs? New research on canine learning patterns indicates dogs understand us far better than we understand them.

How do wolves behave in the packs? Aren’t dogs just like wolves?

Decades of observation by wildlife biologists of free-ranging wolf packs have revealed startling insight into the lives of these majestic canids. For instance, seasoned leaders of wolf packs actually survey from near the back of the pack when traveling, rather than taking the lead position. Also, in times of scarcity, the leaders allow the young to eat first, rather than feeding themselves first. Wolf behavior experts, such as L. David Mech, have dedicated their lives to observing wolves in their natural state. Some interesting observations include: There is an absence of reports of wolves seeking high positions over the pack, there are no signs of a leader rousting a subordinate from a desired resting place, and an alpha wolf rarely initiates pinning (a dominance behavior). These experts who study wolf behavior describe the role of the wolf leaders as parents— guiding, teaching, and caring for their pack members. When the wolf offspring mature, they do not compete to overthrow the pack leader instead, they leave the pack, find a mate, and start a family of their own. A parent-family model better describes wolf-wolf relationships than a competitive hierarchy model.

The role of wolf leader is similar to parents–guiding, teaching and caring for their pack members.

Aren’t dogs just trying to be in charge?

Dominance hierarchy based training methods assume dogs are committed to a battle of supremacy and constant challenge with family members. This premise is incorrect and not supported by scientific study. Trainers advising families to take charge of the pack by eating first, walking through doors first, occupying a higher position and worst of all, pinning the dogs into submission are ignoring the current scientific research and subjecting the dog to unnecessary and sometimes cruel training methods. In reality, dogs have an intra-species relationship and a pattern of behaviors with their human family members that are driven by a variety of motivations, including: genetics, socialization, available resources, fear, conflicts, learning, behavioral pathology and disease. Furthermore, application of scientifically based principles of positive reinforcement, operant conditioning, classical conditioning, desensitization and counter-conditioning programs have been shown to successfully teach dogs desirable behaviors and prevent behavior problems while enhancing the human-pet bond.

Pack Leadership Rules: myth or fact?

  1. Myth: Don’t let your dog walk ahead of you. If he is ahead of you on a walk, he will walk all over you in all other areas of your relationship!

Fact: Dogs may pull when walking on a leash for a variety of reasons. They may have the desire to play, explore, investigate or be social. This can become a learned behavior that is self rewarding the reward being successful attempts to experience a new area’s odors, other dogs, and people. In other cases, dogs pull to get out of a fearful situation!

The second part of this myth is actually more damaging: how a dog walks on a leash does not reflect your relationship, it simply means you haven’t taught your dog to walk on a leash. Teaching a dog to walk nicely on a leash will not improve separation anxiety, aggression or phobias. However, this should not be confused with the fact that dogs that show excitable or aggressive meetings and greetings on walks may need to learn to walk calmly by the owner’s side as part of the behavior management program. Mostly walking nicely on a leash is about manners, training and enjoying something you should do with your dog frequently.

  1. Myth: A Tired Dog is a Good Dog

Fact: It is essential to meet the exercise and behavioral needs of your dog (and breed) by providing a variety of forms of enrichment. However, exceeding the exercise needs of your dog may actually be unhealthy especially for dogs with health concerns such as heart, respiratory or joint diseases. The fact is that exercise needs will vary according to breed, age, health and individual personality. In addition there are many ways in addition to exercise to enrich the lives of our pets including social, exploratory and mental stimulation. A 2-mile run, a swim, and a chance to play with another dog may be ideal for some Labrador Retrievers, while a Bichon’s needs may be met by a short walk to the coffee shop and doing tricks for the other patrons. However, fulfillment of basic exercise needs alone does not prevent problems of boredom or unruly problems. Exercise does not prevent aggression, separation anxiety, phobias, or compulsive disorders. There are many athletically fit dogs that demonstrate aggression!

  1. Myth: Your dog should wait while you pass through doorways before your dog.

Fact: Dogs should be taught nice manners at doorways: go out when told, wait when asked to and don’t knock people over. Doorways are man-made structures that have little significance to a dog. Most wolves have a narrow inconspicuous opening to their den and wolf biologists do not observe confrontations regarding the order wolves utilize a den entrance.

This is relevant for manners and safety – your dog should not knock you over as you pass through a doorway and he should not escape past you. In addition, if your dog tends to pull excessively or show aggression when meeting or greeting new people and pets, he should be trained to follow you out the door. However, adherence to these guidelines does not signify your dog’s respect, admiration or allegiance. In fact, a dog that is punished may learn not to go through a doorway when a specific person is around because he has learned from past experience punishment occurs this is fear, not respect.

  1. Myth: Eat before your dog this shows him you are his alpha leader.

Fact: Dogs naturally associate food rewards as an indication the immediately preceding behavior was appropriate.

Dogs are scavengers by nature and while he may longingly desire what you are eating, he is not reflecting on his place in the pack while he watches you eat. Simply put, because we provide the food, our dogs cannot eat unless we give them the food regardless if we eat first or second. Dogs learn best by operant conditioning and food rewards facilitate that learning

process much like a wolf would learn how to hunt a prey. A successful hunt means that a wolf will likely try that strategy again. By the way, wolves in packs do not display a meal time hierarchy: in times of plenty everyone eats together and in times of scarcity the parent wolves make certain their offspring are fed first.

  1. Myth: Don’t allow your dog on the furniture or on your bed. If you allow your dog to be on the same level as you, you are elevating his status and lowering yours.

Fact: Neither dogs nor wolves use elevated positions to infer social meaning. Wildlife biologists who have spent their lives observing natural wolf pack behavior do not observe acquisition of higher places to be associated with confrontation or challenge among wolves. Dogs or wolves may choose to occupy a comfortable location. They may select a location to observe prey or approaching enemies.

The pertinent questions become: Do you want your dog on the bed, couch or chair? Is it safe to have your dog in those places with you? Do you enjoy that interaction with your pet or would you rather not have dog hair in your bed? This is a personal decision based on how you enjoy interacting with your pet and if it is safe. This matter only becomes relevant for behavior issues if a dog is aggressive to people while in these vulnerable positions. So, cuddling in bed with a dog that may wake up suddenly and react by startled aggression is a bad idea because it puts people at risk for an aggressive episode not because the dog infers some hierarchal privilege by being in the bed.

  1. Myth: If you establish eye contact with the dog, the dog must avert his gaze first.

Fact: Teach your dog to watch your face on cue then you have his attention and if your dog is watching you instead of something else many problems can be avoided.

Dogs do display submission or appeasement by diverting their eyes. It can also mean fear, conflict or anxiety (see Canine Communication – Interpreting Dog Language). New research suggests that dogs have the innate ability to observe and learn from human gestures and eye gaze. Curiously wolves did not display this ability. Dogs can also be taught to watch a person’s face on cue and this can be very helpful in the prevention and treatment of behavior problems. For example, if a dog doesn’t like other dogs then while passing other dogs he can be given a “watch” cue and rewarded for watching his owner

Aren’t behavior problems resolved by pack leadership and obedience training?

Dogs are simply not trying to take over the pack or be in charge. Dogs are learning how to interact by assessing what works and what doesn’t with each interaction. Dogs are great students of human behavior and draw conclusions based on your actions. Punishment, deference and fear as training methods do not foster a mentally, emotionally and behaviorally sound dog. A mentally and emotionally healthy dog is not necessarily achieved with obedience training. Families that focus on socialization, positive reinforcement, avoidance punishment based strategies and clear and predictable interactions will be rewarded by a dog that is an enjoyable member of the family.

  • Visit the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior website www.avsabonline.org and read each of the position statements but particularly those on dominance and punishment.
  • “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species” David Mech
  • “Dominance Fact or Fiction” Barry Eaton

[i] Mech, David “Whatever Happened to the Term Alpha Wolf” International Wolf Center publication Winter 2008 www.wolf.org

[ii] Virányi, Zs., Gácsi, M., Kubinyi, E., Topál, J., Belényi, B., Ujfalussy, D., Miklósi, Á. 2008. Comprehension of human pointing gestures in young human-reared wolves (Canis lupus) and dogs (Canis familiaris). Animal Cognition, 11: 373-387

[iii] Miklósi, Á., Kubinyi E., Topál, J., Gácsi, M., Virányi, Zs., Csányi, V. 2003. A simple reason for a big difference: wolves do not look back at humans but dogs do. Current Biology, 13: 763-766.

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David Mech's Theory on the Wolf Alpha Role - pets

It is the position of the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) that dominance theory is an obsolete and aversive method of interacting with animals that has at its foundation incorrect and misinterpreted data which can result in damage to the animal-human relationship and cause behavioral problems in the animal.

Rather, the PPG advocates for effective animal training procedures focused on the use of behaviorism, the natural science of behavior which emphasizes natural science assumptions and avoids speculation and theoretical constructs for explaining behavior.

Behaviorism has two main branches: experimental analysis of behavior, which identifies basic principles of behavior, and applied behavior analysis, which applies basic principles of behavior to changing problem behaviors in real-life settings. Further, it is the position of the PPG that the general pet-owning public should be educated by organizations and associations on dominance theory and the many problems it can create for animals. This position statement is consistent with leading animal behaviorists

  • Definition

Dominance theory, or “social dominance” as an ethological construct describing features of a social relationship, - addresses the management of social conflict including but not limited to the allocation of limited resources- through the exertion of control and influence. This takes place in a way that minimizes the risk of overt aggression by the use of conventionalized ritual display behaviors. This minimization of risk involves a cost–benefit evaluation of the benefits of seeking to win a particular social conflict versus the likely associated cost of losing the conflict (O’Heare, 2004).

This definition describes only interactions between beings of the same species - it is never used in science to describe or label inter-species interactions. Instead, the American Society of Veterinary Animal Behaviorists notes in its 2008 position statement against the use of dominance theory in the behavior modification of animals, “most undesirable behaviors in our pets are not related to priority access to resources rather, they are due to accidental rewarding of the undesirable behavior.” (AVSAB 2008)

  • Foundations of Dominance Theory in Animal Training

The idea that humans should exert physical control over animals was first widely-popularized in the 1970s in the book “How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend" by the Monks of New Skete, which recommended the “alpha roll” to deal with undesired behaviors. The alpha roll, in which a human flips a dog onto its back and pins it until it showed submissive behaviors, was founded on 1960s studies of captive wolves kept in an area too small for their numbers and composed of members that wouldn't be found together in a pack in the wild. These conditions resulted in increased numbers of conflicts in which one wolf would appear to pin another wolf. However, current scientific knowledge have recanted the findings of these studies, acknowledging that this behavior is not typical of wolves living in the wild. (Mech, 1999). Despite these findings and the great disparity in behavior between wolves and dogs, dominance theory became popularized and remains a widely-propagated training style for pet dogs.

  • Application of Dominance to the Human-Animal Relationship

Ethologists agree that while dominance theory does not describe interactions between different species, it is frequently applied to animal training in a way that promotes adversarial relationships between the animal and human. The term is often used to label an animal’s counter-control behaviors, often as a result of aversive stimulation and coercion. In short, dominance theory is a counterproductive construct that distracts from the functional relationship between behavior, and the environment, which actually causes and explains behaviors. (O’Heare)

It is the position of the PPG that all training be conducted in a manner which encourages animals and focuses on the use of behaviorism, and that all PPG members encourage and use functional analysis to identify and resolve problem behaviors. Further, the PPG and its members actively eschew the improper use of the term “dominance” and all training methods employing dominance theory.

Using 'Dominance' To Explain Dog Behavior Is Old Hat, Science Daily. Click here to read the article

Canine Dominance: Is the Concept of the Alpha Dog Valid? Current research challenges the idea of the alpha dog. Published on July 20, 2010 by Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C. in Canine Corner Click here

The Dominance Controversy, Dr. Sophia Yin. Click here to read the full article

Scientific Articles

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) Position Statement on The Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals. Click here to read the full statement

Steinker, A. (2007). Social–Psychological Dynamics in Dog Training: The Power of Authority and Social Role Designation and its Possible Effects on Dog Training. Journal of Applied Companion Animal Behavior, 1(1), 7-14. Click here to purchase this article

Steinker, A. (2007). Terminology Think Tank: Social dominance theory as it relates to dogs, Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2, 137-140. Click here to access this article

John W.S., Bradshaw , Emily J., Blackwell , Rachel A., Casey. Dominance in domestic dogs -- useful construct or bad habit? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, May/June 2009, Pages 135-144 Click here for the abstract

L. David Mech (1999) (PDF). Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Click here to access this article

Educational Videos

Dr. L. David Mech talks about the terms "alpha" and "beta" wolves and why they are no longer scientifically accurate.


Watch the video: Reward based training. What is it? (July 2021).