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Debunking The Alpha Dog Myth

A Walk with my Dog Pack

Let’s Talk About the Term ‘Alpha’

In reference to wolves, L. David Mech, PhD first coined the term ‘Alpha’, while studying packs of unrelated wolves. He has since done his utmost to convince publishers to stop printing his earlier works were he first defined the term Alpha. Alpha was a term developed to describe a dominate individual at the top of a hierarchical structure.
To quote David Mech…
‘The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature at least partly because of my book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it. Although most of the book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years then in all of previous history’.‘One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today, the “breeding male,” “breeding female,” or “male parent,” “female parent,” or the “adult male” or “adult female.” In the rare packs that include more than one breeding animal, the “dominant breeder” can be called that, and any breeding daughter can be called a “subordinate breeder.”
And from another extract of Mr. Mech’s…’
‘However, in natural wolf packs, the alpha male or female are merely the breeding animals, the parents of the pack, and dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all…The only consistent demonstration of rank in natural packs is the animals’ postures during social interaction. Dominant wolves assume the classic canid standing posture with tail up at least horizontally, and subordinate or submissive individuals lower themselves and “cringe” (Darwin 1877). In fact, submission itself may be as important as dominance in terms of promoting friendly relations or reducing social distance’.

So How About Domesticated Dogs?

Much like the wolf, the domestic dog has evolved genetically to live in social groups. Wolf packs in their natural state (not captive) consist primarily of related animals. The dog, however has lived with man for thousands of years and has adapted its social behavior to live with humans, in dog packs comprised of various breeds of dogs.
Dogs that live together in human house holds base their social structure on one of the three following social structures…none of these models include a pack leader. All three structures are dependent on dominant and submissive behaviors among the dogs as opposed to leadership by one dog.
One – Despotic Social Structure
A despotic (tyrannical) social structure occurs when one dog takes and maintains control of the other dogs – the other dogs submit to the despotic dog. This tends to be a fairly stable structure. However, it can be a less than desirable structure if the despot is practicing undesirable behavior…for example reactivity to guests…behavior is transferable and learned from one dog to another. If the despot is a well balanced dog – then there is no issue and the structure can be one of positive stability.
Two – Linear Social Structure
A linear social structure occurs when one dog keeps the next dog in line, that dog then keeps the next dog in line and so on down the line. This social structure is based on a sliding scale of submission and is a fairly stable structure. 
Three – Triangular Social Structure
A triangular social structure (not necessarily limited to three dogs – it can be comprised of more than three dogs) is a structure in which competition and fights for control of resources (for example food, toys, space) is constantly underway – this is a very unstable social structure.
I live with a pack of eleven dogs. The dogs are not related by blood, they are instead a pack brought together by a human – most of my dogs are rescues. My dogs range in size from 4 lbs to around 75 lbs and are various breeds, and mixes, for example – Pomeranian, Chihuahua, Shetland Sheepdog, American Cocker Spaniel, Australian Shepherd, Boxer, Siberian Husky, German Shepherd (Alsatian) Belgium Shepherd (Groenendael) and Alaskan Malamute.
My dog pack’s social structure is linear because the leadership position is my role. It is my responsibility to coach and mentor my dogs to ensure that despotic and triangular behavior does not occur. Despotic behavior normally results from a lack of leadership on the humans part and is not – in my mind – a desired outcome as it can lead to issues and unwanted behavior. This is even more so for triangular social behavior as escalated and reactive behaviors become the norm.

 References; Wolf News and Info – L. David Mech, The Canine Mind – UK


About Karen

Dogs are my life, my work, my passion… I am a Dog Whisperer, Dog Behaviorist and Holistic Canine Wellness Adviser with a wealth of real-time, real-life experience living and working with dogs. For two and a half decades I have worked with and shared my life with dogs. My own dog pack is comprised of eleven dogs, various breeds and ages. I provide a full range of services including Obedience Training for puppies and dogs; canine Behavior Modification; canine Psychological Rehabilitation, specializing in assisting dogs that are experiencing extreme states of insecurity, anxiety and aggressive-reactive behavior; Diet, Nutrition and Wellness Advice and Plans for canines and felines…natural wisdom for you and your companion animal.

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3 comments

  1. My 3 malamutes are in a triangular social structure and I don’t know how to fix it. One of my females is very aggressive to the point that she’s attacked my other female and has drawn blood. Left to their own I think she could have killed her. What can I do to fix this?

  2. I’ve been following your posts for some time Karen, of all the people I know personally who work with dogs I have tremendous respect for your approach and your knowledge. In all the different situations I have had with dogs over the years, dealing with singles and in groups, I think the hierarchy has sort of been natural and obvious. However I would say that I have probably been the “Alpha” which I believe to be quite natural. It has been quite an asset in training to develop a relationship with them on terms that they understand.

  3. Wonderful information. I have three dogs and my German Shepard is despotic. When on walks (off lead) she “stalks” the other two dogs preventing them from running ahead of her. Working with a trainer I understand and believe it is I who is being trained, not the dogs. I smile nervously when I read how much more training I need.

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