Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author
of the online dog training course “Brain Training for Dogs.”
Early theories about wolf behavior led dog trainers to use authoritarian
methods of behavior modification. This is no longer the norm.
Luemen Rutkowski via Unsplash; Canva
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 Hierarchy and Behavior
Thankfully, more extensive research on the topic of wolf hierarchy was
conducted by American biologist and wolf behavior expert, David Mech. He began
his studies 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 very different picture to the
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” comprising a male wolf and a 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
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 as 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 puppy with the potential for being “dominant” as
previously thought. Rather, his theory concludes that in the wild, all young
wolves are potential ”alphas” once they reach maturity and are capable of
obtaining “breeding rights” and creating their own pack.
Wolves in captivity behave differently than wolves in the wild.
David Mech wolf studies,kabir, morguefile.com
How Does Mech’s Theory Apply to Dogs?
It is thanks to David Mech’s studies on how the pack was more like a family
nucleus, dominance theory significantly declined. Additional 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 are 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.
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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
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
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
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,
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.