Alpha Wolf: Not Such a Brute After All

Alpha? No worries, I got this.

Alpha? No worries, I got this.

When Alpha Just Is

What if a central part of what you thought you knew about wolf behavior was wrong?

A brilliant article on wolves inspires me this day. We tend to think of “alpha males” as constantly establishing their dominance by demonstrations of might, putting other males on their backs, snarling menacingly at others with bared teeth.

It turns out that’s far from reality, according to biologist Rick McIntyre. And the reality of alpha male wolves is nothing short of a beacon of hope for our species, males in particular. It turns out the chief male wolf is kind, caring, playful, and quietly in charge, respected without having to grandstand or growl very often within his pack.

The main characteristic of an alpha male wolf,” the veteran wolf researcher Rick McIntyre told me as we were watching gray wolves, “is a quiet confidence, quiet self-assurance. You know what you need to do; you know what’s best for your pack. You lead by example. You’re very comfortable with that. You have a calming effect.”

That wolf leader saves the theatrics for outsiders who challenge his pack’s integrity.

Perhaps mankind needs to learn from this reality, and drop the fierce competitive, aggressive ideas of leadership. Might make the world a safer place to live.

When the Basic Assumption is Wrong

As is always possible, the original model studied had weak underpinnings. The alpha dominance theory came from behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel, studying captive wolves. In a zoo in Switzerland. His publication in 1947 included the following,

By incessant control and repression of all types of competition (within the same sex), both of these “α animals” defend their social position.” (Referring to alpha male and female wolves.)

You may well imagine that any animal, but especially free ranging, pack living predators, would live differently in captivity, no matter the size of their confined area. In fact, that’d be my first guess about confined animal behavior.

Ever see a lion in an old fashioned zoo? We had one in my city, and even as a young boy, it was just unnerving to see the “king of beasts” pacing back and forth monotonously, helplessly, restlessly, for as long as nothing else was going on, like feeding.

Having devoured Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom shows on Sunday evening TV, it was blatant that something was wrong with the poor guy in the cage. What else would account for his aberrant behavior? His confinement was the most obvious stressor of his existence.

And so it was for Schenkel. Observing wolf behavior in a haphazard collection of unrelated animals who now had to make the best of confinement would be a far cry from observing family units in the wild.

So, the alpha wolf grandstanding and violent?

Not so much.

Righting a Wrong Path

A second brilliant researcher of wolves, L. David Mech, studying the wild guys in the 60’s in Northern Michigan, unfortunately bought Schenkel’s idea, and it colored his 1970 book, The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of Endangered Species , which pretty much coined the term “alpha wolf.”

Competition and dominance formed the basis of wolf hierarchy, in this early tome.

Luckily, along with others, by applying greater observation and logic, a new reality emerged as Mech studied wolves through many sequential years. He habituated wolves to his presence on an island in the extreme northern reaches of Canada and cataloged their interactions over 13 summers.

What emerged was a simple understanding:

Labeling a high-ranking wolf alpha emphasizes its rank in a dominance hierarchy. 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. During my 13 summers observing the Ellesmere Island pack, I saw none.

Thus, calling a wolf an alpha is usually no more appropriate than referring to a human parent or a doe deer as an alpha. Any parent is dominant to its young offspring, so “alpha” adds no information.” – “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs” published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology.

A Dog With That Magical Something

I had a patient who showed amazing alpha qualities some years back. Nick was an Akita Huskie mix, and so, had the wolf appearance. But there was not an aggressive bone in his body.

What Nick did have in spades was presence.

Judy would tell me of Nick’s dog park adventures, where other dogs would show heightened tension among them, as a vicious fight was about to erupt. Nick had the uncanny habit of inserting himself into the middle of the fray and just, well, being there, in all his confident glory.

The situation would diffuse. Everyone chilled out and dropped their aggressive stances.

Imagine, never hackles raised, never a curled lip of threat, just a calm, cool, “I’m here now, it’s alright” presence. The other dogs, even if they’d never met Nick, would just dissolve back into happy social beings when he showed up.

Hope for Mankind?

Interestingly, McIntyre and others observed that it was the alpha female, the oldest breeding wolf bitch, who called most of the shots for her pack: where to move to, when to go, when to rest, when to hunt.

Gives legs to our popular saying, “Behind every great man is a great woman.”

Biologists see there are really two hierarchies present in wolf packs, one for males and the other for females.

And interestingly, the males share pup raising responsibilities and procuring food for the family, and are devoted parents and protectors who respect the females.

We’d do well to redefine our definition of alpha male humans with a deeper understanding of how wolf packs live in the wild.

Less fighting, more calm, confident assertion of rightful status.

I like it.

Have you known any remarkable natural leaders? Species doesn’t matter. Tell us about them in the comments.

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15 Comments

  1. Karen on April 8, 2016 at 11:21 pm

    I wondered if you know about an author and scientist in the early 60, his name is called “Farley Mowat” He worked for the Wildlife Services in Alaska. His book is called, “Never Wolf.”
    The way he described the wolf family and how the Alpha male and female, just leave you understand that wolves are an important part of god’s grand scheme. They can teach humans (just like our dogs can) important lessons that you won’t be able to learn easily.

    • Will Falconer, DVM on April 9, 2016 at 8:47 am

      I read his book, yes, “Never Cry Wolf” in college days, and it’s now largely left my memory banks, sorry to say. I remember it being inspiring biology at the very least.
      Thanks for mentioning him, Karen.

  2. Tracy on August 27, 2015 at 11:12 am

    Our amazing alpha just passed away a month ago… he is just as you all have described – calm, quiet, loving, loyal, protective… it’s as if he was the one that connected us (human family) to the other dogs (canine family). His birth brother died 9 months before he did, and we know that was as it should be as his sensitive soul would not have survived if his alpha brother had passed first. He was very much his own dog, but he was also always dependent on being led by his brother. We worried about our alpha when his brother passed, and he was sullen and sad for a short while, but he never complained (some might say you wouldn’t know if a dog was complaining, but we know better than that… if you know your animals, it’s as obvious as someone telling you they’re complaining). He made sure to show us that, although he very much missed his brother, he was still happy to be with us and our other dog and would continue to carry on as alpha.
    He was so perfect. We have fostered hundreds of dogs and cats, and at least 3 times a week took him on off-leash walks out in the country where we live or at a favorite pond near the edge of town. Not once in his entire life did he ever get in a fight or even get ugly with another creature. As he aged, he got annoyed with the obnoxious foster puppies that jumped on his face and bit at his ears. He would mutter a low growl under his breath but nothing more. If their attack grew more obnoxious, he simply got up and went up to his elevated dog house for a break. Out on our country roads, we encounter numerous roaming “alphas” that get protective of their property… our boy simply met each one standing tall and strong, ears up, but with respect to what others were claiming as their own. He was always friendly, but not in a ‘please-accept-me’ sort of way. His patience was that of a saint, with us and with all other creatures; and other creatures seemed to just know he would take care of them and gave him respect almost automatically.
    I didn’t fully see the importance of his role until after he died. Our poor four-legged girl is now all alone, without her leader. Towards his end, he lost nerve-function in one of his back legs and had advanced arthritis in a front leg… needless to say, he didn’t get around very well. He didn’t bat an eye, though! He led his small pack until he physically couldn’t take another step (we resorted to bringing a large jogging stroller to push him in on long walks because it would have broken his heart to be left behind). His leadership wasn’t as obvious to the eye in his last months, but now that he is gone it’s apparent how much our third dog needed him. She is beside herself, and I’ve even caught her multiple times running bewildered, random and chaotic circles around the house and barn. She was always prone to anxiety, but that is now through the roof. She is glued to me every second of the day that I am at home (which is a lot because I homeschool my boys!), and it breaks my heart to look in to her lost, sorrowful eyes.
    All that being said, her struggles just point every so much more strongly towards the undeniable leadership of our Buck. We can’t ever imagine another dog that will compare to his resilient, calm, always loving and loyal, unwavering, silent strength. And he never had to assert these things, he just was!!

    • Will Falconer, DVM on August 27, 2015 at 11:40 am

      What a beautiful rendering of this guy’s world of influence, Tracy. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Dede W on July 6, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    This article is right on and I really enjoyed it. The female pack leader at our home is a 5 lb cutie who is never nasty or over-bearing, but she’s definitely their canine leader. It’s been a joy to see how she operates and how the others all obey. For example, if the 2 young ones are barking too much, she walks up to them and gives one serious bark right in their face. She’s just told them to “be quiet, that’s enough” and they obey. Nothing aggressive or negative about it. If needed, she escalates it but they’ve never had a fight. Quiet, confidence with love makes for a great pack leader.

    • Will Falconer, DVM on July 7, 2015 at 8:11 am

      Isn’t that cool, Dede? Size matters not, if the alpha dog clear owns her status. And, I suspect she never had to fight her way to the top.
      Thanks for sharing this great example.

  4. Paula S on June 28, 2015 at 9:40 pm

    Yes, most people have the Alpha personality mixed up with Beta. Alpha’s are calm and in control. They are the head of the pack and know without the support of his/her followers they would be nothing. They make rules and enforce them, but never unjustly.
    Beta’s are bullies. Pure and simple. They pick on and do things out of proportion to the infraction. They desire to lead the pack but do not have the emotional weight to carry it out properly. They have a deep layer of insecurity and try to cover it with posturing and shows of aggression. These are the dogs most people have behaviour problems with.
    Gamma’s are the submissive ones. Never wanting to impose and easily intimidated.
    Interestingly enough all three personalities can also be seen in humans. 😉

    • Will Falconer, DVM on June 30, 2015 at 4:32 am

      Hi Paula,
      Are you saying these betas live in natural wolf packs, or just among domesticated dogs? I didn’t study wolf interactions deeply, but saw no mention of troublemakers like this.
      And, I think it likely that man creates a lot of this disturbed behavior with repeated rabies vaccinations. The evidence is often behavior going awry within a month of a shot, and the fix is often found in a remedy from a group known as rabies miasm or hydrophobia remedies.

      • Paula S on June 30, 2015 at 10:04 am

        They do exist it wolf packs, although they are a lot less common then in dogs, and usually to a lesser degree. This is how trouble makers get kicked out, usually to come back in a couple weeks, or they will join a neighboring pack. (as a follower, not a leader)
        Humans do create a lot more unstable betas, yes vaccines and other medical problems create a large amount, but also in play is the human pack and lifestyle. They don’t have anyone more qualifiyed to take the lead position, so the dog does, and the insecurity of being placed in a position where they are not qualified (and they know it) leads them to bully behaviour and other odd behaviour.
        Each animal (wolf or dog . . .or human) has their own degree of one of these three main personalities, how much they show depends on individual, health, lifestyle, how they were raised, and how they are currently raised, diet, and I’m sure several other factors.
        It’s a good article for showing humans the real qualities of an alpha, patience is huge on the list, as is an air of authority (not authoritarian), and following through on a rule breach. Respect is huge in a healthy pack, and it goes both ways, creating resentment in a group where you each depend on each other is usually not a good thing.
        I would say that it is probably 90% human created, and 10% instinct. It could be even more. 🙂

        • Will Falconer, DVM on July 7, 2015 at 9:06 am

          I agree: manmade dysfunction. The worst is when a dog is owned by well meaning folks who don’t take the leadership role. I’ve personally seen disastrous behavior resulting from this, like you mention.
          It happens in kids as well. When parents are too lax, the child feels unsafe and unsure, being thrust into a position of power he has no knowledge of or boundaries about.
          I worry for first time dog owners in this regard, and often refer them to positive reinforcement trainers to become aware of their needed status and to stop giving cues that confuse the dog or unknowingly encourage wrong behavior.
          Thanks, Paula, you’ve added immeasurably to this post with your insights.

  5. VICKI on June 28, 2015 at 7:53 pm

    OK…. since you mentioned food David Mechs and his study of wolves as well as your own 28 year study of wolves, are not disputing the alpha research he did or simply confirming his research on the the way wolves eat their food and how we (I feed Raw Prey Model) should approach the 80/10/10 baseline to the raw feeding of our dogs and cats?
    My main interest is to resolve the “they eat fruits and berries in the wild, thus you should feed berries and plant matter to your domesticated wolves!” I am a member of the NO FRUITS/BERRIES AND PLANT MATTER group. In fact, I get irritated when I hear or read about pet owners feeding a BARF diet to their carnivores. If the research is really there and if it will improve my dog’s health, then I need some documented research and real studies before I go there. 🙂

    • Will Falconer, DVM on June 30, 2015 at 4:26 am

      I’d like to encourage tolerance here, and put out the idea that we’ll grow stronger and do more good for more animals by being inclusive, rather than exclusive.
      For example, in my early days in holistic practice, when I had little but Dr. Pitcairn’s book to offer to my clients, I saw tremendous improvement in pet health when his recipes were fed in place of kibble. It was eye opening.
      And those recipes uniformly included cooked grains as a substantial part of the whole. Grains that included corn now and then, as part of the rotation.
      It’s all well and good to follow feeding regimens you feel strongly about, but I think it equally important to keep an open mind and understand that thoughtful and knowledgeable people can view the world entirely differently.

    • Roger Biduk on July 2, 2015 at 3:00 pm

      Hello Vicki,
      I totally agree with you, carnivores and obligate carnivores need meat, meat and more meat.
      However, I’ve learned to accept pet parents who do feed some vegetables but still feed a balanced, enzyme-rich meat / organ meat diet with meaty bones… sure is better than feeding sugar and starch.
      What’s unfortunate are vets who say dogs are omnivores and thrive on a starch diet… gives them an excuse to sell garbage Hill’s Prescription Diet and Science Diet.
      Sadly, the Purina website even has pages “Why is corn good for my dog?” and “The Power of Grain”… many pet parents buy into that.
      Then there’s vets [even Dr. Karen Becker is in this camp] who wrongly say wolves eat the stomach contents of their herbivore prey [nothing could be further from the truth] and therefore need some veggies and grains.
      All these can certainly be passionate topics… instead of being confrontational with so many pet parents who are 100% wrong about diets, vaccinations and neurotoxic, carcinogenic flea / heartworm chemical poisons, I simply say my peace, feel sorry for their pets and move on…
      Roger Biduk

      • Will Falconer, DVM on July 7, 2015 at 9:13 am

        Thanks for this, Roger. Somehow, your comment (and several others) got pegged by the new site as “Pending Approval,” and I wasn’t alerted by email in a timely manner. Support has just heard from me on this.
        In general, I think we’ll get much farther in this world, even with big goals like changing it (!), when we are tolerant and compassionate, as you say. We are all trying our best and all at different levels of understanding. Accepting someone at whatever stage they are at is the higher road. We can silently wish them well and hope they’ll come around. Some will, some won’t and that’s entirely out of our control.

  6. Mary Marseglia on June 28, 2015 at 6:55 pm

    Although David Mech’s book may had taught people about “alpha wolf” it is an excellent book to also teaching what our dogs ancestors eat and how our dogs & cats(just study the African Wild Cat–small cat; plus all big cats, mt.lions, lynx etc) and how our pets do so much better on complete raw diets.
    And seeing that I have studied wolves for 28yrs too, and am animal behaviorist & dog trainer, I can tell you there is always an alpha male & female in a wolf pack but they are the parents. And I’ve had my own pack of German Shepherd’s from Germany, 12 at one point, and you will see them interacting with each other and how there is always a top dog/dominant dog in the pack along with you being their alpha leader.