Author Topic: Debunking the Dominance Myth - your dog is not planning to take over the world!  (Read 3467 times)

Offline Bunter

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Debunking the Dominance Myth

Are dogs lying awake at night plotting a coup?

By Carmen Buitrago, CPDT, CTC



Have you ever wondered if your dog is dominant? Chances are you have, if only because over  the last half century, every canine misbehavior from house soiling to door dashing has been  deemed a "dominance" problem.
Your dog growls at visitors? Dominance, say well-meaning friends. He doesn't always come when called? He's telling you he's boss, according to popular dog books. She pulls on leash or jumps up to greet you? She's declaring alpha status. He prefers couches to floors? Watch out!

Perhaps the most unlikely behaviors heard attributed to dominance are coprophagia (stool eating) and fetching a ball.

How did dominance become one of the most popular and unthinking labels ever bandied about in dog circles?

A catchy concept
The concept of dominance - or "alpha," meaning the highest ranked individual - originally came from some studies of wolf packs in the 1940s. The concept was catchy, and when it trickled down to popular dog culture, it took hold with the power of mythology. It quickly became "common knowledge" that domestic dogs are naturally dominant or will become so if their people tolerate certain behaviors. These dogs, it was claimed, will constantly challenge and test their owners until they are forcefully shown human leadership.

So-called dominance exercises were - and in some circles still are - widely recommended to prevent the dog from taking over the entire household. These exercises include not feeding him until after you've eaten, letting him through doorways only after you, forbidding access to furniture, and not playing tug-of-war.

In reality, there is no evidence that these procedures prevent dominance aggression or any other behavioral problem. In fact, one study found no correlation between playing tug-of-war or allowing a dog on the bed and the development of aggressive behavior.

Extreme treatment
Beyond those exercises, many authors and trainers urged owners to hold or force their dogs into submissive positions, sometimes roughly, to the point of creating fearful responses. Today, some call these "gentling" exercises and recommend using them with puppies.

For example, you roll or flip your puppy on her back, and don't let her up until she stops resisting. The claim is beguilingly simple: by forcing a dog to assume a submissive posture and then rewarding her for tolerating it, you teach her to submit to your leadership.

But notice the claim's unspoken assumption that leadership is gained through force. In canine society, leadership is not won through brute physical domination. And a wide range of dogs with normal, sociable temperaments naturally will resist being forced on their backs, even to the point of defensive aggression.

Humans are not that different. Think how you would react if your boss established his or her "leadership" by physical force!

The technique has morphed further into a facile test of dominance. Force a dog on his back, and if he resists, he's dominant! Instant (albeit wrong) diagnoses have wide appeal in homes, animal shelters, obedience schools, and even veterinary clinics.

Some so-called experts even suggest using violent techniques like scruff shakes and alpha rolls. At the extreme end, some trainers once advocated downright abusive methods, such as hanging a dog by a choke chain and leash (called helicoptering) until she passed out, or forcing her head underwater until she lost consciousness.

These tactics were considered treatment for behaviors as mild as digging or as serious as aggression.

Flaws of the wolf-pack studies
Unfortunately, our collective preoccupation with doggy dominance hasn't served us or our dogs well. To begin with, it's based on some outdated and flawed science as well as a fair amount of nonsense.

Dr. Ian Dunbar outlines three major flaws of the studies of wolf packs in the 1930s and 1940s. First, they were short-term and focused on the most obvious facet of wolf life, namely hunting. As a result, the studies gathered unrepresentative data and drew rather sweeping conclusions about wolf behavior (and later, dog behavior) based on about 1% of wolf life.

Second, the researchers observed what are now known to be ritualistic displays and misinterpreted them. The bulk of dominance mythology comes from these misinterpretations.

Take alpha rolls. The early researchers thought that the higher-ranking wolf forcibly rolled subordinate wolves to exert his dominance. Modern studies have shown that alpha rolls are part of an appeasement ritual offered voluntarily by the subordinate wolf, not forced by the superior.

A subordinate wolf offers his muzzle, and when the higher-ranking wolf "pins" it, the subordinate rolls over and presents his belly. There is no force. Canine behaviorist Jean Donaldson, author of the award-winning book The Culture Clash, says, "The truth is, there is not one documented case of a wolf forcefully rolling another wolf to the ground. Nor is there one case of a mother wolf (or dog) 'scruff-shaking' her puppies."
A wolf would flip another wolf against its will only if he were planning to kill it. The same goes for a mother shaking her pup by the scruff. Both are rare events.

The third flaw was that the researchers made some wild extrapolations from their data. Their first leap of logic was applying their conclusions to dogs. Their second was applying them to human-canine interactions.

Dogs aren't watered-down wolves
The fact is, dogs aren't wolves. Wolves are dogs' closest relatives - just as chimpanzees are ours - but dogs became a separate species possibly as long as 135,000 years ago. Although dogs retain some characteristics of wolves and other canids, thousands of years of domestication, co-evolution with humans, and selective breeding have changed them profoundly.

Dunbar once said, "Saying 'I want to interact with my dog better, so I'll learn from the wolves' makes about as much sense as saying 'I want to improve my parenting - let's see how the chimps do it."

Applying the wolf studies to human-canine interactions was nonsense, according to Dunbar. Despite the flimsy evidence, books and methods abounded, exhorting owners to be "leader of the pack." They portrayed an adversarial human-canine relationship and advocated combative training methods that relied on force, punishment, and even pain. After all, force was thought to be necessary to put ambitious dogs in their place.
In her book Dog Friendly Dog Training, Andrea Arden writes, "Rather than teaching our best friends, we were advised to physically dominate our dog to bring him into line."

In stark contrast to the popular myth of wolves (and dogs) ruling with an iron paw, however, wolves' and dogs' social structure is much more complex, flexible, and subtle.

Benevolent leadership
Based on better and longer studies of canines, scientists have learned that the mark of a true leader is the ability to control without force, according to Dr. Myrna Milani, a veterinarian and behaviorist. She points out that, in the wild, animals who rule with brute force get eliminated from the gene pool, because force requires so much energy and puts the animals at high risk of death, injury, or predation.

Instead, the vast majority of alpha dogs lead benevolently. They do not stoop to physical domination to prove their points. They don't need to. They lead through subtle psychological control, such as confident posture, withering glances, staring, stalking, dogging (persistently hassling), barking, or growling.

It's all ritualistic. Day-to-day interactions are based largely on deferential and cooperative behaviors, and conflicts are settled by elaborate displays designed to inhibit aggression or turn off threats.

So despite popular myth, alpha does not mean physically dominant or most aggressive. It means in control of resources. A leader is one who has earned the right to control whatever resources he or she thinks are important. What's important is flexible. It changes depending on the dog's motivation, the context, and the situation at the moment. So an alpha dog might give up a prime sleeping place because he couldn't care less, or relinquish a succulent bone because she's lost interest.

Maintaining order through submission
Another assumption of pack theory was that wolves, and therefore dogs, organized themselves in a fixed, linear dominance hierarchy - a chicken-like pecking order in which the dominant animals maintain order by threatening and intimidating underlings.

Now experts agree that wolves form an appeasement (also called subordinance) hierarchy, in which subordinate animals maintain order through active displays of submission and deference.

Donaldson offers the Army as a human analogy. Lower-ranking soldiers first salute their superiors with a flourish and then get a cursory salute in return. This is a classic appeasement hierarchy. A general doesn't enter a room and throw his weight around. He simply appears and everyone starts saluting.

But going beyond observations of wolf behavior, modern researchers have studied the behavior of village, feral, and companion dogs to understand canine social structures better.

These scientists observed loose social structures that were flexible and unpredictable. The structures observed were determined more by factors like food availability and human intervention than by any innate sense of social hierarchy. These same experts now emphasize the importance of treating the domestic dog as the distinct species it is, not as a sort of watered-down wolf.

Problems with the dominance label
Another main flaw of dominance theory is the term itself. A cornerstone of science is precise, unambiguous definitions that facilitate communication. Ethological terms like dominance are not precise definitions but are constructs used to label and summarize a range of behaviors. One problem with constructs, psychologists Drs. Garry Martin and Joseph Pear point out, is that they lead to circular reasoning.

For example, a dog that growls when approached near her food bowl might be labeled dominant. Then if you ask the owner why the dog growls, she'll answer, "Because she's dominant." So the label becomes a pseudoexplanation for the behavior.

The label also can affect the way the animal is treated. The dominance label has been used to justify punishing dogs, especially those that react defensively to force-based training methods. The label also tends to focus attention on problem behaviors rather than on teaching and rewarding good ones.

A related term, dominance aggression, is similarly problematic. What does it mean? There's no scientific consensus on how to define it academically, much less on how to identify it in the real world.

In Pet Behavior Protocols, Dr. Suzanne Hetts, an applied animal behaviorist, writes, "Sometimes it's very difficult to categorize aggression more specifically than offensive or defensive. The behavioral descriptions of when aggression occurs and the associated body postures often don't fit well into any of the classification schemes in the scientific literature on aggression. In addition, dogs may display more than one type of aggression, which contributes to the difficulty in categorization."

If behavior as obvious as aggression is so difficult to categorize, how accurate can it be to label subtle, everyday behavior as "dominant"? It's a judgment that presumes to understand dogs' motives when, in fact, we have no idea what they're thinking. There are dozens of possible causes, functions, or motives for any problem behavior.

Moving past the label
In many aggression cases, the history and description of the dogs' behavior are inconsistent with our traditional understanding of dominance. So-called dominant dogs often show ambivalent, fearful, and anxious body language. They may shake and act very submissively during and after a bite. Studies show that dogs displaying "dominance aggression" get less exercise, are more fearful of people, are more excitable, and react more to high-pitched noises. All this is inconsistent with our notion of the fearless, dominant dog and suggests other factors at play in aggressive behavior.

This new information challenges us to interpret the social relationship between dogs and owners in a more sophisticated way than as simple dominant-submissive relationships.

Fortunately, behavioral science and most dog trainers have moved past the flawed dominance label. A new term being used for dominance aggression is status-related aggression. Treatment focuses on teaching and rewarding the dog for desired behaviors, regardless of status. It also seeks to identify the many other possible causes of problem behaviors, such as fear or anxiety, insufficient socialization, boredom, lack of exercise, too little companionship, or lack of training.

Debunking the Dominance Myth
« Last Edit: June 18, 2010, 11:05:14 AM by Bunter »

Offline Bunter

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The Macho Myth

Ian Dunbar Ph.D., BVetMed, MRCVS
copyright 1989 Ian Dunbar


The social structure of domestic dogs is often described in terms of a linear dominance hierarchy, in which the top dog, or 'alpha animal', is dominant over all lower ranking animals, the second ranking dog is subordinate to the top dog but dominant over all others, and so on down to the lowest dog on the totem pole. Also, it is popularly believed:

1. Rank is established and maintained by physical strength and dominance.
2. The more dominant (i.e., higher ranking) dogs are more aggressive.
3. The most dominant dog is the most aggressive. Hence, dogs which frequently threaten, growl, fight and bite are often assumed to be 'alpha' animals.

The majority of the above assumptions are quite awry. Not only do they betray a theoretically simplistic view of a most sophisticated social structure but also, such notions tend to be counterproductive, inhumane and dangerous when cavalierly extrapolated to dog training, or the treatment of behavior problems.

Social Rank and Aggressiveness
It is generally assumed that high rank is correlated with aggressive behavior. In reality, a growly, macho top dog is a rare find. Top dogs rarely growl - they seldom need to! The true top dog is usually a cool customer, which is secure and confident of its privileged position and has no need to fluster and bluster to bolster up its rank. In the words of psychologist Dr. Linda Carlson, "If you've got it, there's no need to flaunt it." A true top dog is more likely to share a toy, a bone, or a sleeping place, than fight over one. On the other hand, bottom-ranking dogs rarely growl either. The prime directive of a low ranking individual is to maintain a low profile. Barking, growling and snarling only draw unwanted attention and if it came to a fight, the underdog would most certainly lose.

A top dog has little need to threaten and an underdog would be crazy to. Without a doubt excessive growling and repeated fighting is indicative of underlying insecurity and uncertainty about social rank vis a vis other dogs. Within a social group, protracted, blustery displays of aggression are the hallmark of the middle-order of the hierarchy. Middle-ranking dogs, threaten more and fight more frequently than higher- or lower-ranking individuals. With the advent of a litter on the social scene, it is not uncommon for a previously wimpy-wormy underdog to become ultra-macho with the puppies. Whilst maintaining its lowest of low profiles with other adults, the ex-underdog may wield its newfound power with exaggerated swagger: relentlessly hassling the developing puppies and adolescents (especially the males) by staring, stalking, dogging (following), barking and growling. Once an underdog assumes responsibility as a rearguard, the other adult males seldom bother with the (soon to be adult) youngsters and often the social atmosphere in the pack becomes more relaxed.

Subordinance Hierarchy
When the framework of a successful hierarchy is viewed in a developmental context, it becomes apparent that 'subordinance hierarchy' is a more descriptive term for canine social structure. This premise was first suggested by English primatologist Dr. Thelma Rowell. Maintenance of an existing hierarchy depends on the underlings respect of the position of higher-ranking individuals. The status quo is maintained because, lower-ranking individuals seldom challenge authority and so only occasionally, is there need to enforce higher rank with a display of physical, or more likely, psychological dominance.

Development of Hierarchies
Growing up around larger pups, adolescents and adult dogs, puppies simply can not compete on the social scene in view of their smaller size and inferior physical and psychological strength. Thus, puppies learn their station in life well before they become sufficiently large and strong to be a threat to the established order. Most adult dogs are quite lenient with young pups until they approach adolescence, whereupon adults (males especially) relentlessly pursue, stand-over and growl at the adolescents (males especially). Even so, harassment by adult dogs is largely psychological, rather than physical. It would be a perversely under-socialized adult dog, which physically beats up young puppies.

Nonetheless, during this crucial stage in hierarchical development, young pup and adolescents are extremely intimidated by the incessant harassment and consequently, they learn to respond with exaggerated appeasement gestures to assuage the torment from their elders. Moreover, puppies and adolescents quickly learn that bother from older dogs may be largely prevented by taking the initiative and demonstrating active appeasement before they are harassed. The pups' preemptive apology characteristically comprises: a low slung, wiggly approach with ears back, submissive grin and tail and hindquarters all a wag. The youngster may paw the brisket and lick the muzzle of the older dog. (The infantile pawing and muzzle-licking food-soliciting behaviors of puppyhood now acquire new meaning and are retained as neotenic appeasement gestures in adolescence and adulthood.) In addition, the underdog may rollover and lift a leg to expose its inguinal region. And some may submissively urinate. (Adult dogs may determine the age of a puppy or adolescent from the smell of the youngster's urine.)

From this stage on, to maintain harmony on the social scene, higher ranking dogs need only chastise those individuals which do not voluntarily show deference and respect in their presence. And even this is usually done with nothing more than a cold, penetrating stare.

Maintenance of Hierarchies
Fighting and physical dominance very rarely come into play during the maintenance of hierarchies. On the contrary, the major function of hierarchical structure is to lessen the amount of fighting. Once established, the hierarchy provides many of the answers before the problems crop up. For example, when there are two dogs but only one bone, the ownership of the bone is predecided and therefore, there is nothing to fight about. Potential problems are similarly pre-settled in established human hierarchies. For example, in a large corporate hierarchy, the problem of a single parking place and two cars - the CEO's Rolls and the Assistant Sales Manager's Ford Escort proves no more of a dilemma than when the CEO was Sales Manager and drove a Jaguar and the ASM was a secretary in the typing pool and drove a beaten-up VW. I mean, who, in their right mind, would park in the boss's parking place. No one ever does, hence no problem.

It is similar with dogs. Misunderstandings about the relationship between rank, dominance and aggression tend to exacerbate fighting problems, which are largely the product of asocialization and the mixing of socially-unprepared adult dogs. In addition, erroneous notions of canine social behavior tend to foster macho owners, who allow and/or encourage their dogs to snarl and growl, thinking they have a real baaaad dog! This sort of person - usually an adolescent (13-59 year-old) male, wearing a single black glove and owning a male dog of one of only half a dozen breeds that I will not bother to mention - can be a bit of a 'pain in the class'. However, it is sometimes possible to get this wally to wise-up with a compliment/insult like: "What a wonderful dog! What a shame he's so growly. Well, perhaps we can build up his confidence and turn him into a top dog. Because top dogs don't growl you know, they don't need to." I never cease to be amazed at how many potential jerks are, in fact, incognito responsible owners once wised-up in this manner.

Unfortunately, the real danger of the alpha-concept of physical dominance lies in its questionable extrapolation to dog training and husbandry. Instead of being educational, many so-called 'training' methods are just downright adversarial if not abusive; the dog is often viewed as our enemy, rather than as our best friend. Many playful, greeting and fearful gestures are misinterpreted as being aggressive, providing the unthinking owner with a convenient excuse to abuse the dog under the guise of 'training'.

For example, snapping, pilo-erection, growling and lip-curling are often misconstrued as signs of dominance, whereas they are, in fact, more usually signs of fear - most probably the direct product of a person pounding on the poor dog. Similarly, owners are advised that urine marking, mounting people, stealing food, jumping-up and prolonged eye contact are all signs of dominance, for which the dog should be punished. Some ill-advised, big blue meanies are confusing issues and trying to take the fun out of dog ownership. In my book:

* A dog which marks indoors, needs to be housetrained.
* A dog which mounts people, a) needs to be instructed to desist and b) requires social introduction to another suitably inclined furry quadruped.
* A dog which steals food, a) is in desperate need of an owner who remembers to put food away and b) requires rapid introduction to my favorite booby-trap.
* A dog which jumps-up, needs simply to be taught to sit when greeting people.
* A dog which is tricky about eye contact should be taught a) that human eye-contact is no threat, b) to look away, or look at its paws on command, and c) to lovingly gaze in the eyes of its understanding owner.

Certainly, we need to control dogs - but mental control is what is required, not physical domination. Even though an ill-experienced, middle-ranking dog 'handler' might be able to jerk, hang, roll-over, and/or beat a dog into submission, what is the point of winning the battle and losing the war? What possible advantage is there in converting a 'dominant' dog into a fearful one? Both are equally as worthless as companions or working dogs. Furthermore, most physical corrections are well beyond the physical and mental capabilities of all but a few dog owners. And so, why advise novice owners to enter into a physical contest that they are bound to lose? In fact, why abuse the dog at all, when it is possible to achieve the same end using brain instead of brawn? Why try to wade the Atlantic, when one could take the Concorde?

We must prescribe training methods which are effective and lie within the capabilities of the average dog owner, including women, children and the elderly. If we have learned anything at all from studying dog behavior, ... owners must establish control in a developmental context, whilst the dog is still a puppy. Rather than browbeating the dog into submission, it is far easier to convince the dog to join the team, so that it enjoys life living with us, rather than fighting against us.
« Last Edit: November 13, 2009, 12:59:19 PM by Bunter »

Offline Bunter

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Life and behaviour of wolves

What ever happened to the term Alpha Wolf? by David Mech


The word alpha applied to wolves has had a long history. For many years books and articles about wolves have mentioned the alpha male and alpha female or the alpha pair. In much popular writing the term is still in use today. However, keen observers may have noticed that during the past few years the trend has begun to wane. For example, 19 prominent wolf biologists from both Europe and North America never mentioned the term alpha in a long article on breeding pairs of wolves. The article, titled “The Effects of Breeder Loss on Wolves,” was published in a 2008 issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management. In the 448-page, 2003 book Wolves: Behaviour, Ecology, and Conservation, edited by Luigi Boitani and myself and written by 23 authors, alpha is mentioned in only six places and then only to explain why the term is outdated. What gives?

This change in terminology reflects an important shift in our thinking about wolf social behaviour. Rather than viewing a wolf pack as a group of animals organized with a “top dog” that fought its way to the top, or a male-female pair of such aggressive wolves, science has come to understand that most wolf packs are merely family groups formed exactly the same way as human families are formed. That is, maturing male and female wolves from different packs disperse; travel around until they find each other and an area vacant of other wolves but with adequate prey, court, mate, and produce their own litter of pups.

Sometimes this process involves merely a maturing male courting a maturing female in a neighbouring pack and then the pair settling down in a territory next to one of the original packs. In more saturated populations, this may mean wolves moving many miles to the very edge of wolf range and finding mates there that have similarly dispersed. This is the process that helps a growing wolf population expand its range. A good example is the ever-increasing wolf population in Wisconsin. There, not only is the main population in the northern part of the state continuing to fill the north with more and more pack territories, but wolves have managed to form a separate population in the central part of the state through this dispersal and proliferation of packs, currently about 18 packs live in central Wisconsin.

But now back to the family. As the original, new pairing wolves raise their pups, they feed and care for them just like any other animals care for their young. As the pups grow and develop, their parents naturally guide their activities and the pups naturally follow. During fall when the pups begin to accompany their parents away from the den or rendezvous site and circulate nomadically around the territory, the pups follow the adults and learn their way around. The parents then automatically fall into the leadership role in the pack as they guide the pups throughout their territory. This leadership role, however, does not involve anyone fighting to the top of the group, because just like in a human family, the youngsters naturally follow their parents’ lead.

Certainly as the pups further develop, they begin to gain some independence, and individuals might temporarily stray from the group, exploring this and that along the pack’s travels. However, the parents continue to guide the group as they hunt prey, scent-mark the territory, fend off scavengers from their kills, or protect the group from neighbouring wolf packs that they might encounter.

As the pups continue to develop and reach one year of age, their parents produce a second litter of pups, which become the younger siblings of the first litter. Again the parents continue to guide and lead the new litter along with the older litter and remain the pack’s leaders. The yearlings naturally dominate the new pups just as older brothers and sisters in a human family might guide the younger siblings, but still there is no general battle to try to gain pack leadership; that just naturally stays with the original parents. Some of the older siblings will disperse between the ages of one and two in some populations, and in others they may remain with the pack through about three years of age. However, eventually almost all of them will disperse, try to find mates, and start their own packs.

Given this natural history of wolf packs, there is no more reason to refer to the parent wolves as alphas than there would be to refer to the parents of a human family as the ”alpha” pair. Thus we now refer to these animals as the male breeder and female breeder and as the breeding pair or simply the parents.

So how did science get so far off track for so long and refer to the parent wolves as alphas? The answer is an interesting story that nicely illustrates how science progresses. Several decades ago, before there were many studies of wolves under natural conditions, scientists interested in animal social behaviour thought the wolf pack was a random assemblage of wolves that came together as winter approached in order to better hunt their large prey. Thus to study wolves in the only way they knew how, these folks gathered individual wolves from various zoos and placed them together in their own captive colony.

When one puts a random group of any species together artificially, these animals will naturally compete with each other and eventually form a type of dominance hierarchy. This is like the classical pecking order originally described in chickens. In such cases, it is appropriate to refer to the top-ranking individuals as alphas, implying that they competed and fought to gain their position and so too it was with wolves when placed together artificially. Thus, the main behaviourist who studied wolves in captivity, Rudolph Schenkel, published a famous monograph describing how wolves interact with each other in such a group, asserting then that there is a top-ranking male and a top-ranking female in packs and referring to them as the alphas. This classical monograph was the main piece of literature on wolf social behaviour available when I crafted my book The Wolf: Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species in the late 1960s.

This book was a synthesis of available wolf information at the time, so I included much reference to Schenkel’s study. The book was timely because no other synthesis about the wolf had been written since 1944, so The Wolf sold well. It was originally published in 1970 and republished in paperback in 1981 and is still in print. Over 120,000 copies are now in circulation. Most other general wolf books have relied considerably on The Wolf for information, thus spreading the misinformation about alpha wolves far and wide.

Finally in the late 1990s, after I had lived with a wild wolf pack on Ellesmere Island near the North Pole for many summers witnessing firsthand the interactions among parent wolves and their offspring, I decided to correct this misinformation. By then, however, both the lay public and most biologists had fully adopted the alpha concept and terminology. It seemed no one could speak about a wolf pack without mentioning the alphas. Many people would ask me what made an alpha wolf an alpha and what kind of fighting and competition did it take to gain that position. Thus, in 1999 I published the article “Alpha Status, dominance, and Division of Labour in Wolf Packs” in the Canadian Journal of Zoology formally correcting the misinformation in the scientific literature. I followed that up in 2000 with the article “Leadership in Wolf, Canis lupus, Packs” in the Canadian Field Naturalist, further elaborating on the role of the parent wolves in the pack’s social order.

However, it has been said that it generally takes about 20 years for new science to fully seep down to general acceptance, including even new medical breakthroughs. Such seems to be proving true with the alpha-wolf concept. Several of my wolf biologist colleagues have accepted the update, but others suddenly correct themselves in the middle of their conversations with me; still others seem totally oblivious to the whole issue. It is heartening indeed to see newly published papers such as the one I cited above in the introduction to this article that have adopted the proper terminology.

The issue is not merely one of semantics or political correctness. It is one of biological correctness such that the term we use for breeding wolves accurately captures the biological and social role of the animals rather than perpetuate a faulty view.

One place where this issue becomes particularly confusing is Yellowstone National Park, where great numbers of the public spend much time observing wolves right along with wolf biologists and naturalists. Because the Yellowstone wolf population was newly restored and enjoys a great surplus of prey (6,000 to 12,000 elk, 4,000 bison, and hundreds of deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, moose and other prey), the pack structure of its population is more complex than in most wolf populations. There, young wolves disperse at a later age, when two to three years old instead of one to two, thus making packs larger and containing more mature individuals than most packs do elsewhere. In these packs where both the mother and some of her daughters mature, all sometimes get bred during the same year, the daughters usually by outside males.

When more than one female breeds in a pack, the females may become more competitive, so it is probably appropriate to refer to the original matriarch as the alpha female and to her daughters as “betas.” The Yellowstone observers commonly use this phraseology, but too often it becomes loosely applied to all the breeding wolves, even in packs where there are only single breeders. While it is not incorrect to use alpha when applied to packs of multiple breeders, it would be possible and even desirable to use less loaded terminology. For example, the top-ranking female could be called the dominant female or the matriarch, and her breeding daughters, the subordinates. Or individually if the females actually show a dominance order, the second- and third-ranking individuals could be called simply that. This approach would further reform wolf terminology and add to both science’s and the public’s more accurate perception of the wolf.

Hopefully it will take fewer than 20 years for the media and the public to fully adopt the correct terminology and thus to once and for all end the outmoded view of the wolf pack as an aggressive assortment of wolves consistently competing with each other to take over the pack.

L. David Mech is a senior research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey and founder and vice chair of the International Wolf Centre. He has studied wolves for 50 years and published several books and many articles about them.
First publisher in the IWC magazine
www.wolf.org


Offline Bunter

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Dominance in Dogs

Dominance in Dogs
Debunking the Myths of Dominance Training

By Sophia Yin
From Veterinary Forum Clinical Update March 2009