The Alpha Roll Was NEVER for Breakfast

Lana Kaiser MD, DVM

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December 19, 2023

As an ethologist, there are subtle, nuanced, historical, scientific, and controversies over the use of the terms “alpha” and “dominance” in the pet dog world. However, as veterinarians and dog professionals, we should know that it is NEVER acceptable to alpha roll a dog. The notion that the human MUST be dominant in all relationships with dogs is close to what I find a lot of when working cattle, and based on the gross misinterpretation of 20th-century observational research on unrelated captive wolves.

 

CREDIT: Wolf B6T Voyagers Wolf Project

 

How did we get here? When did it become acceptable to physically manhandle and roll a dog to show them who “is boss”? What is the role of veterinarians, dog professionals, and media “dog trainers” in creating the “alpha myth?” and is it a myth??

 

Let’s start with a few definitions – Dominance in a group of social animals refers to access to resources. It does not mean that the only way to obtain the resource is by fighting to the death; it means that the dominant animal, generally through subtle signs, allocates the resources. “Dominance hierarchies” describe relationship patterns between animals that engage in repeated social encounters [1]. Pecking order describes the linear relationship from most dominant to least dominant; fowl use pecks and aggressive behavior to establish dominance hierarchy. Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, signifies top ranking in some kind of hierarchy, so an alpha wolf is by definition the top-ranking wolf.

 

THE BEGINNING

In the 1900s, there was little understanding of the behavior, social structure, biology, and field life of wild carnivores, including wolves. In 1934, Rudolph Schenkel began an observational study of captive wolves in the Zoological Garden, Basel. He titled the manuscript, published in 1949, “Expression studies in wolves,” subtitled “Captivity observations” [2]. Although Schenkel understood the importance of the “captive observations,” the biological importance of the subtitle was ignored for decades.

 

The captive wolves he observed were collected from various zoos and had no biological relationship to each other. He studied “two packs” of unrelated wolves. Up to 10 wolves were held in captivity with a floor space of “approximately 10 meters by 20 meters” [2]. In addition to captive wolves, he systematically studied the social behavior of captive fox, jackal, raccoon, dogs, Eigerland station polar dogs, and a variety of domestic dogs.

 

 

He stated that outside captivity there was no information on the social function of wolves and that captivity inhibits normal social behavior. Expression was defined as the “biological meaning is to participate in the orientation of interaction by influencing the choice of, for example, releasers.” He described three types of expression: (1) Peripheral expression structures (“optically effective signs of form or color”); (2) Displays of nondeliberate behavior expressions = not oriented toward external objects (similar to the sympathetic nervous system); and (3) Displays of deliberate expressions which involve the “individuals’ obvious participation” and include threat positions, play challenges, tenderness behaviors, and sham attacks. He looked at expressions not as the wolves’ “subjective experience” but in light of their social function.

 

The wolves he studied “developed packs” in early winter with increasing intensity of behavior ranging from friendly to violent between sex interactions. Rivalries occurred, and leadership and breeding rights were determined. Interestingly, despite rivalries and “ravishing” weaklings, the pack acted as an “organic unit” – howling, tenderness scenes, and united defense against the keeper.

 

This was considered groundbreaking work on the behavior of (captive) wolves and dogs. He coined the terms “alpha male” and “alpha female” to describe the highest-ranking wolves in the pack. The alpha wolves attained and maintained their social standing “by incessant control and repression of all types of competition (within the same sex) both alpha animals defend their social position” [2]. They exerted control using violence, to maintain their “place” in the dominance hierarchy. Alpha wolves controlled the resources, including breeding rights. Thus, wolf packs were made up of an alpha male and alpha female, the breeding pair, their pups, and subordinate wolves.

 

It is interesting to note not only the small area that the wolves occupied but also the fact that these wolves were not a family of “captive wolves” but “random wolves” housed at the Zoological Gardens. Nonetheless, the term alpha wolf, associated with the dominance hierarchy and aggression found its way into both the scientific and lay literature. It is also interesting to note that of all the data that Schenkel collected, all the diagrams he made depicting social interaction of captive wolves, all the new information on other species, it is the fierce alpha animal that is remembered.

 

THE MIDDLE

At the time of Schenkel’s study, there was little known about the behavior of wild wolves. Information was gathered from post mortem studies and tracking, but the social dynamics of wolves in nature were largely unstudied. David Mech, a wildlife ecologist and conservationist with the United States Geological Survey remarked “Long ago, when I started, we knew very little about wolves in the wild. We knew that they lived in packs, that they preyed on large animals, and that they howled. And the standard things from storybooks” [3]. The invention of the radio collar led to an increase in the ability to understand the social dynamics, family units, hunting patterns, travel, and territory of wild wolves. In 1970 Mech published “The Wolf: The ecology and behavior of an endangered species” [4]. He referred to Schenkel’s work and stated that the wolf’s social system is based on the dominance order” [p 69]. As mating season approaches, interactions among the pack “become more intense and frequent, including friendly contacts as well as conflicts and rivalries” [p 70]. These descriptions, without apparent consideration of the effect of captivity on behavior or social structure, directly cited Schenkel’s work. Dominance of alpha wolves was described as one of “forceful initiative” and the two aspects of dominance in wolf packs were considered privilege (access to breeding, food, resources) and leadership (control of activities).

 

“The Wolf” by L. David Mech

 

The book became a resounding success among scientists, the lay public, and those interested in the behavior of canines, wild and domestic, including the domestic dog. As time went on Mech and others obtained more knowledge of the life, habits, behavior, and social structure of wild wolves [5]. Mech requested, unsuccessfully at first, that the book cease to be published. He regretted the section on “pack order,” which was based on the studies of captive wolves and did not accurately describe wolves in nature. But it was too late, like wildfire, the alpha wolf and the aggressive dominance hierarchy had spread not only into the dog training community but also the veterinary community.

 

THE FALLOUT
The alpha wolf aggressive dominance theory played an unfortunate but important role in dog training. Formal dog training evolved from the military [6] and the Koehler method of “pop and jerk” compliance was common [7]. “Once the concept of the wolf and its strict dominance hierarchy was established, dog trainers were more likely to use punishment. It wasn’t just that the dog was punished when it did something wrong, you had to show the dog that you were the [dominant] alpha wolf all the time” [6]. “Aggression-based models of dominance have been misunderstood by people who study both nonhumans and humans. They also have been warped by some dog trainers who think that humans should be the alpha members of their pack of companion canines and control them by dominating them” [8]. The greatest (and perhaps most aversive) influence on the welfare of dogs and dog training came from Cesar Millan. With a TV show (The Dog Whisperer), Millan shifted dog training to an aversive, punishment-based activity where the dog must “submit” to their “dominant” human. With TV shows, media, products, documentaries, reality TV, magazines, books, DVDs, videos, and the “Dog Psychology Center” (where he “rehabilitates” dogs) Millan almost single-handedly taught generations of humans inhumane, aggressive, dangerous, callous, and scientifically inaccurate “dog training techniques.” In the US dog trainers and behaviorists are not licensed, and there are no standards to call yourself a “trainer.” It is important to note Millan has no credentials and no evidence of continuing education. His techniques are based on a total misunderstanding of the original captive wolf study, and a supreme lack of understanding of dog behavior. His work is based on the false notion that dog owners should establish themselves as “calm-assertive pack leaders” and this is accomplished by dominance, which included physically rolling the dog on their back until “they submit.”

 

REDEMPTION?
In 1999, Mech disturbed by the misuse of the term “dominance” and “alpha wolf” tried to reframe the narrative based on new knowledge obtained from field studies on the social structure and behavior of wild wolves. “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.” He continued “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. Why not refer to an alpha female as the female parent, the breeding female, the matriarch, or simply the mother? Such a designation emphasizes not the animal’s dominant status, which is trivial information, but its role as pack progenitor, which is critical information [9].” He also stated “The point here is not so much the terminology but what the terminology falsely implies: a strictly strength-based dominance hierarchy.”

 

“Attempting to apply information about the behavior of assemblages of unrelated captive wolves to the familial structure of natural packs has resulted in considerable confusion. Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps. The concept of the alpha wolf as a “top dog” ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots is particularly misleading [9].“ Wolves in nature do not adhere to the concept of “pecking order” (dominance rules, where there is competition for “rank.”). Posturing during social interaction is the only consistent behavior associated with “rank” in wild wolves – as Darwin described in 1877, dominant wolves assume the classic standing posture with tail horizontal and subordinate wolves lower themselves and “cringe.” It appears that submission is as important as dominance in promoting friendly relationships and maintaining social cohesion [1, 5, 9].

 

WHERE ARE WE NOW??
Well, we have a much clearer understanding of the wolf’s basic social ecology, (pack structure, spacing, natural history and movements), but the “fallout” of misinterpretation of science continues to negatively affect the welfare of working and “pet” domestic dogs.

Mech distanced himself from the alpha dominance theory and the use of the term “alpha wolf” and “pack” instead preferring “breeding pair” and “family” [5, 10]. However, the terms and the aggressive human behavior they promote remain deeply ingrained in all aspects of our dog culture. Not all scientists agree that the terms should “be sanitized.” Beckhoff and other scientists believe that there are alpha wolves and alphas of other species simply refers to “first.” However, alpha animals are not by definition the most violent, ferocious, or domineering [1, 8].

 

With Karen Pryor’s book “Don’t shoot the dog” came enlightenment in some parts of the dog culture [11]. Sophia Yin’s work on low-stress handling and training brought similar enlightenment to the training, behavior, and veterinary space [12]. The notion of rewarding wanted behavior rather than physically dominating the dog to obtain desired behavior has slowly gained traction. With an increase in interest in animal welfare, based on the expansion of our moral circle, came the desire to train and teach dogs humanely. The creation of the American College of Veterinary Behavior also brought humane reward-based training directly into the veterinary world. The ACVB position statements reflect their views on dog training [13]. Additionally, they have recently issued an article “Done with the dog daddy;” criticizing Augusto DeOliveira’s (the Dog Daddy) use of aversive and harmful physical methods and tools [14]. Social media is overwhelmed with videos of aversive and harmful dog training techniques set to suspenseful music – they are dramatic, there might be an injury, a human may be bitten – people can’t get enough. It is unfortunate that, to the general public, positive reinforcement training is like watching paint dry.

 

 

CAN WE FIX THE PROBLEM??
Misinterpretation of scientific data is nothing new and not limited to dog professionals. However, in this case, total misunderstanding of the limits of the original study of unrelated captive wolves had wide-ranging negative effects on all aspects of the dog community. As scientists, we understand that the results from any study apply only to the population or individuals in the study – we may suggest in the discussion that our results MAY also apply to another different population, but it is equally true that they may not. Interpreting that the behavior of unrelated captive wolves living in a small enclosure represents the behavior of all wolves is a prime example where the population, the environment, and the individuals were NOT considered. The Dog Whisper and the Dog Daddy are not alone in the use of aversive and harmful “training” methods based on a lack of understanding of dog behavior. The spectrum of dog trainers (and their training techniques) is like a bell-shaped curve: on one end are those who believe that positive reinforcement is the only way to train a dog and on the other end are trainers who use (often inappropriately) aversive techniques and tools (shock and prong collars) to obtain the wanted behaviors. Most trainers are somewhere in the middle of the bell-shaped curve, with “cross-over trainers” being those who once used aversive methods but now choose not to and “balanced trainers” being those who use a combination of positive reinforcement and aversive tools. One should also note that dog training is not licensed – anyone can call themselves a dog trainer.

 

ARE WE PART OF THE PROBLEM?
As veterinarians and dog professionals, we need to understand where the “alpha dominant hierarchy” came from, why it is inaccurate and inappropriate for both companion dogs and wild wolves, and not spread the myth. We should understand the different training methods and steer our clients to trainers who use humane methods.

 

1] Mills DS, ed. The encyclopedia of applied animal behaviour and welfare. CABI International 2010 (ebook, ‘Dog’ loc 11802)

[2] Schenkel R. 1947. Expression studies in wolves. Behaviour. 1(2): 81-129. (translated draft available at https://archive.org/details/SchenkelCaptiveWolfStudy.compressed)

[3] Galchen R. The Myth of the Alpha Wolf. The New Yorker March 2023 https://www.newyorker.com/science/elements/the-myth-of-the-alpha-wolf

[4] Mech LD. 1970. The wolf: the ecology and behavior of an endangered species. Garden City (NY): The Natural History Press.

[5] https://davemech.org/wolf-news-and-information/

[6] Kjørstad E. Wolf packs don’t actually have alpha males and alpha females, the idea is based on a misunderstanding. PhysOrg 2021 https://phys.org/news/2021-04-wolf-dont-alpha-males-females.html

[7] Koehler WR. The Koehler Method of Dog Training. Howell Books 1962

[8] Beckhoff M. Alpha Dogs and Alpha Wolves Are Real. What’s still not clear is how a canine becomes one. Psychology Today 2023. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/animal-emotions/202303/alpha-wolves-and-alpha-dogs-arent-myths

[9] Mech, L. David. 1999. Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor
in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77:1196-1203.
Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Home Page. http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/2000/alstat/alstat.htm

[10] Mech LD, Boitani L, editors. 2003. Wolves: behavior, ecology and conservation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[11] Pryor K. Don’t shoot the dog Bantam Books 1985

[12] Yin S https://cattledogpublishing.com/blog/new-study-finds-popular-alpha-dog-training-techniques-can-cause-more-harm-than-good/

[13] (https://www.dacvb.org/page/PositionStatement)

[14] (https://www.avma.org/news/done-dog-daddy?fbclid=IwAR3pTWXCMP1M1AoE33a1HT9YTMCcwb9NVbfs3VGLT6JOmPdbsAtwfhOicL0

 

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