David Mech's Theory on the Wolf Alpha Role
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 Behavior
Thankfully, more extensive research on the topic of wolf hierarchy was conducted by the American biologist and wolf behavior expert, David Mech. His studies started 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 whole different picture to the table.
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" which comprised of a male and 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 pack.
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 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 a puppy with the potential for being "dominant" as previously thought. Rather, his theory concludes 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.
Wolves in Captivity Behave Differently Than in the Wild
How Does Mech's Theory Apply to Dogs?
It is thanks to David Mech's studies on how the pack was more of a family nucleus that the dominance theory significantly declined. Further 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 were 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.