David Mech's Theory on the Wolf Alpha Role

Updated on July 18, 2019
alexadry profile image

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."

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

David Mech wolf studies,kabir, morguefile.com
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 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.

David Mech Explains His Theory


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      4 months ago

      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).

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      4 months ago

      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."

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      18 months ago

      Hi Winnie, I used the terminology pack because David Mech used the term throughout the video.

    • profile image


      19 months ago

      why do you still call it a "pack" when it's actually a family group that wolves live in?

    • DogSavvyLA profile image

      Alexandra Bassett 

      2 years ago from Los Angeles

      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 soon!

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      7 years ago

      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.



    • profile image


      7 years ago

      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 leader.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      8 years ago

      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 this website:


    • profile image


      8 years ago

      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?

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      8 years ago

      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!

    • K9keystrokes profile image

      India Arnold 

      10 years ago from Northern, California

      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, compassionate hub.

    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 

      10 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      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 profile image


      10 years ago from Toodyay, Western Australia

      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 profile image


      10 years ago from Metro Atlanta, GA, USA

      That makes a lot of sense, and actually seems more logical than what I've always heard. Good hub, and interesting topic.


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