Thanksgiving weekend, I attended the Darkover Grand Council Meeting — an annual science fiction/fantasy convention. One of the panel discussions was titled “Flying Cats and Talking Dogs: Creating believable animals in SF&F.” I brought up the question of how authors can make sure they’re getting it “right.” As a dog trainer who’s studied canine behavior (including wolf behavior), I often find it jarring when I’m reading a story that features dogs or wolves – simply because the author got it “wrong.” This is especially true of fantasy novels that include wolves – or werewolves – because there’s so much misinformation ingrained in our “common knowledge” of wolves.
One of the panel members asked what it was that authors so often got wrong about wolves, and I replied “Alpha wolves and wolf hierarchy.” There wasn’t time to go into the details of just how wrong the “common view” of wolf culture is. I left it at “A wolf pack is actually a family unit, with Mom and Dad leading their offspring” and invited anyone interested to email me for more information.
Margaret L. Carter, author of “The Shadow of the Beast” (a werewolf novel) was there, and she recently took me up on that offer.
This was my response (edited for clarity and accuracy after I re-read the articles I suggested to Margaret as good sources of information):
Here are some common misunderstandings of wolf hierarchy:
“The Alpha Wolf is the biggest/strongest/meanest wolf “– in most natural wolf packs the “alpha wolves” are simply “Dad” and “Mom,” the rest of the pack are the offspring of the breeding pair. “Alpha” status is really a matter of who gets to breed, and in some packs with lots of resources available there may be more than one breeding female (or even more than one breeding pair, although that’s apparently rare).
“Wolf hierarchies are strictly linear” — This is more often true among captive wolves than in natural wolf packs. And there can actually be two hierarchies, one for males and one for females, and they can be fluid — just as members of the pack can be fluid (offspring strike out on their own to join other packs or found their own when they’re as young as 9 months and usually by the time they’re 3 years old).
“Wolves fight for alpha status” — actually, in both wolves and dogs, fights are usually among “alpha wanna-be’s” — status seekers who lack the confidence needed to truly be “alpha” and who try to dominate others physically. Bullies, in other words.
“The “omega” wolf is the weakest and always picked on and has no real function in the pack” — in actuality the “omega” wolf is more often seen in packs formed by unrelated captive wolves than in natural wolf packs. The omega may serve as an outlet for aggression — the “class clown” who redirects attention from tense situations to himself, and is actually a stabilizing force within the hierarchy. In some cases the “omega” wolf is actually a natural leader and becomes alpha when the alpha wolf declines (this has led to the hypothesis that dominant wolves target the omega because the omega is perceived as a threat to the alpha wolf but I think the jury’s still out on that). Sometimes the omega is simply the newest member of the pack. The important bit is that the “alpha,” “beta,” and “omega,” etc. labels are really only appropriate when describing captive wolves, which do tend to form rigid hierarchies that help “keep the peace” between the unrelated wolves thrown together by man.
It’s all very complex, and the make-up of a wild wolf pack depends a lot on the terrain the wolves are in. Territory size, prevalence of dispersals, pack size, and a whole bunch more are all dependent upon terrain types and prey types and prey abundance. When resources are at all scarce, a pack is usually a nuclear family (the breeding pair and their offspring as old as 3 years old). In abundant resources, or where prey is large game most easily brought down by large packs, a wolf pack may consist of more than one wolf family.
But the long and short of it is that physical contests of “dominance” are rarely seen among wild wolves.
And in both wolves and dogs the vast majority of “aggressive” behaviors are actually agonistic behaviors — ritualized aggressive postures designed to settle conflicts without injury.
As a well-educated dog trainer, I find it frustrating to see so much “alpha” and “dominance” language in popular dog training TV shows and books, since it’s a double fallacy when applied to dogs. Not only are the original notions of dominance hierarchies based on flawed studies of wolves (non-related captive wolves to boot!) and misunderstandings of wolf social behavior, but dogs are not wolves and do not mimic wolf social behavior. In fact, dogs don’t form packs in their natural environment (the outskirts of civilization — do a search on “village dogs” for more info)!
Think “deference hierarchy” (the dominant animal is one that other animals voluntarily defer to) rather than “dominance hierarchy” (it’s not strictly enforced from the top down) and you’ll be closer to the truth for both wolves and dogs. Submissive postures (such as lying on one’s back and exposing the belly) are offered by the submissive animal, rather than forced by the dominant animal. When a wolf forcibly rolls another wolf onto its back, it’s to eviscerate it, not to establish “dominance.”
When in “groups” (dogs brought together by humans as opposed to “packs” where they congregate on their own) dogs do form social hierarchies based on deference, but they tend to be fluid and depend on social context. There may be some fighting (usually ritualized agonistic stuff — it’s like a dance if you watch it on video in slow motion) to establish who’s where in the hierarchy, but again that’s mostly from “alpha wanna-be’s.” Some dogs are status-seekers, some aren’t.
There’s some evidence (studies which Dr. Ian Dunbar was involved in in the 70s, if I recall correctly) that dogs in groups form two social hierarchies — one male, which is usually based on age, and one female, which is very fluid. In this study males often deferred to females — quite possibly because they never knew where they stood with females since the female hierarchy was so fluid.
For general info on wolves:
International Wolf Center: http://www.wolf.org/wolves/index.asp
For scientific research:
David Mech’s work is a wealth of information: http://www.davemech.com/
You can get free copies of some of his papers:
One example (scroll down to the bottom of the above web page): Leadership behavior in relation to dominance and reproductive status in gray wolves, Canis lupus by Rolf O. Peterson, Amy K. Jacobs, Thomas D. Drummer, L. David Mech, and Douglas W. Smith
Interestingly enough, the pervasive myth of the alpha wolf is in part due to Mech’s earlier work. As he states it:
The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature at least partly because of my book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it. Although most of the book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years then in all of previous history.
One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. Most wolves who lead packs achieved their position by mating and producing pups which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today.
(the above is excerpted from here: http://www.davemech.org/news.html– and the .pdf in the link is “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs” by L. David Mech)
You can see the original study, a 1947 study by Schenkel, now available in English, that started the whole “alpha wolf” notion here:
I hope that helps dispel some of the “alpha wolf” and “dominance” myths!