The Myth of the Alpha Wolf by Rivka Galchen
“How the model of aggression and dominance has infected human society, but new research shows how wrong we got it”
I just wanted to share a quick recap of this amazing article by Rivka Galchen that was just published by The New Yorker. It's a big deal because it's extremely validating to have such a large publication shine a light on an issue in the dog world that concerns many dog trainers, dog walkers, and dog lovers who believe in humane dog training instead of using fear and pain. This article shows how researchers initially got it wrong when they described wolves with strict pack dynamics and "alphas or betas." Unfortunately, the terms took off in popularity and are a huge part of our daily vernacular and even culture. What it means for dogs is that the method of dominance training or focusing on "alpha" pack dynamics within dog behavior is completely misguided.
Here are some highlights from the article:
In the 1970s, a wolf biologist researcher named David Mech published the leading text on wolf habits, including relations to prey animals, non-prey, and humans. The researcher has since become frustrated with how popular the book became, even asking for it to no longer be published, bothered by what he mistakenly wrote about wolf pack hierarchy.
The book (published all the way until 2022!) described characteristics of the "alpha male" and "alpha female" in each pack and how wolves needed to frequently vent aggression at the weakest pack members. Interviewed for this New Yorker article, Mech admitted most of that stuff was wrong.
Actual wolf biologists today do not use the terms alpha or beta.
Wolf packs are actually families: a father/mother/offspring. The ones on the "top" are actually just because they're the oldest or the parents. Any fights between wolves are usually over territory with other packs.
The original study that gave the terminology started in 1934, after watching wolves in a small area in a zoo. The author makes the comparison of studying a human family by observing the culture of prisoners in a holding cell.
The article ends with a suggestion on what might actually make what we perceived as a wolf "alpha." A researcher named Connor Meyer found a correlation between the wolves who left their family packs to start a new pack (who would have been previously described as an "alpha") could be predicted by the presence of a pathogen known as toxoplasmosis in their blood. In rats, T. gondii causes them to put their body at risk to cats, since cats are a part of the pathogen's life cycle. This infection in humans has been studied as well, where it's been suggested that T. gondii makes humans more aggressive or likely to get in a vehicle crash. T. Gondii might be behind what actually makes something an "alpha"…
Bringing the topic back to dog training, alpha-rolling was a common method for dealing with “dominant” dogs for many years. The method stemmed from the idea that alpha wolves forced others submit to their dominance and rank in their pack. A human doing this to a domesticated dog is…not a good idea. It removes the “flight” option from a fight/flight/freeze response. Since so many dogs choose “freeze,” humans took that to mean the dog defaulted to their leadership. Unfortunately, suppression of behaviors doesn’t mean anything was fixed. So why are we still so hung up on making dogs subscribe to the alpha/dominance way of training? Setting aside the fact that dogs are not wolves, this article makes it clear that it makes no sense to use the alpha/dominance method of training for dogs. It’s not even how wolves interact!
Therefore, all those concepts you grew up hearing about dominant/submissive dogs are falsehoods. Things like dogs going out of a door before you, dogs licking your face or climbing on your lap, dogs getting on a couch or bed, or dogs peeing are not any sort of attempt by the dog to be the “alpha.”
Dominance is not a personality trait of an individual dog, but rather a property of interactions between several individuals. It is a dynamic that can change from moment to moment, depending on the situation and the relationship between the dogs involved. Also, dominance is not always established through aggressive behavior, and many dogs can coexist peacefully without the need for one to assert dominance over the other.
The misconception of using alpha/dominance training on dogs, based on the belief that dogs are related to wolves, has caused decades of misery, suffering, and confusion in dogs. Dog training is a working field that needs to be held accountable and scrutinized for every possible method of advancement, and that means keeping up with the latest science, studies, and fact-checking for yourself. Dogs deserve respect as biological creatures with their own behavior, not to be boxed into what we (incorrectly) thought wolves should be like!