The Long Legacy Of The Alpha Wolf Myth
Around the 1970s, the world latched onto a catchy new scientific term: alpha wolf. It described the top dog that clawed its way to the top of its pack, and it quickly became a mainstream symbol for power and dominance.
The idea of the alpha wolf was debunked almost 25 years ago, but its legacy lives on. Most commonly, it’s found in circles of the internet where men appoint themselves alpha wolf, and also in dog training. Strangely, those two things are connected.
Guest host Maddie Sofia explores how science works and how people use it in their everyday lives, whether it’s true or not. And a little about what happens when science goes mainstream.
Maddie first talks with Dr. Dave Mech, senior research scientist at the US Geological Survey and founder of the International Wolf Center. His 1970 book, The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species helped popularize the term “alpha wolf.” But when he discovered that alpha wolves aren’t really real many years later, he tried to right the wrong.
Then, Maddie talks with two researchers about how the alpha wolf idea is still around today: Anamarie Johnson, PhD candidate and canine behavior consultant at Arizona State University, and Dr. Lindsay Palmer, social and behavioral scientist who studies the human-animal bond at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School. They explore how biases and societal ideas shape science, and connect the dots between alpha wolves, masculinity, and dog training.
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Dave Mech is a senior research scientist with the US Geological Survey and the founder of the International Wolf Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Anamarie Johnson is a PhD candidate and a canine behavior consultant at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.
Lindsay Palmer is a social and behavioral scientist in the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School in Worcester, Massachusetts.
JOHN DANKOSKY: John Dankosky here, with my co-host. Hi, Maddie. You’ve got a story for us now?
MADDIE SOFIA: Yeah. It’s all about the myth of the alpha wolf.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Hold it! The alpha wolf is a myth? The big tough wolf? I thought that was a true story.
MADDIE SOFIA: Nope. Wrong again, John, as usual. This term just will not go away. And the two places I heard it a bunch when I was reporting it– dog training and insecure men on the internet.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Insecure men on the internet? I can’t believe that.
MADDIE SOFIA: I know. Right? But the more I reported on it, the more I realized this story is really about how science works and how people use it to confirm their beliefs, whether it’s true or not. And it’s a little bit about what happens when scientists get something wrong and it becomes wildly popular.
So for that, we’ve got to start with Dr. Dave Mech. He was part of popularizing the term. And he has spent decades telling anybody who will listen that he and other scientists got it wrong. He’s now a senior research scientist at the US Geological Survey, and founder of the International Wolf Center. And he’s joining me from St. Paul, Minnesota.
Dave, welcome to Science Friday.
DAVE MECH: Thank you, Maddie.
MADDIE SOFIA: All right, Dave. So let’s get into it. The term “alpha wolf” was originally coined by Rudolph Schenkel, in 1947. Tell me about the wolves in that particular study.
DAVE MECH: Well, I should give you a little background first. At that time, science knew very little about wolves. About all science knew– and that means that’s all Schenkel would have known– is that they live in a pack. He knew they howled and all that. But as far as their social structure was concerned, they live in a group of animals. And he wanted to study the behavior of animals in a group– in this case, the wolves– and so he wanted to do that in captivity.
To do that, he had to make a pack. And so he just got a bunch of wolves– one or two from some zoo somewhere, another couple from another place– threw them all together, and that was his wolf pack.
Now, it turns out– he didn’t know it at the time– but that’s not how a wolf pack is organized. A wolf pack is basically a family, very analogous to a human family– a set of parents and their offspring. But Schenkel didn’t know that. So he brought all these unrelated wolves together. And when he put them all in the same enclosure, they did what quite a few species would do. They fought to figure out just who’s the boss.
And so it turned out that the males fought and determined who was the top ranker and the females did the same. And so Rudolf Schenkel decided to name the top ranking male the alpha male and the top ranking female the alpha female.
MADDIE SOFIA: This is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios.
So we fast forward to the ’60s, right. You are doing a lot of research. You’re writing a book. And you wrote a book that included that term. Tell me a little bit about that and your role in this term.
DAVE MECH: The book I wrote was supposed to be a compendium of just about all that was known about wolves at that time, including Schenkel’s work. Since I didn’t know any better, I accepted what Schenkel said and put that in the book. And that was in 1968. The book was published in 1970.
When it came out, that book ended up being a bestseller. So that told the public that, in a wolf pack, you have the alpha male and the alpha female. And that book was in print until last year. So over 50 years. And I knew, before 2022, that that was not correct. But it wasn’t until 1999 that I published what essentially would be a correction of that.
MADDIE SOFIA: The book comes out, right. For various reasons, people are latching on to this idea. And then you realize that maybe this isn’t quite right. When did you realize that?
DAVE MECH: It wasn’t until I actually got to watch a family group up close that my wheels started turning about the individual interactions amongst the pups and the adults and all that. And so that was when I went to Ellesmere Island, in far northern Canada, where the wolves were not afraid of people and I could actually live right with them each summer. So I did that from 1986 to 2010.
MADDIE SOFIA: Wow.
DAVE MECH: And as I did that, there was no doubt as to who was the mother and who was the father, and then they had the yearlings and the pups. And that varied a little bit from year to year. But basically, that was the way the family was organized. So it was clear that there was a dominance hierarchy. That was not a problem.
As we got into the ’90s, when we put wolves in Yellowstone National Park, I could watch them as well. And I did that. In all of those observations, the ones at Ellesmere and the ones in Yellowstone, I could see that how those packs formed was just a young animal from one pack– I’d say a maturing yearling or a two-year-old, male or female– both are the same as they mature– they leave the pack and they circulate around the population, find a vacant place where there are no other wolves, find each other, and mate and produce their own offspring. And that’s how a pack forms.
What I didn’t see was wolves fighting each other to come to the top of a pack. In other words, the social order in the pack was automatically established when the pack was established just merely by the adults producing pups, and those offspring, then, just like in a human family, naturally just being subordinate to their parents.
MADDIE SOFIA: When these original studies were done back in the ’40s, this idea of the tough dominant male was very much mainstream. Do you think that could have influenced how the original data was interpreted, rather than we put all these wild wolves in one pack in captivity?
DAVE MECH: Oh, I wouldn’t doubt that at all. And we do have these human dominance hierarchies, with the general being at the top and all that. So we recognize human dominance hierarchies. And so yeah, I don’t doubt that that was a factor when Schenkel did his study. Yeah.
MADDIE SOFIA: OK, Dave, this was wonderful. I really appreciate you joining me today. Thanks so much for coming on.
DAVE MECH: Oh, you’re quite welcome. I enjoyed it, Maddie. Thank you.
MADDIE SOFIA: Dr. Dave Mech is a senior research scientist at the US Geological Survey, and founder of the International Wolf Center, based in St Paul, Minnesota.
After the break, how the myth of the alpha wolf shows up in our everyday lives. Stick with us.
This is Science Friday. I’m Maddie Sofia. And we’re back, talking about the myth of the alpha wolf, the idea that a top dog fights to rule a wolf pack.
Before the break, wolf researcher Dr. Dave Mech told us about how he realized the alpha wolf largely doesn’t exist. Instead, wolf packs are more like families, with a breeding pair, a mom and a dad, guiding the pack. Dave has been trying to correct the record for decades, but the alpha wolf idea just won’t go away. You’ll hear about it everywhere, like in TV shows.
– I am the alpha!
MADDIE SOFIA: In commercials.
– You will begin to notice you can outrun, out-climb, out-throw, out-jump, out-sleep, out-drink, out-brag, and outperform the competition.
MADDIE SOFIA: It’s become synonymous with a particular type of masculinity.
– Each and every one of us can be alpha! Being alpha, it’s in all of us as long as we embrace the spirit of alpha. And when I talk about alpha–
MADDIE SOFIA: It even informs how we train our dogs.
– We find out the top five ways to become the alpha amongst your Siberian huskos. Come on. Let’s go!
MADDIE SOFIA: Here to talk about all that are Anamarie Johnson, PhD candidate and canine behavior consultant at Arizona State University, based in Tempe, Arizona, and Dr. Lindsay Palmer, a social and behavioral scientist, who studies the human-animal bond at the UMass Chan Medical School, in Massachusetts. Thank you, both, for joining me.
ANAMARIE JOHNSON: Thank you.
LINDSAY PALMER: Thank you. It’s really nice to be here.
MADDIE SOFIA: Yeah, absolutely.
Anamarie, let’s start with you. You study dog behavior. You’ve trained dogs for a long time. Tell me a little bit about how this term “alpha wolf” shows up in your world.
ANAMARIE JOHNSON: When I was dog training, I would have a lot of clients in my introduction sections. And they would talk about how they didn’t feel comfortable letting their dog on the couch because they didn’t want their dog to think it was alpha over them. And that always just hurt my heart. Because I was just like, well, if you want to have your dog on the couch to cuddle, go for it. Your dog is not going to all of a sudden assume this hierarchical position and think it rules the roost.
MADDIE SOFIA: Right.
ANAMARIE JOHNSON: So there’s a lot of this traditional mentality that has been described in the literature. And it’s just been perpetuated down the line and has gotten a resurgence through television and social media. And so that has trickled down to the general public.
MADDIE SOFIA: Yeah. And I know that there’s a bit of a divide in the dog training community. There are people who use a more reward-based training, like treats and toys, and kind of exactly what it sounds like. And then there’s those that use what’s called aversive training, basically, making your dog physically or emotionally uncomfortable, to get them to do a desired behavior, like physically manipulating them or using a shock collar, for example. What is that tension, and how does the alpha wolf play into that?
ANAMARIE JOHNSON: Totally. So I jokingly say, it’s not even just a gap or a divide, it’s kind of a chasm. And it comes down to really the two kind of camps, so to speak, are what people generally say are positive reinforcement– so they’re using, as you said, treats and toys in order to kind of get behaviors and modify behaviors in dogs– as opposed to there being more of what colloquially is called balanced training, where they’re also using rewards and treats and play. But rather than trying to provide an alternative behavior for the dog to choose, they’ll choose to correct the behavior. They’re trying to punish the behavior to decrease the likelihood it’s going to happen again.
And so that can be using physical manipulation. It can be using aversive tools, like a prong collar or an electronic shock collar. And all of that ties into this dominance idea, where there is this concept that, in order for the dog to do the behavior you want, you have to exert some type of control over it.
And once again, this idea that, if you give your dog an inch, they’re going to take a mile. And so you need to be in a very strict, controlled environment, this leader of the pack mentality that some dog trainers within aversive communities do have.
I want to clarify– that’s not everyone. But that is that dominant mentality that some trainers within certain camps do have.
MADDIE SOFIA: OK. So what do the data tell us about these two different types of training?
ANAMARIE JOHNSON: Generally speaking, in the last, I would say, 20 years or so, the scientific literature has provided some insight into the fact that non-aversive– so training with treats and rewards– is better for a dog’s welfare, whether that be their stress or even actually cognition. They perform better on different tests. They can do better training. As opposed to aversive methods, where dogs are performing more stress-related behaviors and performing worse on different cognition tests.
MADDIE SOFIA: OK. So it looks like, from the data that we have now– and I know we always need more– that the positive reinforcement training seems to be best for the welfare of the dog in most cases. Are there situations where aversive methods are appropriate?
ANAMARIE JOHNSON: That’s a tough question. So there’s no doubt that punishment works. But there’s a lot of caveats to that use of punishment. And so I’m strictly talking about– let’s talk about shock, right? So the idea of a shock collar. Shock does work. We know that.
The problem is that the general dog owner is going to have a really difficult time with implementing correct timing, knowing what correct device is going to be right for their dog, knowing what level. So there are so many caveats to it that it runs the potential risk that there could be fallout for your dog.
MADDIE SOFIA: Yeah. And Lindsay, you’ve actually got some preliminary data, essentially, asking if exposing people to this idea of dominance– like the alpha wolf, for example– actually leads them to train dogs in a way that mimics that.
LINDSAY PALMER: Yeah. So in our ongoing work, we find that near exposure to dominance theory or other sorts of dominance hierarchies between dogs doesn’t give us a complete picture of why people use aversive methods. In our work, we found that the reason why dominance theory predicts the endorsement of aversive methods is because it’s mediated by hegemonic masculinity. Which is the culturally epitomized or idealized definition of manhood.
And so the reason why that dominance theory predicts the endorsement of aversive methods is because of beliefs in traditional gender norms and, in particular, hegemonic masculinity.
MADDIE SOFIA: Right. And it’s probably not surprising to somebody like you, who studies this human-animal bond, but I really thought maybe this theory came from this alpha wolf. And maybe people are just hearing about the alpha wolf and that’s enough. But it’s not. It’s based in this societal belief system, right?
LINDSAY PALMER: Yeah. And so that was definitely our inspiration for looking at this variable. Is that our own social scripts, our beliefs about what is going on in our own culture, might actually be mapping on in how we interpret animal behavior.
MADDIE SOFIA: Yeah. And Anamarie, you looked into gender in dog training, too, right? What kind of people are more likely to alpha-wolf their dogs?
ANAMARIE JOHNSON: I did a comparison of 100 dog trainers across the United States. And I just was pulling information from their websites. Someone who was presenting as male or female, I coded that as a male or female trainer, and looked at what kind of method they used to train. And while there definitely were female aversive trainers in the mix, statistically, there were more female trainers that would identify to a non-aversive, or a positive reinforcement, training methodology, compared to men.
MADDIE SOFIA: OK. So let me make sure I’ve got everything right. It’s not just that people heard about this alpha wolf study or heard in movies or whatever and were like, OK, this is the way we train dogs. It’s more like this observation fits really well into an already established worldview of this dominance-based masculinity. And the people who tend to accept that have used this as evidence to dominate their dogs in that way. Is that fair to say?
LINDSAY PALMER: Yeah, I think that definitely something we see in our work is that, first of all, establishing dominance and control is really central to achieving the idealized status of manhood. And so we definitely see how, at least in our work, how dominance theory is really mapping on. So one of the things that we found, for example, in our work is this relationship was most meaningful for men.
So even though all genders in our study– if they endorsed hegemonic masculinity, this would lead to the endorsement of aversive methods– we found that it was most meaningful for the cisgender men in our sample, just really mapping onto social scripts that we already have, and were using that social information to be able to understand and navigate our world with animals.
MADDIE SOFIA: Can I ask you about that, Lindsay? Because I think for a lot of people listening, it might feel a little strange talking about human gender and our relationship with pets. But our human biases very much impact the way we think about animals and the way we interpret data, right?
LINDSAY PALMER: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. There’s a ton of literature out there about experimenter bias, basically, how our knowledge is socially situated. So that comes a lot from Black feminist thought– is standpoint Theory, or the idea that our knowledge is socially situated. So our social positions and our experiences impact how we interpret the world around us. Your beliefs and your experiences and your knowledge are situated within your position, basically. And this is what you’re using to navigate your social world. And so our beliefs and attitudes do impact our behavior.
MADDIE SOFIA: Right. Can you give me just some examples of performing gender in our relationship with animals other than this wolf study?
LINDSAY PALMER: Oh, yeah. So I think that using aversive methods, for example, is actually a type of gender performance in dog training. Because using aversive methods based off of what the definition of hegemonic masculinity is is sort of this emotional toughness, right. Or even putting clothes on your dog might be a more feminine-gendered performance.
So we do have those sorts of culturally acceptable ways of interacting with our animals that are based off of our gender.
MADDIE SOFIA: OK. So back when this original research was coming out, right– like ’40s, ’50s, ’60s– it was all being done by men in a time where very stark traditional gender roles were the standard in the US. Do you think that could have played a role in how these men interpreted the wolves’ behavior?
LINDSAY PALMER: Yeah. So throughout psychological research, there’s actually been a phenomenon of– especially because in so many studies, we have a lot of under representation of certain types of social groups– so we often find that a dominant cultural perspective is often the lens through which we interpret results. So for example– and this is completely unrelated to dogs– but even the research on gender differences in heart attacks, those results were really interpreted from the lens of male bodies.
And so we actually didn’t know exactly how gender impacted the manifestation of different types of cardiac events until much later because we were generating knowledge from a very specific type of perspective in this research.
MADDIE SOFIA: I’m Maddie Sofia. This is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios.
Yeah, it’s interesting to me that this alpha wolf theory and the lay dominance theory have really stuck around even with very little science backing them in these contexts. Lindsay, can you speculate why that is?
LINDSAY PALMER: I think part of the reason why it sticks around is just because it has really infiltrated popular culture. And so it’s a narrative that just refuses to die because it just exists within our social consciousness. And for many people, they just repeat this type of information and they don’t really know the source of it. It’s just sort of out there and it exists.
And so it’s like playing a giant telephone game with everybody around you, where maybe there is this education available to get a more informed perspective on their companion animals. But, unfortunately, this information is just out there. So it’s the most widely available information because you can just– if it’s in popular culture, you can literally just walk up to anyone on the street and have this regurgitated at you.
Unfortunately, the way to deal with this sort of information is the way that you combat any type of misinformation, which is just actually very difficult. And then, on top of that, from what we’ve seen in our studies, is that education alone at this point may not be the only answer. So we may also have to do some cultural change here, and maybe even develop interventions around masculinity and encouraging a more healthy masculinity, and showing people that there are other ways to have relationships with animals that are not just dominating and controlling them.
MADDIE SOFIA: Absolutely. Yeah. That leads me to what I want to close with. I want you all to speak to all the dog parents out there. I just got a new puppy, and I have been trying to figure out the best way to train with her, bond with her, not have her openly disrespect me in public. I’m hearing that the idea of pretending like I’m an alpha dog is unnecessary and, I would venture, even weird because I’m not a dog. What does the science say about some good ways for us to bond with our doggos?
ANAMARIE JOHNSON: Yeah. So I would wholeheartedly agree, your dog does not think you are a dog. I think we sometimes aspire a lot of knowledge on our dogs and then sometimes have them just as these naturalistic behaviors. And then there’s a weird cognitive dissonance that happens for some people there. But I would say, honestly, the most simple thing– not getting into the training debate– is just to provide opportunities where you are together.
The science shows that it’s a great stress reducer just to be present with your dog and have a dog present around a human. So it could be you both sitting on the couch, if you so choose– your dog will not think they are alpha over you. But if your dog pees on the couch it’s a different story, right?
But if your dog is respectful on the couch and is totally fine, welcome your dog, and sit on the couch and watch something together. Or go on a walk. Any of these really chill bonding experiences can actually help that creation to have your dog seek you as a point of comfort and resource for them. Your dogs are not silly. They know there exists a relationship because we provide everything for them. Adding that as a training to power onto the dynamics that are already there isn’t necessary.
MADDIE SOFIA: Right. So I’m hearing your dog knows that you’re the boss because you provide its food and shelter. There’s no push and pull there, necessarily.
ANAMARIE JOHNSON: We control all our dogs’ resources. But needing to heighten that relationship by exerting physical control over our dogs in relation to training just isn’t necessary. The dogs know that we exist and provide them food, shelter, water, access to resources, access to other dogs. That’s all there. And so you are totally fine in letting your dog on the couch. It is not a slippery slope.
MADDIE SOFIA: All right. So check out your dog trainers. And it’s OK to cuddle your dog. That’s what I’m taking from this.
ANAMARIE JOHNSON: Yes, exactly.
MADDIE SOFIA: All right. OK. Thank you, both, for joining me today.
ANAMARIE JOHNSON: Thank you so much. I had fun.
LINDSAY PALMER: Thank you.
MADDIE SOFIA: Anamarie Johnson is a PhD candidate and canine behavior consultant at Arizona State University, based in Tempe, Arizona; Dr. Lindsay Palmer, a social and behavioral scientist, who studies the human animal bond, at the UMass Chan Medical School, in Massachusetts.