Let's Unpack Dogs from Wolves
Juniper photo courtesy of Cliona O’Driscoll
People often reduce dogs to being domesticated wolves with wild wolf-like tendencies. But why? Wolves are incredibly beautiful and mysterious. Perhaps we feel closer to nature if we compare our own dogs to wolves? Does it advance training if we compare our dogs to wolves?
Reducing our dogs to behaving like wolves often seduces us into thinking I must harness his inner wolf and make him recognize that I am the alpha. I must dominate my dog to show him who’s boss. Why do we have such a great need to assert dominance? Is our ego boosted by the concept of physically dominating a dog? If your dog feels like an unruly stranger in your home, should wolves shoulder that blame?
No doubt there are very small distinctions between the dog and gray wolf genomes, just as there are very small distinctions between the human, chimpanzee, and bonobo genomes. And yet, I am glad my parents didn’t read books on how to raise chimpanzees and bonobos when I became an adolescent. (I pushed curfew, but I never flung poo at my parents!)
Unpacking Wolves from Dogs
A wolf pack is a very stable familial group where dominance is given more than asserted. A dominant pair often takes precedence as the breeders in the group. Breeding pairs are the parents who are dominant over their pups by cooperatively caring for, protecting, and teaching their pups how to survive.
Dogs do not control breeding females, nor do dogs co-parent pups. Dogs rarely join packs to hunt for food, they are scavengers. If a dog needed to defend rare resources or his life, then he’d be more likely to join a loosely affiliated group of dogs.
Many people envision epic dominance ranking battles between wolves. While this can be more likely in an artificially created nonfamilial unit, dominance aggression is an expensive behavior — no one wants to be taken out of the gene pool.
Dominance is an academic term used in animal science with many subcategories. “Dominance is the preferential access to resources by one individual over another.” Dr. Daniel Mills Univ. of Lincoln UK.
Pssst! You are already dominant over resource access. You have preferential access to resources shared with your dog. You control when your dog goes outside. You control when he meets people and other dogs. You control his access to water and what type of food he eats. How much more control do you want? You already hold the keys to the kingdom!
Bringing the concept of “alpha” from wolves and applying it to dogs was inspired by L. David Mech’s book, The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species (1970, University of Minnesota Press). His research was based on studying captive wolves. Captive wolves behave differently than wild wolves. These captive wolves lived among random artificial units, not nuclear families as with wild wolves. Because a nuclear family hierarchy is more stable than a randomly chosen unit, Mech observed behaviors artificially influenced by captivity. Should we train our dogs and base our relationship with our dogs in the name of captive wolves and “alpha”? Or, is there more accurate research regarding dogs today? Thankfully, scientists are contributing modern research on dogs to advance understanding.
Dogs vary greatly among their conspecifics. Dogs are unique enough to inspire modern studies about dogs alone rather than blurring the lines between dogs and wolves. Don’t be seduced by the wolf:dog fake news comparison and incorrectly using buzzwords like dominance and alpha. I know you want your dog to respect you. Remember, respect is earned, not taken. Be a benevolent leader for your dog by sharing your resources and humanely training them.
(This is not an exhaustive educational offering. This is meant to give context to common fallacies often used to compare dogs to wolves.)
For the record, Dr. Mech ultimately recanted his use of the “alpha” label: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNtFgdwTsbU
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