The term 'Alpha Wolf' is a product of research conducted on captive wolves over 60 years ago; the notion of which having overlapped onto dogs, and continues to permeate our culture and affect the relationship many people have with their dogs to this day.
In the 1940s a man named Rudolph Schenkel published a ground-breaking research paper on how wolves interacted. His research was based on studying randomly selected (unrelated) wolves from different zoos and placing them together in a captive setting. He reported that a top ranking "alpha" wolf and his mate eventually emerged after fighting their way up the ranks of the pack. His conclusions were used as the foundation for a belief system about wolf-pack social hierarchy (both wild and captive) thereafter.
How This Relates To Dogs
Subsequent to Schenkel's research conclusions it was assumed that, because dogs descended from wolves, dogs would have the same alpha/dominance based social hierarchy as their wolf ancestors. Read more about this in a separate article titled "The Dominance Theory Myth".
L. David Mech
Around twenty years later L. David Mech published his highly influential book "The Wolf, Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species" and, as was the norm, cited Schenkel's work and findings.
In Mech's own words: "I crafted my book The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species in the late 1960s. This book was a synthesis of available wolf information at the time, so I included much reference to Schenkel’s study. The book was timely because no other synthesis about the wolf had been written since 1944, so 'The Wolf' sold well. It was originally published in 1970 and republished in paperback in 1981 and is still in print. Over 120,000 copies are now in circulation. Most other general wolf books have relied considerably on 'The Wolf' for information, thus spreading the misinformation about alpha wolves far and wide."
In the 1990's Mech spent years living with and studying wolves in the wild on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian arctic, and observed the behaviour and social structure of free-living wolves that changed his way of thinking. Instead of witnessing dominant/subordinate pack hierarchies, he found them to be comprised of leader/follower relationships. Mech determined that the existing theory and literature (including his own book 'The Wolf') on the alpha status and hierarchy of wolf packs was misleading and he decided to "correct this misinformation".
An interview with L. David Mech
The Flawed Alpha Wolf Theory - Publishing The Correction
In order to correct his previous work, Mech published an article in 1999 titled, "Alpha Status, Dominance and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs" in the Canadian Journal of Zoology.
A year later he continued his efforts to clarify the parental roles and social order of the wild wolf pack with another article titled, "Leadership in Wolf, Canis Lupus, Packs" in Canadian Field Naturalist.
A Family Group
Through Mech's important field work, the understanding of natural/wild wolf packs has changed and has been validated by further research. We now know that most free-living packs are family groups that are formed in much the same way as human family groups, and that the breeding pair of wolves lead their pack in much the same manner as a human father and mother lead their family. This is done through experience, strength, respect and benevolent leadership - not by dominance or aggression.
Repercussions For Dogs
While people cannot be blamed for following the standard belief system of the day, there should be an expectation that professionals within the canine industry would update their knowledge-base, techniques and practices when the theories in use are proven to be flawed and/or invalid.
Dog training and behaviour modification methods have come a long way in the last twenty years due to the introduction of much more humane and effective positive-reinforcement based practices, yet alpha/dominance based training and behaviour modification is still widespread.
I have often read that changes to belief systems may take as many as twenty years before the 'change' filters down to the masses and becomes the new standard. If that is true, based on Mech's publication date we still have several years to go - and what will be the repercussions for dogs?
In the meantime we must continue educate, advocate, and demonstrate the effectiveness of humane and positive reinforcement based training as to help as many dogs and owners reach their full potential as possible.