Jan. 8th – Being the “alpha” isn’t a thing…and it never was

Written by Stephanie Roberts
January 9, 2023

It’s the 21st century, being the “alpha” of your “pack” isn’t a thing, it actually never was…Where did the concept of “Alpha” come from and how should a person be the “alpha” of their pack?

In the 20th century, it was a very popular, and wholly misconstrued notion, that the human should be the “alpha” of the “pack” and that “alpha” rules the pack with aggression and dominance. The notion of “alpha” came out of a flawed social experiment that took place in Switzerland in the 1930’s & 40’s with captive wolves.  A man named Schenkel, the head of the study, wanted to identify “the ‘sociology’ of the wolf” and so he put wolves together in a zoo to observe them. While observing the captive wolves, “Schenkel identified two primary wolves in a pack: a male ‘lead wolf’ and a female ‘bitch.’ He described them as ‘first in the pack group.’ He also noted ‘violent rivalries’ between individual members of the packs” (Blog: Why Everything). This is where the concept of an “alpha” is introduced. Findings from another study on captive wolves in a zoo done in the United States supported the findings of Schenkel. However, the flaws of both of these experiments were primarily two fold. 

The first flaw is the wild caught wolves in the studies were not all from the same pack. The wolves in the Schenkel experiment were from different social groups or packs. What is the issue? First, “Wolf Packs” are actually family units. “A pack is typically defined as a cohesive family unit that uses an established territory…packs can range from small nuclear families, made up of a breeding pair and their offspring, to large extended families with aunts, uncles, grandparents, and stepsiblings” (Pack Structure). Secondly, wolf packs do not blend, and in fact, go out of their way to avoid each other. According to information gathered by Voyageurs Wolf Project, “wolf packs generally avoid being around each other unless they are fighting for food that may be in short supply. When that occurs, they may engage in battles with other packs in order to continue to have their claim on a given location as well as the food found within it” (Varga). One could see now why placing wolves from different packs in a captive environment might lead to “violent rivalries.” Especially, since wolf packs are comprised of family units and not just random wolves thrown together at a zoo. Furthermore, captivity, when not meeting all of the emotional, physical, and mental needs of the animal, can result in aggressive behavior as, “a possible sign of compromised welfare described in other species is aggressive behaviour. Elevated levels of aggression in captivity may result from fear, lack of enrichment, or injury” (Freeland). So the observations made in the experiment are fundamentally flawed because the observations were based on a social construct that does not naturally exist in a wild wolf pack and the captivity itself impacts the observations.  

 So the concept of an “alpha” came from an unnatural scenario putting wolves into a position that they would not naturally encounter. There is no “alpha” in a wolf pack. “While the dominant breeders typically direct the daily activities of the pack, [every] member has a role” (Pack Structure). Furthermore, the idea that “violent rivalries” naturally existed in packs would not make sense. Suggesting that aggression within a pack is completely normal would make cooperation among the pack members impossible and that would drastically interfere with the functioning and survival of the pack. If the pack is consistently suffering from “violent rivalries,” it doesn’t hunt well, and if it doesn’t hunt well, the pack doesn’t eat well, and if it doesn’t eat well, the pack doesn’t survive. 

So, can a human take on the role of an “alpha” in a pack.  Simply? No. You can’t be something that doesn’t actually exist. I am not saying that there are never disagreements in packs, that there are never fights. I’m sure there are. They are in fact animals, in the wild, fighting for resources. Here’s the thing, though, you are not fighting your dog for resources, specifically the right to breed. You are not their alpha. You are their caretaker. You have brought them into your family, under your care. 

Within the realm of “under your care” your responsibility is to provide your dog with emotional, mental, and physical care, to provide them with sufficient food, water, and shelter.  Your responsibility is to guide your dog, to keep them safe, make sure they want for none of their basic needs, and give them boundaries that benefit of the dog and those around them. 

Being the “alpha” isn’t a thing, but being a caretaker absolutely is.


Adda Ong. (n.d.-b). Zoos are like prisons. https://www.addaong.org/en/we-denounce/zoos-are-like-prisons/#:~:text=Captivity%20suppresses%20the%20natural%20instincts,genetic%2C%20physical%20and%20behavioural%20degeneration. 

Blog: Why everything you know about Wolf Packs is wrong. Lobos of the Southwest. (2021, January 16). https://mexicanwolves.org/blog-why-everything-you-know-about-wolf-packs-is-wrong/ 

Freeland L, Ellis C, Michaels CJ. Documenting Aggression, Dominance and the Impacts of Visitor Interaction on Galápagos Tortoises (Chelonoidis nigra) in a Zoo Setting. Animals (Basel). 2020 Apr 17;10(4):699. doi: 10.3390/ani10040699. PMID: 32316413; PMCID: PMC7222

Hatt J.M. Raising giant tortoises. Zoo Wild Anim. Med. Curr. Ther. 2008;6:144–153. 

Mech, L. D. (1999). Alpha status, dominance, and division of Labor in Wolf Packs. Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1391&context=usgsnpwrc 

Pack structure. Wolf Haven International. (n.d.). https://wolfhaven.org/conservation/wolves/pack-structure/779.

Sherwen S.L., Hemsworth P.H. The Visitor Effect on Zoo Animals: Implications and Opportunities for Zoo Animal Welfare. Animal. 2019;9:366. doi: 10.3390/ani9060366.

Varga, T. (n.d.). GPS tracking shows how much wolf packs avoid each other’s range. Earthly MIssion. https://earthlymission.com/gps-tracking-shows-how-much-wolf-packs-avoid-each-others-range/ 

Warwick C. Reptilian Ethology in Captivity: Observations of Some Problems and an Evaluation of Their Aetiology. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 1990;26:1–13. doi: 10.1016/0168-1591(90)90082-O.

About the Author

Stephanie Roberts

CTDI, AACE, CPDT-KA, CPDT-KSA, IAABC-ADT, Certified Canine Fitness and Nutrition Coach. Stephanie has over 16 years of Dog Training. She is certified through both the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers as well as the International Association of Animal Behaviorists as an Accredited Dog Trainer. She is also a certified Trick Instructor through the Do More With Your Dog Program and is working towards certification as a Canine Fitness Instructor and Dog Parkour Instructor. She has studied positive reinforcement techniques as well as, Behavioral Adjustment Techniques.