"Is Your Dog Dominant? Part II."

Dogs and Wolves: Not the Same Animal!

Part of the problem in how the mistaken ideas about dominance and submission in dogs and wolves emerged as scientific “fact” may come from the belief that Konrad Lorenz and others of his time had that the social behavior of captive wolves, being held in zoos and sanctuaries, would be much the same as it is in wild wolves, who roamed free in the wilderness. This belief may have arisen partly out of scientific necessity because when these initial studies were done wild wolves were almost totally inaccessible.

That’s no longer true.

In 1939 Adolph Murie did the first real study on the behaviors of wolves in their natural habitat (in this case, Alaska). In his book The Wolves of Mt. McKinley (1944) Murie wrote, “Because wolves rely mainly on large animals, the pack is an advantageous manner in which to hunt. A lone wolf would ordinarily have difficulty catching sheep, but several wolves working together can hunt sheep rather successfully.” Clearly Murie found the pack to be cooperative hunting unit, based on the need to hunt large prey, not a dominance hierarchy. In fact he never even mentions the word dominance when discussing wolf pack behavior.

Biologist Raymond Coppinger has said the same thing more recently (in an online discussion hosted by The Washington Post, 01/09/2004). “First of all, not all wolves do pack and packing behavior seems to be a social construct depending on other variables, like prey size. So, in areas where prey might be garbage in the dump, you find wolves in very loose social arrangements. They have them, but they’re not a pack.”

Dr. L. David Mech (pr. Meech) of the University of Minnesota began his studies of wild wolves in 1958, and has spent his entire career studying them in their natural surroundings. He says, “Most research on the social dynamics of wolf packs ... has been conducted on wolves in captivity. These captive packs were usually composed of an assortment of wolves from various sources placed together and allowed to breed at will. With such assemblages ... dominance labels were probably appropriate. In nature, however, the wolf pack is not such an assemblage. Rather, it is usually a family [which] consists of a pair of breeders and their young offspring.

“Attempting to apply information about the behavior of assemblages of unrelated captive wolves to the familial structure of natural packs has resulted in considerable confusion. The concept of the alpha wolf as a ‘top dog’ ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots is particularly misleading.” (Mech, L. David. 1999. “Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs,” Canadian Journal of Zoology.)

They Aren’t the Same Animal

It’s also clear that while dogs and wolves share a genetic background, there are clear distinctions between the two species; they’re not the same animal. And if Mech is right (and I think he is), then captive wolves and wild wolves aren’t the same animal either, at least not when it comes to the environmental pressures creating their social behaviors.

So is there such a thing as dominant behavior in real wolf packs?

Yes, says Mech. One of the ways this happens is a conflict between the breeding male and female. Yet one of the most striking things about these conflicts is that it’s the “submissive” female who almost always triumphs over the “dominant” male. Here’s a typical example:

The male has killed a hare and comes trotting back toward the den where, presumably, he wants to eat his kill in peace and safety. As he approaches, the female comes toward him. His back and neck go up. He stands tall and stiff. She approaches, getting lower to the ground. The closer she comes, the stiffer he stands and the lower she gets.

Then as she comes right up to him, she very nearly rolls over on her back in the way the inferior wolf in the description of “submissive” behavior Konrad Lorenz gave us in King Solomon’s Ring. Here, however, she’s not on her back and she’s not “offering her neck.”

So why does she get so low to the ground?

The next part of the drama explains it: crouching in front of her mate, so low to the ground as to almost be on her back, her jaws are actually now in a perfect position to grab the hare right out of the male’s mouth! Which is exactly what she does! Then she runs back to her pups, leaving her “husband” standing there, hare-less and wondering what the hell just happened.

Clear Contradiction

This natural behavior in wild wolves is in direct contradiction to the idea that dominance is about resource guarding. And just as in the battle Lorenz described (but misinterpreted), it’s often the non-threatening (i.e., submissive) animal that controls access to resources. In the case of the conflict between the breeding pair over food, the “submissive” female has to control access or her pups won’t have anything to eat. Yet even though the male is always the loser, his behavior is still described as “dominant.”

So how can we continue to apply the word dominance to a set of supposedly instinctive behavioral tendencies in dogs and wolves that a) are neither natural nor instinctive, and b) that very often result in the supposedly dominant animal not being able to control access to important resources?

In the next installment I’ll explore how anxiety, not the need to dominate others, may be the real source of these behavioral tendencies in both dogs and wolves.


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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.