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  • Danai Synadinou

Making and unmaking of the dominance theory

Dominance theory has its roots on research conducted in the 1930s and 1940s by Swiss animal behaviourist Rudolph Schenkel. The scientist was observing captive zoo wolves at the Basel Zoo in Switzerland, where up to ten wolves were kept together in an area of 10 by 20 metres. Based on his observations the scientist concluded that wolves in a pack fight to gain dominance, and the winner is the alpha wolf.

For the dog training world, it was the work of David Mech that spiked an interest in the dominance theory in the 1970s. Once it was embraced by dog trainers, a methodology was developed using punishment as a behaviour correction method and showing the dog that you were the alpha wolf all the time. Some of the methods involved physical punishment, such as taking the puppy by the scruff of the neck and shaking it.

These ideas became less popular in the dog training literature throughout the 2000s. In 1999 and 2000, David Mech published two articles in which he tried to correct the popular misunderstanding about how a wolf pack is organized. By that time, Mech had studied wild wolf packs on Ellesmere Island in Canada for 13 summers. He was able to acclimatize one of the wolf packs to his presence. That allowed him to study the pack up close — up to one metre, over several years. He wrote that what was commonly called the alpha pair was simply the parents of the rest of the pack. As parents, they consequently led the pack’s activities. “Dominance fights with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all. During my 13 summers where I observed the pack, I saw none,” Mech wrote in an article entitled “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs”.

Barbara Zimmermann, a professor at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences who studies wolves clarified; Most wolf packs simply consist of two parents and their puppies. The group may also include one- to three-year-old offspring that have not yet headed out on their own. “The adults are simply in charge because they are the parents of the rest of the pack members. We don’t talk about the alpha male, the alpha female, and the beta child in a human family,” Zimmermann said. We also do not feel the need to dominate our children and make them blindly submit to us.

Or at least, we now know that it is wrong to behave that way towards any sentient being.

Thankfully the scales are tipping and books written from 2000s onwards are largely on positive training, force-free training, cooperation and overall reward-based methods that use the least possible punishment and no physical correction.


The Wolves of Isle Royale, 1966. U. S. Govt. Printing Office, 210 pp.

Mech, L. David. 1999. Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77(8):1196-1203.

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