Dominance theory was created to explain or attempt to predict behaviour between members of social groups of animals. It was reported (Wilson 1975) to be recognised as early as 1802 by Pierre Huber who observed dominant behaviour in bees.

Later it was applied to the social behaviour of chickens, hence the phrase 'pecking order' and was consequently applied to other species of animals that coexist in social groups. This theory is based on a strict linear hierarchy.


© Karen Davison


Dominance theory in relation to wolves was formulated many decades ago by scientists interested in animal social behaviour. As there was little understanding of behaviour and social structure of wolves in the wild at that time, it was believed that wolf packs consisted of a random group of wolves that came together at the onset of winter in order to hunt large prey more effectively. Thus in order to study social behaviour within the limitations of their understanding at the time, they gathered together individual wolves from various zoos, and put them together as a captive colony.

When random groups of animals from any species are put together artificially, these animals will naturally compete and eventually will form a dominance hierarchy. In these unnatural conditions the stress of captivity causes tension in the group to be high, and aggression associated with competition is evident.

In this way a dominance hierarchy is caused rather than being revealed. This was then supposed to be normal pack behaviour and the idea that packs had 'alpha' 'beta' and 'omega' members was first documented.
It is true to say that in these unnatural conditions wolf packs do form a hierarchical social structure. Contributing to the stress of captivity and competitiveness between random individuals in captive colonies is the effect of physiological bio feedback. The two most relevant factors being corticosterone and testosterone.

When two individuals are in competitive situations testosterone levels rise. Depending on the outcome the winner will retain high levels of testosterone, and the loser will produce increased levels of adrenocorticotrophin and consequently release glucocorticoids. In the winner the testosterone levels tend to make the individual reactive and aggressive, in the loser glucocorticoids acts to suppress and inhibit these effects. In this way bio feedback contribute to the process of assessment and learning. Basically those individuals most suited to winning continue to win, and those less suited tend to remain losers. (Hsu et al 2001)
The study and understanding of wolf behaviour has come a long way since these early studies. It is now recognised that wolf packs consist of family groups, usually a breeding pair and their offspring. Like any family group the parents guide, care and teach their offspring, and the offspring naturally follow, just as human parents guide and teach children.

Wolf biologists today do not refer to 'alpha' animals within a pack; rather they are referred to as the 'breeding' pair. It is also a fact that occasionally there can be more than one breeding female, usually the original matriarch female is the more dominant, and the other breeding female is usually a female offspring and usually remains subordinate.

All pack members contribute to the feeding and care of the offspring, including yearlings from the previous years mating. When yearlings mature, they do not challenge the breeding pair for social dominance, rather they disperse looking for a mate of their own, to form a new pack.

The view of the wolf pack as an aggressive assortment of wolves consistently competing with each other to take over the pack has no foundation in reality.
The breeding pair often lead the pack in a division of labor system in which "the breeding female initiates pup care and the breeding male leads in foraging and food provisioning". (Mech 1999) According to this view, breeding wolves provide leadership because offspring tend to follow their parents' initiative.
The social structure of the wolf pack is much more complex than the simple outdated view of the strict hierarchical society. In the old view, much of which 'pack rule theory' for the domestic dog is supposedly based, the alpha led with an iron paw, always instigating social interactions, always got to eat first and got the best food, always led the pack in travel and hunting etc. etc. Subordinate members attempting to take privileges above their station were dealt with swiftly and violently. This is clearly not the case. Wolf packs are non violent family units. Wolves living in the wild are at risk from rival packs, other predators and risk injury when hunting large ungulates. Aggression within the pack would be detrimental to the packs survival. Now experts agree that wolves form an appeasement (also called subordinance) hierarchy, in which subordinate animals help to maintain order through active displays of submission and deference.
According to study conducted in Yellowstone National Park (Rolph et al 2006). data shows that subordinate pack members also exhibit leadership behaviour at times. See Table 1 and Table 2.
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