Most wolf packs have an “alpha pair.” This male/female dynamic duo mate, produce pups and generally lead the pack. Each pack has a social structure, or hierarchy, which includes all members. Beta is second in rank to alpha, with ranks descending from there all the way down to omega, the lowest. However, this pecking order is not written in stone and may change with circumstance or over time.
Pack order is maintained through communication and cooperation. Subordinate wolves may be reprimanded by higher-ranking members through growls, hard stares and even muzzle pins (putting one’s teeth over another’s muzzle). Smart subordinates roll over and say, “Sorry! Didn’t mean it!” and peace is restored to the pack. Interestingly, it is usually middle-ranking wolves rather than the alpha who start squabbles. Alphas, though indisputably in charge, are not bullies; they have nothing to prove. Good alphas settle disagreements quickly with just as much force as is necessary, then move on.
The concept of “being alpha” is important to wolfdog owners. It is also often misunderstood:
“My wolfdog jumps on me. He’s trying to be alpha.”
“My pup nips at my hands. She wouldn’t do that if she understood I’m the boss.”
“I tried to get him into the car; he bit me! What nerve!”
What’s really going on in these situations? The first wolfdog might have simply been trying to get his owner’s attention, and hasn’t yet been taught a better way. The second is just a pup, and is most likely playing in what she thinks is an acceptable manner. The third wolfdog is more than likely biting out of fear, rather than from any need to prove dominance. Though any of these wolfdogs might coincidentally have a dominant, pushy, alpha-type temperament, none of the given situations are a clear-cut indication that this is the case.
Leader of the Pack
Something gets lost in the translation from wolf packs to wolfdog- human family units. Some owners (and I use the term loosely, as most are owned by these animals) feel that we as humans should play the role of the alpha wolf in every way, relating to our four-footed companions as though we were another wolf. Heck, if that were the case, when a pup licked at our mouth, we’d regurgitate food for them. No thanks!
Of course it’s important that your wolfdog look up to you and respect you as leader. In fact, canines who perceive that top spot to be up for grabs may try to fill it themselves. And yes, your wolfdog should feel secure that the alpha (yep, that’s you) can handle any situation that comes along. But even in a wolf pack, the alpha is not a total dictator.
Alphas do not, as is commonly thought, always eat first, lead the hunt, or stand on the highest point of terrain looking down upon all others. Though one wolf in the pack is certainly deferred to above all the rest, others may appear to be “top dog” temporarily in certain situations. I’ve watched many an alpha wolf roll on his back when playing with a lower-ranking pack member. The lower-ranking wolf did not suddenly send out for champagne, thinking he’d gotten a promotion; and the alpha was obviously not worried about losing his standing. Good alphas, as we should strive to be, communicate clearly, and are wise yet playful, kind and fair. They know when to be benevolent and when to enforce pack order. Many people are quick to jump to the conclusion that their wolfdog has a “dominance problem.” It may well be that their wolfdog does have a strong opinion about who should be in charge. Unfortunately, the human solution to this problem is often to “teach him who’s boss” through methods like scruff shakes or alpha rolls. (The most common type of alpha roll entails rolling the wolfdog on his back and standing over, growling at and/or holding him there until he submits by laying still, looking away, and/or urinating.) These methods are unnecessary and can be downright dangerous to the human attempting them.
Aggression begets aggression. Memorize that phrase—it could save your life. Many canines who have been corrected with physical violence respond by becoming more violent themselves. This can and has resulted in severe injury to owners. Even if the reaction is not immediate, behavior problems can surface later as a result. Besides, you love your wolfdog and want him to respect you, not fear you!
There are ways to clear up your wolfdog’s confusion about his place in the pack without using physical force. On the following pages you will find an outline for a Leadership Program. Ideally, it should be started when your wolfdog is a pup. If you have taken in an adult wolfdog, introduce these concepts gradually, taking into account your particular wolfdog’s temperament. Please understand that these suggestions do not need to be followed to the letter by all owners. For example, if your wolfdog does not show pushy, dominant tendencies, by all means, allow him up on the couch to cuddle if that’s your preference. But for a wolfdog who already shows signs of wanting to run the show, follow the program as closely as possible.