Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dominance Creates and Maintains Wolf Packs

The expert.

The news this week is that the Druid Wolf Pack is no more.

The Druids were one of the most frequently photographed wolf packs in the Lamar Valley of the Yellowstone.

What happened to the Druids?


Life has a way of stepping in pretty frequently in the world of wolves, and in that tale lies a couple of lessons about dogs -- lessons about inbreeding and (yes) about dominance.

First, who were the wolves of the Druid Pack?

Like all wolf packs, the Druid pack was made up of a single dominant male, a single dominate female, and several satellite females, generally from previous whelps.

This architecture is not unique to wolves. Study red fox and African lions, and you will see the same thing -- a solitary mature male with one or more females, and only very young or adolescent males in attendance.

What happens to all the male wolves, fox, and lions that are born?

Simple: they are driven out.

In the case of a fox this usually occurs at around seven to nine months of age, and with a wolf anywhere from nine to 18 months of age, depending on the amount of food in the the area and the tolerance of the alpha male and the submissiveness of his get.

By then, the young males of these respective species are big enough to hunt on their own and yet they are also beginning to become potential rivals for females. The top male cannot have that.

Is the request to leave a good-natured "get along now?"


Plain and simple, it is anything from harassing growls and small bites to a full-scale ass-whipping by the big male.

However, it goes, in the end there will only be one mature male in the pack. Either the younger male will be driven off, or the old male will be dead or driven off himself.

You have heard of a "lone wolf"?

A lone wolf is almost always a young male driven out of his pack and traveling some distance to establish his own territory, and perhaps pick up a loose female or two along the way.

The same thing happens with fox and African lions, of course.

American Mountain Lions do not establish packs or prides like their African counterparts, but here too we find young males driven out to find their own territories in a distant country. When a mountain lion shows up in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, or Iowa, it is almost certain to be a young male driven out his natal home range to find a place for himself.

Now to be clear, what is going on here is dominance.

Anyone who says wolf packs are not governed by dominance has no idea what they are talking about.

Dominance creates wolf packs and dominance maintains wolf packs. The driving out of adolescent males is at the core of how wolf packs are created and maintained. This is dominance. And it is Wolf Pack 101.

What about females?

The female wolves in a wolf pack also have their dominance issues. You see with wolves, there may be many mature females in the pack, but there will almost always be only one female who will come into estrus, be mated, and whelp.

How is that "top female" determined?

Well, the male picks her, of course (or vice versa if the pack has lost its alpha male)

That said the individual picked is generally the healthiest and strongest female in the group - the one that all the other females are submissive to.

This is what Darwin was talking about when he refered to "survival of the fittest." The weakest genes are not just culled out of the gene pool due to disease, defect and predation. They are also selected out.

Why does Mother Nature drive all the young males out of the pack?

The answer is that Mother Nature demands a regular reshuffling of the genetic deck. The way that is done is by driving out the males to discourage inbreeding with sisters.

The sisters, of course, stick around to help bring down larger game and feed the alpha female's young. But the young males? They have to hit the road.

A strong and lucky male may hold a top slot for as long as a decade, but more often that not the top male will die from injuries or disease long before that. And with that male's death, a new male, from outside the pack, will be recruited and a complete outcross achieved.

Injuries? How do wolves get injured?

Wolves get injured all the time. A lone male wolf from another pack may show up and stand at the edge of a territory and try to "call off" a female or two in order to start his own pack. That may, in turn, be met with a challenge by the dominant male who wants to hold on to what he has. Injuries can occur!

The pick up artist.

More often injury and death will come from a jaw-shattering kickfrom an elk or deer, a trap, vehicle impact, a hunter or rancher's bullet, intentional or unintentional poisoning, a ripped ligament, an infected wound, or disease.

The hunt.

Disease is no small issue. Distemper routinely knocks down wild canid populations, and so too does rabies and mange. Add in worms and infections, and the bottom line is simple: Most male wolves do not live too far past age 7.

But, of course, the vagaries and savageries of life in the wild can befall the top female wolf in the pack, as well as the top male wolf. The hand of God shuffles red cards, same as black.

And so, in the real world, we tend to have a turnover every few years as either the alpha male or the alpha female rotates out of their respective top slots.

And with every turnover at the top, new dominance and submission issues are front and center.

No, there is not a constant battle in a wolf pack, but Mother Nature does abhor a power vacuum, and yes individuals do rush in to fill a power vacuum.

And yes, life-ending battles do occur in every Yellowstone pack every year.

In the video clip, at the very top of this post, cinematographer and wolf expert Bob Landis talks about conflicts he has seen between and within wolf packs, and he talks about Wolf 21, the Alpha male in the Druid pack.

How did 21 become the Alpha male?

It seems that in late December of 1998, the top male wolf in the Druid Pack was Wolf 38. The pack left the boundaries of Yellowstone Park to follow the elk, however, and just outside the park's boundaries, Wolf 38 was killed by a poacher.

With their alpha male dead the Druid Pack re-entered Yellowstone National Park where Wolf 21, a single "lone wolf" refugee expelled from the Rose Creek Pack, happened to be waiting.

If the old alpha male, Wolf 38, had still been alive, Wolf 21 would have been drive out or killed (as three other displaced Rose Creek Wolves had met their fate before 21's arrival). But with Wolf 38 now dead, Wolf 21 now had an unexpected opportunity to impress.

The Alpha Female of the pack, Wolf 40, realized she needed a mate, but 21 still had to spend 6 hours, bowing, flexing, strutting, sniffing, and facing down all the females in the Druid Pack before he was deemed to be big enough, strong enough, friendly enough, and smart enough to be the leader. Yes, this 21 wolf had skills! And in the end, the older, but still fertile, Wolf 40, was won over and gave 21 his slot in the pack as her new mate, the alpha male. with the task of fighting off all interlopers, as Wolf 38 had done before him.

I tell this story, because it's important to realize Landis does not just make stuff up. He films it all, and he gets lucky" because he spends 300 days a year in the field in heat and snow, bugs and rain, watching the wolves.

So what happened to cause the Druid Pack's demise? The Casper Wyoming Star Tribune summarizes:

Only two months ago, there were 11 wolves in the pack. But after the alpha female was killed by another pack, the old alpha male wandered off rather than breed with one of the other female wolves that were his offspring. He also suffered from a bad case of mange. Mange is a skin infection caused by a mite, which leads to hair loss. In animals with weakened immune systems, it can be fatal. Seven other females in the pack also had mange, and all but one have died either from mange or been killed by other packs.

"They're down to one and that one probably won't make it through the winter," Smith said.

Killed by other packs? But I thought wolves were gentle!

You think a wolf killing a wolf might have something to do with dominance?

"This space is my space," "this food is my food," "this female is my female"?

Nah! No doubt they died in a religious war!

The Casper Wyoming Star Tribune article goes on to note that at one point the Druid pack had 37 members, making it the largest known wild wolf pack in the world.

In 2000, however, "an alliance of three subordinate females in the Druid pack is believed to have killed the pack's alpha female, the first such intra-pack kill documented in the park."

WHAT? Three other wolves ganged up to kill their mother or sister? And she was the alpha? Whoa! That's right out of Shakespeare! No aggression or dominance issues there! And she is the second alpha female to bite the dust in this one article?! Whoa! There are clearly no aggression, dominance, or pack pecking orders in a wolf pack! All sweetness and familial light.

Bob Landis and the Yellowstone wolf team, of course, have spent more time, watching wolves in the wild than anyone in the world, living or dead. And yes they have it all on video tape.

But you won't hear his name mentioned by the pure click and treat crowd who want to negate all hierarchies, all dominance, and all submission in wolf packs.

You see if the facts do not fit the frame, you throw out the facts!

And so they quote people like Tamar Geller, who says wolves and dogs are just like each other and she knows because she watched a few wolves for a month at a feeding station in the deserts of Israel.

Ms. Geller says wolves do not have pack hierarchies, have no aggression, and dominance is never an issue. With wolves, it's just play, play, play.

Or else they quote Ian Dunbar who, to the best of my knowledge has never had anything to do with wolves.

Or else they make extraordinary claims, such as that "there are no such things as packs of wild dogs."

Really? No packs of wild dogs?? How about the fellow that was killed and eaten by a pack of wild dogs right here in the U.S. just a few months back? That did not happen? No rural farmer has ever seen a pack of feral dogs hunting deer in the woods? Really? Who knew!?

And then, of course, there are the folks who have never read L. David Mech's paper on wolves, but act as if they have.

To be clear, this paper is NOT the ground-breaking study, some have made it out to be.

In fact, is it a very weak and not too well written paper that simply says wolf packs are an extended family unit. No news there!

And what does Mr. Mech say about dominance?

Well actually, he says there is quite a LOT of it! For example, he writes:

We noted each time a wolf submitted posturally to another wolf. Usually this deference was characterized by "licking up" to the mouth of the dominant animal in the "active submission" posture similar to that described by Darwin (1877) for domestic dogs. Often this behavior took place as an animal returned to the den area after foraging, and sometimes the returning individual disgorged food to the soliciting wolf (Mech 1988; Mech et al. 1999). Other behavior noted included "pinning," or passive submission (Schenkel 1967), in which the dominant wolf threatened another, which then groveled, and "standing over," in which one wolf stands over another, which often lies nonchalantly but in a few cases sniffs the genitals of the other. I did not consider "standing over" a dominance behavior.

Eh? Mech does not consider one dog standing over another an act of dominance?

Oooooo-kaaaaaay. Let's not count those then.

But if it's not dominance, pray tell what is it?

Well actually,
he does not say.

Like I said, the paper is not too well written !

Consider this paragraph:

The only consistent demonstration of rank in natural packs is the animals' postures during social interaction. Dominant wolves assume the classic canid standing posture with tail up at least horizontally, and subordinate or submissive individuals lower themselves and "cringe" (Darwin 1877). In fact, submission itself may be as important as dominance in terms of promoting friendly relations or reducing social distance.

WHAT??? Now one wolf standing over another IS dominance?

But just a few paragraphs earlier, Mech said it was not.

Pick a point of view and stick with it why don't cha?

Of course, that's the problem
a lot of folks have in these wolf and dog debates.

One person says dogs are not wolves and then five minutes later they say they are great admirers of Tamara Geller who thinks dogs ARE wolves and that wolves are all about play, play, play.

Eh? Pick one.

Of course the same people
claim Cesar Millan says dogs are wolves, but when challenged to cite a page, paragraph or episode where that claim is made, there is (so far) a failure to deliver.

We are similarly told that Cesar Millan says everything about dogs is related to dominance.

He does? I missed that! Citation please!

In fact, what Millan actually says is that everything is about loving your dog, exercising your dog, and not treating your dog like it's your child.

And he says,
at the top of every show, what he actually does.

He does not train dogs.

He rehabilitates dogs. He trains people.

What he is saying here is pretty clear: Cesar Millan is NOT the person you go to if your goal is to get your dog to learn a decent "sit-stay" or agility routine.

Ian Dunbar or any of the college girls down at PetSmart can help you with that, and they prove it every week.

But if you have a dog that is phobic, or is routinely ripping into another dog (or your child or wife) then the girls at PetSmart might not be the right wrench for that nut.

Cesar Millan is, and he proves it every week.

The funny part of all this is that I have written many times that dogs are not wolves. Dogs are dogs.

So far as I can tell, Cesar Millan has never said dogs are wolves. Please give me a citation if you find him saying otherwise.

And, to put a point on it, I have never said a bad word about clicker training. Quite the opposite. It works well for training puppies, young dogs, and dogs with no serious issues.

So far as I can tell, Cesar Millan has never said a bad thing about clicker training either. Again, please give me a citation if you can find him saying otherwise.

So who is raising up all the wolf stuff?

Well, actually, it's the people
who are opposed to any kind of aversives (no matter how mild) in any kind of situation.

They are not arguing
that clicker training works (there is no opposing argument on the matter); they are arguing it is the ONLY solution to EVERY dog problem, and that NO other system works.

Yes, that's right, a clicker is a "one size fit all" wrench for every problem under the sun.

But instead of proving that by actually going on TV to "cure" a psychotic pit bull that lives to kill cats, they have decided to go off into the weeds to talk about wolves.

Wolves? I thought we were talking about training dogs?

But no, they want to talk about wolves.

Which would be fine, I suppose, but what they have to tell us about wolves is, in fact, contradicted by the very studies they cite!

They cite Mech. Mech!?? Appended below is the list of tables for his paper on dominance among wolves. It looks like he found some dominance there!

But of course, if the facts do not fit the frame,
then throw out the frame, right?

And what about the video tape?

Yeah, throw that out too.
Especially the clip below, and the next one and the next one. Who cares if this is a story about dominance as riveting as anything penned By Shakespeare? This does not fit the frame, so out it must go.

The omega female is driven out by the alpha female.

The alpha female is killed by her sisters.


an American in Copenhagen said...

While watching a documentary about a zoo (can't remember which one) they talked about how they hadn't been able to get their captive group to breed in several years. The solution to the problem was to feed the pack less frequent meals of whole prey (calves, small horses, etc) instead daily individual meals. It turns out that the competition created around the carcas caused the pack structure to gel--dominant individuals dominanted and subordinate individuals subordinated. And the next year pups were born. Apparently the psychological stress of being a subordinate member of the pack actually shuts off esturs cycles. And for the dominant members, domination itself upregulates their estrus cycles so that they can sucessfully breed. I guess that's nature's way of making sure that nobody wastes their time raising pups in a pack that isn't strong.

K9 Magazine said...

This is an excellent article.

My very, very brief interaction with wolves taught me that they are to dogs what chimps are to us, their are similarities but equally gaping differences. However, their portrayal by certain people (you know, like 'certain' people who pretend like they're living with wolves *cough* Shaun Ellis *cough* to 'learn' about them) devalues exactly what they are. The difference between a wild animal and a domesticated one is huge.

Wolves, just like dogs, can be cruel, harsh, unforgiving and shaping their behaviour toward doing things you want them to do is far, far easier than the challenge presented by certain, very high prey drive individuals who are fit, strong, determined and who rank the pursuit of (their chosen) prey way, way higher than any potential reward a human can deliver. Training those dogs, shaping their behaviour is a real test of a dog trainer's abilities.

Marie said...

Last I observed, bitches don't use clickers when disciplining their pups and teaching them boundaries. Just something I have observed.

PBurns said...

Most succesful dog training -- 95% or more -- is pure positive.

But Millan is not traning dogs.

To be honest, training a dog is too damn easy for television. After one half hour show on basic training, you get it and you are bored.

Perhaps Millan needs to make a bigger production about what he is NOT doing. He is NOT training.

Even the wannabe dog trainers seem to get confused on this (which is, I have to say, a good sign that they may have have no real idea what Millan does, or what a dog trainer does, or how or why they are different).


Mailey E. McLaughlin, M.Ed. said...

Most succesful dog training -- 95% or more -- is pure positive.

While I agree that training a behavior is accomplished using almost complete positive reinforcement, I disagree that 95% of dog training" (as a concept) is "pure positive."

Just the act of restraining the dog in some way is punishment. And good balanced trainers use a majority of positive reinforcement, but also some negative reinforcement to make the lessons stick.

You are absolutely correct when you say that clickers are great for teaching new behaviors (for most dogs, anyway--some are afraid of the sound, and others are not treat-motivated), but lousy for fixing old, bad behaviors. They can be a part of fixing negative behaviors, but if one tries to use them as the ONLY part, one is going to get very frustrated very quickly, or get botten, or have a dead dog on her hands.

Jonathan Setter said...

Its true to say that bitches do not use clickers, but what about humans using dogs methods? I have met a houndsman who trains his hounds by biting them on the ears as a deterrent to bad behaviour. He is not excessive or cruel, and furthermore, his hounds are some of the best trained I have ever seen( they respond to Zulu commands only so that the foreign clients cannot distract them).

Be careful if you feel like trying this though.... it is not the same as using a clicker or a treat

Anonymous said...

No! The woolves gather together on the night of the full moon where they sing songs to Mother Gaia. The woolf that brings the tastiest treats and play bows the with the most enthusiasm is voted Most Likely to Succeed. He or she (woolve society is, of course, gender neutral) then has the job of surveying the rest of the pack members on all issues of importance. All woolve hunting, mating, eating and urinating is then done by consensus.

I believe that I published a paper on this in a previous incarnation.

PBurns said...

I sometimes wonder if English is a second language for some folks. When people read the word "dominance" they somehow assume it must be a knock-down-to the-death-battle. It almost never is. A cop does not need to do much to exert dominance. Neither does a father, a boss, or a good school teacher. The relationship is understood. Step outside the boundaries of tolerance, and YES there will be consequences. The fact that dominance is SO well understood, and resistance is SO maladaptive, is what keeps the structure coherent and flowing. This is true with dogs, the same as wolves. Mech's rather modest paper, which simply says wolves live in packs which are (more or less) extended family units, does not change the fact that the pack is created and held together by a dominant leader who not only is the one that mates, but also does much of the first strikes at a kill, and also drives out the adolescent males, and fends off the satellite males from other packs.


Anonymous said...

The problem lies deeper than semantics. Real world dominance in human and animal societies is mostly accomplished through the subtle application of pressure and release.

I think that we humans have become so obsessed with words and the abstract meanings attached to them that we have forgotten that an enormous amount of what we "say" to each other occurs outside the realm of the spoken word

Look around you any day and you'll see humans exert "dominance" through the application of subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) pressure in grocery store lines, on highways, in corporate boardrooms and on playgrounds.

I have a foster dog here who successfully scared a lot of people through the very skilled use of aggressive posturing and inhibited bites. When he arrived here he quickly discovered that (1) I am really hard to intimidate and (2) I was willing and able to apply pressure on him until he "submitted". I never laid a hand on him - I simply used body language to make it stunningly clear that if he started a fight - I'd end it.

He's gone from a snarky little s#!t that wanted a piece of me to a happy little dog that adores me.

Apparently this ruining dogs with dominance is a relative thing.

PBurns said...

Very well said!

Simply squaring up to most dogs will make them stop and perhaps even back up. Not a thing has been done but a subtle application of "pressure" through body language.

Of course, humans do this all the time. I sometimes step "too close" to people to reinforce a message especially one that means stop. The message is received and it is a LOT of pressure if I am doing it right. Not too many people fail to understand what has not been said.

Of course most people are not very well trained on how to communicate with dogs, or in observing how dogs actually communicate with each other. They literally do not SEE what dogs are saying to each other because they think it has to be as overt as a growl, bite, or cowering whimper.