Thursday, May 15, 2014

The True Dominance of Wolves

When it comes to dogs and wolves, the true experts are dogs and wolves.

The best a human can ever hope to know is what the dogs and the wolves have always known.

And, of course, dogs and wolves have always understood the shifting see-saw of dominance and hierarchy. Look at six-week old puppies, and you can see the code explode, straight out of the box. Watch!

Of course, dogs are not wolves, a point I have made many times before.

That said, both are social pack predators, and are so closely related that they can interbreed.

And, of course, wolves and dogs figure, for whatever reason, into various competing theories about dog training.

Now scientists studying wolves in Yellowstone National Park confirm (once again!) that the single greatest killer of wild wolves are other wild wolves.

Wolf-on-wolf lupicide occurs when competing packs battle over territory, and it occurs even when there is plenty of food to eat.

To monumentalize this last point, I repost this old video-enhanced explanation of how territorial and sexual dominance and violence eventually led to the collapse and disappearance of the Druid Wolf Pack, the largest wild wolf pack ever known.


The expert.

As I noted back in 2010:  "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 kick from 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 their names 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.

As for David Mech, please actually read his work. 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.

So what does any of this have to do with basic dog training?

Not much on a day to day basis. 

The basics of dog training are to love your dog, to exercise your dog, and to give your dog a wide variety of well-timed rewards for good behavior (over 90 percent or more of all your signals), and to give the dog moderate, consistent and well-timed corrections for truly bad behavior.

If you have multiple dogs in your home, these dogs have probably already established some sort of hierarchy, whether you have noticed it or not.

Which goes back to the first point:  Dogs know and understand dominance and hierarchy whether you acknowledge it or not.

Dogs have realities. Only humans have theories.


Rebekah and My Rotten Dogs said...

I have nothing to say except I truly enjoyed reading this.

jeffrey thurston said...

Wow! So I just went on one of those 6 degrees type of internet hunts sparked by your blog. I watched the clip you posted about fat dogs from "Dog's Secret Lives" or whatever it's called and then went to the next in the series which is about aggression. (My little guy Max is occasionally dog-aggressive.) Anyway on "Secret Lives..." Part 2 they talk about how the whole dominance theory is outdated and how even L. David Mech has recanted. Their "expert" is some dog behaviorist named John Bradshaw who says Dominance Is Dead (basically). From that show I looked him ( John Bradshaw) up and found a site which linked to L. David Mech's recantation ( a paper called:"Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs" and found that as you say it is a mess and he does renounce "alphaness" but he constantly descrines dominance behavior controlling wolf packs' interactions. I really think that although he and others expounding this deny it it is really a form of Political Correctness and wild anthropomorphizing which is going on here. What he basically says is that Hollywood visions of majestic Alpha wolves aren't true and real life is much more complicated. (Wow! Really?) I got the sense of an honored old Party member who is under a cloud recanting to the KGB of new young oh-so-PC dog behaviorists. I have 2 dogs- I know what I see and it is Dominance by any other name...

kevin behan said...

There is hierarchy and there is social friction indeed, but the term dominance does not encompass the full range of the phenomenon of social structure. In my view, inserting the human thought of my-status-relative-to-your-status, is not necessary. We can observe that all "design" in nature is a hierarchal flow system (see "Design In Nature" by Adrian Bejan) and this identical structure exists in inanimate structures sans genes, cpu or consciousness of any sort. The animal mind subscribes to this flow mechanics rather than as a struggle for dominion over others. If inanimate systems exhibit the same structure as animate ones, we therefore need a model that doesn't require human thoughts to account for the uniformity of social structure.

Robert Pryor said...

I breed Carolina Dogs, which believe it or not, still have wild roaming packs. I constantly have to watch my F1and F2 dogs for the behaviors you describe. Sisters will gang up on other females, males will fight if a female is in season,etc. Or sometimes there is a power struggle. 80-90% of the time no problems but I always have to be aware of possible injury or even death. Most of the time they act like Labradors but not always.