A wolf pack waits in the grass.

When you hear the expression “alpha male,” what first comes to mind? You probably imagine a powerful executive shouting at a board meeting, or a drill sergeant, or some other image of the typical overbearing macho type.

In other words, while this alpha male is definitely assertive, he’s far from calm. And yet, Cesar insists that every pack should have its leader, the human “alpha.” So what does Cesar really mean when he’s describing the alpha in a pack?

As it turns out, his definition of a calm, assertive leader has been the right one all along. It’s the overbearing stereotype that’s the myth, and studies of wolf packs in the wild have shown this to be true.

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Carl Safina, author of the just-released book “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel,” wrote about his observations of wolf packs and of how the alpha, particularly the alpha male, functions. He wrote, “I’ve seen that the leadership of the ranking male is not forced, not domineering and not aggressive to those on his team.”

Drawing also on research done over the course of twenty years by Rick McIntyre, Yellowstone Park Wolf Project’s biological technician, a description of the male alpha wolf sounds a lot like a doting human father. Describing M21, an alpha wolf who never lost a fight against a rival pack but also never killed the wolves he defeated, Safina says, “Within his own pack, one of his favorite things was to wrestle with little pups.” He quotes McIntyre adding, “And what (M21) really loved to do was to pretend to lose. He just got a huge kick out of it.”

Females Can Be Alpha

Another lesson the wolves teach us: the alpha isn’t always male. In fact, while there may actually be two alphas, a male and female pair, it’s the female wolf who sets the tone for the whole pack; they’re the ones who make the decisions on where to travel, when to hunt, and when to rest.

Turning the stereotype of the alpha male on its head, McIntyre reported on one particular pack leader in Yellowstone, a female known by the number on her tracking collar: F40. She was particularly aggressive and dominant, driving her mother F39 and sister F41 to leave the pack. The sister that did stay, F42, was subject to continual abuse and attacks.

However, as Cesar always says, animals will not follow unbalanced leaders. After F40 attacked F42 at her den and F42 submitted, she came back to attack F42 and her pups again. This time, F42 did not submit and, aided by her daughter F105 and niece F103, they killed F40.

F40’s former mate, the aforementioned M21, joined F42’s group with her as the alpha — and F42 has not shown any aggression toward her pack-mates or their pups. F40 was a perfect example of what an alpha wolf — or human — should not be: violent and aggressive.

Safina describes the mistaken belief that male leaders should be assertive and aggressive as “wolfing up.” He doesn’t object to the term, just to the definition. In his article, he concludes, “Men can learn a thing or two from real wolves: less snarl, more quiet confidence, leading by example, faithful devotion in the care and defense of families, respect for females and a sharing of responsibilities. That’s really what wolfing up should mean.”

As you work to become a better Pack Leader for your dogs, remember the real example of the alpha wolf. A true leader provides protection and direction, in a calm and assertive way.

What lessons have you learned from your dog? Tell us in the comments.

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