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"Calling a wolf an "alpha" is usually no more appropriate than referring to a human parent or a doe deer as an "alpha". Any parent is dominant to its young offspring, so alpha adds no information."
Wolf biologist L. David Mech

Wolves are cool, right? Whether they're Savage Wolves or Noble Wolves, there's something about them that captures people's attention. Unfortunately, wolves, or more specifically wolf behavior, is very misunderstood by many people.

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The popular image of a wolf pack involves a group of snarling animals that are always trying to one-up each other. The "alpha" pair are the strongest and most powerful male and female in the group. They however have to work to keep their place as "Top Dog" by frequently fighting with other members of the pack.

This image, however, is not accurate. Scientists used to believe this was how wolf packs accurately worked; however it's since been recognized that wild packs don't act this way. Captive wolves do, but that's because they're grouped with unrelated wolves.

In wolf packs, the breeding pair is naturally dominant just because they are the parents of most of the other wolves. The other adults are usually previous pups who haven't left to form their own packs yet. These pups generally leave the pack by their third year to make their own packs. Non-related are rarely let into packs. In most packs, the traditional "alpha/beta" dynamic doesn't exist because the wolves are all family. Wolf hierarchy is related more to age than strength - and not without reason; if you live a long time in the wild, you're pretty tough right? If wolves are unrelated, however, or the pack is very large then the dynamic is more likely to exist, but even then wolves usually aren't violent towards other pack members in the same way they are to rival wolves.

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Captive packs made up of unrelated wolves introduced to each other in adulthood tend to have a more volatile hierarchy, since there's no natural order but physical strength and disagreements must be settled; the two parties can't simply part ways.

Despite science marching on, the mainstream still believes in outdated dynamics. Terms like "alpha wolf", "beta wolf", "omega wolf", and "gamma wolf" get thrown around frequently. This is largely because: A. many people don't realize it's outdated or B. they do realize, but they just think the older theories are cooler. However, dominance hierarchies are known to exist in primate species such as chimpanzees and gorillas, and the terms "alpha" and "beta" are still used by a scientists to describe the social status of males of those species.

This concept of wolf behavior is so commonplace that it often gets used with domestic dogs (and likewise werewolves). Since dogs are a sub-species of wolf, it's assumed that they act a lot like their wild relatives too. This is also inaccurate. Dogs have been bred for thousand of years precisely not to be wolves. The need to form a pack to survive is undesired in dogs, and dogs with too strong a desire to be the 'Alpha' (even above their owner) simply don't get bred, while violent dogs are often put down. As a result their psychology and behaviour has developed far away from that of their ancestors. Some research on feral dogs suggests that they might not even form concrete packs like wolves do and other research suggests that a dog's physical strength has nothing to do with its dominance (hence why a tiny Chihuahua can be more "alpha" than dogs several times its size). Still, you'll commonly see wolf behaviour attributed to dogs and it's a major component of several dog training methods (which may or may not be healthy).

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Sub-trope to Artistic License – Biology and Greek Letter Ranks. Tangentially related to Alpha Bitch as the supposed "alpha male" is similar in concept. No relation to alpha and beta as software terms.


Examples:

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     Fan Works 
  • "Alpha/Beta/Omega" (also known as A/B/O or "Omegaverse") fics are a subgenre of Alternate Universe Fic where otherwise-human characters have certain canine features — most notably a rigid Fantastic Caste System dividing people into Alphas (dominant), Betas (neutral), and Omegas (submissive). Most writers just use the setting to write extra-kinky Lemon Fics, basically Dom/sub with an animalistic bent (commonly involving Mr. Seahorse). The idea came from the Supernatural fandom and spread to other fandoms. For a little more detailed explanation, see this Fanlore article.
  • In Briggan's Story, the full alphabet is used. Messengers, warriors and hunters are on the top; scouts, jesters and pup-sitters are on the bottom.
  • A Diplomatic Visit: Late in the fic, it comes out that the Alpha is the title for the supreme leader and founder of the Packlands, who is above all the Packleaders for the individual packs. He's also the Lord of Summer, though Twilight doesn't understand what that means when he first states it.
  • Dangerverse:
    • Remus and Danger are always referred to as the alpha male and female of the Pack, while Sirius and Aletha are the beta male and female. The cubs are, of course, subordinate to the adults.
    • Within the Pride, Harry is the alpha male from when the Pride is formed. Hermione starts out as alpha female, but Ginny ends up taking the position around when she starts dating Harry (the transfer of authority is made explicit immediately after the two hook up, but there are some tangential references to Ginny acting as an alpha earlier on). After being displaced as alpha, Hermione slots comfortably into the beta female role, while Neville is the Pride's beta male. Note that Neville and Hermoine are not romantically involved: Neville is dating Meghan Black, while Hermione ends up engaged to Ron.
  • Their Bond: Wolfo packs have a hierarchy system ruled by alphas. Goro assigns these ranks to "two-leggers" as well, with Link being an alpha and Zelda being an omega (later a beta-omega).
  • Weres Harry: Werewolf packs are led by an Alpha male and female. It's stated that being an Alpha is innate: a werewolf cannot become an Alpha simply by wanting to and any werewolf will instinctively recognize an Alpha as an Alpha upon meeting them. It's also implied that it is very difficult for non-Alpha werewolves to function unless they are in a pack under the leadership of an Alpha.

     Film — Animation 
  • Alpha and Omega is about Alpha wolf Kate and Omega wolf Humphrey falling in love despite being on opposite ends on their pack's order.
  • Isle of Dogs: Chief refers to the main dog cast as a pack of alphas (and they're named Boss, King, Duke and Rex).
  • In Up, Muntz's dogs all fit into a distinct hierarchy, and are even named after the Greek letters that denote their rank—the alpha is named Alpha, the second-in-command named Beta, and so on. Dug, the Odd Name Out, is at the very bottom of the hierarchy. Dug eventually beats Alpha and restrains him with the Cone Of Shame, which earns him a place as the pack's new alpha.

     Film — Live Action 
  • Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) introduces these pack dynamics to the Titans. Godzilla and Mothra are the Alpha Titans, a symbiotic couple powerful enough to boss around all the other Titans. And King Ghidorah is powerful enough to rival Godzilla, usurping the position of Alpha and commanding other Titans' loyalty, after he defeats and seemingly kills Godzilla. The scientist who identifies this behavior had studied wolves in the wild before, and directly claims that the Titans are functioning like a wolf pack.
  • The raptors in Jurassic World are organized in this fashion, with the order of dominance being Blue, Charlie, Delta, and Echo. When it's pointed out that the naming convention skipped Alpha, Owen says that it's because he, himself, has taken that role in the pack. Blue is also the most willing to accept Owen's place as her leader, with the other three being more prone to aggression despite submitting to Blue's (and therefore Owen's) leadership. Indicating that despite the outdated "Alpha and Beta" terminology, it's actually more of an age-based hierarchy since Blue is the oldest of the raptors and Owen (who was present for the births of all four) takes the role of their father. This is more or less verified when Indominus rex is able to take leadership of the pack in a combination of Asskicking Equals Authority and exploiting their confusion over Owen's allies betraying them, but the survivors of the pack are easily convinced to rejoin Owen when he returns even though fighting Indominus is suicidal. Owen is family whereas Indominus took their "allegiance" by force.
  • The werewolves in What We Do in the Shadows have a rigid hierarchy led by an "alpha" who tells the other ones what to do, makes them laugh at his jokes, etc.

     Literature 
  • Animorphs: When morphing wolves for the first time, Jake is the only male (to Marco's chagrin) because Cassie didn't want to waste time having two male wolves fighting for dominance. It works out well (although Jake feels the need to pee against every tree they pass), until they meet a wild wolfpack.
  • Averted in A Dog's Life. Squirrel is a stray dog who, after her mother abandons her and later her brother is taken by humans, lives by herself for most of her life. She keeps wary of other dogs and only comes in contact with them when she scavenges for food. The only time Squirrel travels with another is when she befriends a bitch named Moon.
  • A Dog's Purpose:
    • Averted. Toby does temporarily live in a mixed dog pack, but it's done more realistically and lacks this hierarchy
    • Parodied. Upon meeting her as a puppy, Ellie's owner tries to "assert his dominance" by rolling her on her back. Ellie just thinks it's a game.
  • Justified in Firstborn. Wolves use this dynamic, however in their case it is a mixed pack. It consists of an alpha pair, their pups, the alpha female's sister, an unrelated male, and a magpie. Blue Boy lost his original mate and pups to another pack, came across three wolves consisting of two sisters and an unrelated male, and joined them. Blue Boy quickly became the alpha male and paired with one of the females. The other two initially became mates, however they ended up splitting apart eventually.
  • McKinley from The Good Dog is the "top dog" of his town.
  • Julie of the Wolves uses this dynamic because it was written when this was the main theory about how wolf packs worked.
  • Justified in Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson series, in which werewolf packs adhere very strictly to the alpha/beta view of wolf hierarchy. However, it's noted several times that this is only because they're magical werewolves, and real wolf packs absolutely do not work that way.
  • The Sight: The main wolf pack have this sort of ranking with fictional language words for alpha, beta and omega wolves, and only some of them are related - two parents and their children, the father's sister, her mate (whose relationship with her is noted to be unusual) and two others. Downplayed in that they are treated by the narrative as a family, and barring some Deliberate Values Dissonance in how they treat Bran act like one instead of a group trying to one-up each other.
  • The children's series Soldier Dogs refers to leader dogs as "alphas".
  • In Survivor Dogs, dog packs and wolf packs all use the alpha-beta-omega dynamic. It also works as a caste system. Each pack has one alpha, one beta, and one omega. Everyone else is divided by rank and role (hunters, patrol dogs, etc). Alphas are the leaders and betas are their second-in-command. Omega are the lowest ranking dogs— they eat last, are referred to as "Omega" regardless of name, and do the "dirty jobs" such as cleaning up the other's bedding. Sunshine, for example, is an Omega just because she's a small Maltese, but she enjoys being an Omega and dislikes being pitied, while Whine was an Omega because, as a Pug, he's The Load of the pack. The strongest dog is the alpha and dogs move rank by fighting one another one-on-one.
  • In Wolves of the Beyond, wolf packs are ruled by ranks. For example, lords are the highest ranking wolves, while gnaw wolves are the lowest member of the pack.

     Live Action TV 
  • In Teen Wolf, alpha werewolves (the most powerful) lead packs comprised of weaker beta wolves, while omegas are defined as unattached to a pack or an alpha.

     Tabletop Games 
  • While Warhammer 40,000's Space Wolves don't use alpha/omega terminology (it's already used to classify psyker Power Levels), Fenrisian wolves have an I Fight for the Strongest Side mentality, as the Space Marines usually defeat the wolfpack's strongest member to gain mastery over the pack (this can be explained as Fenrisian wolves being the descendants of wolf/human hybrids; "there are no wolves on Fenris"). They also have a special unit called a Lone Wolf, a Death Seeker who rejects the company of his fellow Marines and only counts towards the opposing player's victory if he's still alive at the end of the game.

     Video Games 

     Webcomics 
  • Peter Is the Wolf: Werewolves operate on a Might Makes Right philosophy that means any pack member can take what they want from their packmates if they are stronger.
  • Erebus from Scurry leads his wolf pack with an iron paw. When one underling jumped at Altas the moose without a signal from Erebus, his fate was to be savaged and cannibalized by the other wolves, with tacit approval from Erebus. The world of Scurry has undergone some unspecified After the End apocalypse that has left many species behaving oddly.
  • In Skin Horse, Buddy is the alpha of Sweetheart's Uplifted Animal Spitz dogpack, but this turns out to be an elected position. He is decidedly not the toughest dog in the pack; he's the one everyone likes.
  • Wally the werewolf in Zebra Girl was basically the omega of his pack, the designated bullying target. Though most of his packmates were really a bunch of psychopaths using their poor grasp of wolf instincts as an excuse for their killing sprees to the point that their alpha decided to kill them all and start over, Wally only surviving because he left with his human girlfriend and her even scarier friends.

     Web Original 
  • One article on Springhole talks about how this trope is untrue and how it's overused in werewolf fiction.

     Western Animation 
  • In the Rocko's Modern Life episode "Who's For Dinner?" Mr. and Mrs. Wolfe attend a pack meeting. One of the attendants is referred to as "Alpha," although he isn't the leader. (Someone else is.)

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