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Alpha and Beta Wolves

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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.


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. 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.


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Despite science marching on, the mainstream still believes in outdated dynamics.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 This is largely because: A. many people don't realize it's outdated or B. they do realize, but they just think the older theories are cooler.

This concept of wolf behavior is so commonplace that it often gets used with domestic dogs (and likewise werewolves). Since dogs are descendants from wolves it's assumed that they act a lot like them too. This is also inaccurate. Dogs have been bred for thousand of years precisely not to be wolves, and as a result their psychology and behavior has developed past 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 behavior attributed to dogs and it's a major component of several dog training methods (which may or may not be healthy).


Sub-trope to Artistic License – Biology and Greek Letter Ranks.


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     Fan Works 
  • "Alpha/Beta/Omega" fics are a subgenre of Alternate Universe Fic where otherwise-human characters have certain canine features—most notably a very rigid Fantastic Caste System dividing people into Alphas (dominant), Betas (neutral), and Omegas (submissive). Most writers just use the setting to write extra-kinky Slash Fics. The idea came from the Supernatural fandom and spread to other fandoms.

     Film — Animation 
  • 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.
  • 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.

     Film — Live Action 
  • 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.

  • Averted 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Julie of the Wolves uses this dynamic because it was written when this was the main theory about how wolf packs worked.
  • 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.
  • 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 stomach. Ellie just thinks it's a game.

     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 

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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


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