Dog expert Mark Derr's recent essay called "Cesar Millan and the Tradition of Pack Bully as Pack Leader" is an excellent review of what we know and don't know about the behavior of our best friends and their wild relatives, wolves, from whom they "emerged" during domestication. Derr's discussion of the notion of "social dominance" and the role and behavior of "alpha animals" is right on the mark (no pun intended). Animals, including dogs and wolves, do indeed form dominance relationships and there are alpha animals. However, dominance does not necessarily, or even frequently involve, animals coming to injurious blows and alpha animals can assert their dominance and control in rather subtle ways about which we still know very little.
Dominance and alpha animals are not myths
I've written that dominance is not a myth in an earlier and well documented essay titled "Social Dominance Is Not a Myth" as has my esteemed colleague Dario Maestripieri in his essay "Social Dominance Explained Part I: Why dominance exists and is good for you, sometimes". In his excellent essay Dr. Maestripieri writes, "In my view, there is nothing slippery about the concept of dominance, nothing simplistic or misleading about unitary explanations of this phenomenon, and no need to be cautious about it. All is needed is a clear explanation of what dominance is and how it works."
Dr. Maestripieri and I have studied dominance for years and in my essay I noted that even wolf expert Dave Mech agrees that wolves do form dominance relationships. Indeed, Dr. Mech has written, "Similarly, pups are subordinate to both parents and to older siblings, yet they are fed preferentially by the parents, and even by their older (dominant) siblings (Mech et al. 1999). On the other hand, parents both dominate older offspring and restrict their food intake when food is scarce, feeding pups instead. Thus, the most practical effect of social dominance is to allow the dominant individual the choice of to whom to allot food."
In response to my earlier essay Dr. Mech also wrote, "I probably won't have time to read this right now, for I'm preparing for a trip out of the country early next week. However, a quick scan of the Kelley article reveals much misinformation attributed to me. This misinterpretation and total misinformation like Kelley's has plagued me for years now. I do not in any way reject the notion of dominance."
In a comment to Mark Derr's essay Lee Charles Kelley to whom Dr. Mech refers above wrote, "So-called dominance hierarchies don't exist in dogs or wolves." He is dead wrong and clearly does not understand what dominance means to those who have studied it and written about it extensively over the years.
Kelley also claims "dominance and submission aren't what they seem". He's right here. As many have pointed out dominance does not mean an outright assault or even social interactions to which we are privy.
Animal behavior experts who study a wide variety of species agree that dominance and alpha animals are real. Even Cesar Millan notes this but egregiously abuses what the words "dominance" and "alpha" really mean. Just because dominance is difficult for some to understand does not mean it's a myth, so let's get over it and learn more about it and listen to the experts.