This photograph has gotten a fair amount of attention, and has been subject to a healthy debate on what a “pack leader” is among undomesticated wolves. The caption is as follows: “A wolf pack: the first 3 are the old or sick, they give the pace to the entire pack. If it was the other way round, they would be left behind, losing contact with the pack. In case of an ambush they would be sacrificed. Then come 5 strong ones, the front line. In the center are the rest of the pack members, then the 5 strongest following. Last is alone, the alpha. He controls everything from the rear. In that position he can see everything, decide the direction. He sees all of the pack. The pack moves according to the elders pace, and help each other, watch each other.”
Among dog trainers, a conversation immediately flared on the notion of an “alpha” leader. Many assert that “science” has disproven the validity of wolf-dog comparisons, and argue passionately that reviving any discussion of (or giving credence to the notion of) an “alpha” pack leader is detrimental to dog training.
We’re not going to wade into that debate. Our purpose in sharing this photo its caption information is because we think it’s beautiful and it illustrates one of the core principles that guides Western States K9 College and its trainers: that every group whose members wish to function and thrive together must recognize a leader, and the most effective leaders are rarely barking orders at the front.
The most effective leaders are strong in their convictions, act in the best interests of the group, and lead by ensuring the group’s continued organization, cooperation, and fulfillment. Sometimes, the leader may need to zip around front to assess risk, other times check the status of those in the middle, and sometimes they’re at the back taking in the big picture.
We believe in pack leadership, absolutely. But too often, at least in dog training, the term has been used to connote a dictatorship. Someone who, for whatever reason, is the Chief Micromanager and Order Giver. The one who believes chaos and even violence will ensue if dogs pass through a doorway first, for example. Or Fluffy gets on the couch.
We simply don’t believe that, and our experience has convinced us that true leadership is founded in earned trust. “Alpha” pack leaders emerge because they build connection, proved through practice and demonstrated by consistent results. We are true leaders when we inspire, inform, encourage, and hold accountable. But also when we allow our strong members to show strength, and when we support our weak members. When we know them enough to know their individual strengths, weaknesses, desires, and abilities, and work to strengthen each pack member according to their needs.
The true “alpha” in the pack has no use for dictatorship, dominance, or suppression. And neither do we.