by VALERIA ROSSI – Trad. Mariafelicia Maione
Premises – While writing my articles about conferences I made throughout Italy with Claudio Mangini and his tutor dogs, I often talk about “beta dogs” and “omega dogs”, as if everybody knows his way around the subject. But I realized it’s not so clear, especially with nice little ladies out there (i.e., new dog lovers).
Since scores of people asked me for some understandable explanations, I try to comply… I don’t know anything about the outcome, because it’s easy to collocate dogs when looking at them; describing their characteristics, it’s another story! Well… let’s try.
To begin with, let’s say that these terminology (alpha, beta, omega, number, specialist) comes directly from the wolves’ world, whose hierarchy are provided with different “social roles”, codified by humans with three Greek letters and some adjectives (mind that such a hierarchy is circular, not a pyramidal one – usually speaking, with some exceptions to the rule – and those roles are able to change, not carved into stone).
We can, with some distinctions, use the same terminology for dogs also, because wolves are dogs’ ancestors, and, you can say what you want, wolves have been much more studied than dogs. Duties within the pack are very much the same, in fact… WHEN there is a real “pack” involved.
Actually, what you must understand since the beginning, is that with rare exceptions, dogs DON’T live in a pack.
My huskies, they lived in a pack (a interspecific pack, because it was “polluted” by human presence), because they lived always together from morn till night, they shared the same territory and same resources, most of them shared blood relationships and they even hunted together (NO human authorization provided… but still, they hunted together).
On the contrary, the German Shepherds I breeded in another period of my life, they partly lived together, but they didn’t hunt and, more importantly, they were not “families” of parents and children, so they were not a real pack.
Dogs at the dog park, meeting for half an hour a day and belonging to different breeds, different types, different human families… it’s out of the question then can be called a pack.
Establishing which category a dog belongs to, it’s difficult basically because we don’t see him interacting in a proper pack: but, looking at him with other dogs, you can always come to some quite reasonable conclusions, and we’ll try to describe different typologies from those.
I’ve been trying for decades to explain people listening to me (or reading me) that the alpha wolf (the famous “pack leader”!) is NOT the dog who “brings everyone else into submission”.
On the contrary, he’s the dog everyone else shows submission to, because they find him stronger, smarter, more expert, cooler than the others: that’s the reason why he has a right to the best parts of the pray, that gives him a different smell and – it seems – different fur color, enabling him to send specific visual and odorous signals very clear for other wolves’ eyes and noses.
Now, try and think how dogs meeting at the dog park from nine to ten in the morning could “vote” an alpha dog.
This should be evident to anyone that you need a long time to acquire such a status… and not just that: you need to show some skills (in hunting, courting, arraying the pack for territorial defense…) skills that dogs never need (or can) show practically.
The don’t need hunting, since they a bowl with their food at hand; as for courting, they would like to give it a try, but usually humans keep them apart from bitches on heat and/or tell them off when they try too of an eager courtship; they don’t have a real pack to array… and at the park they don’t even have a territory of their own, because that’s everyone’s territory. For those reasons, the concept of alpha wolf (or, better saying, alpha couple, because you always have a male and a female) it’s something completely different from the alpha dog, that you can identify just as the leader of a group (big or small) of dogs living always together, if human intervention wasn’t too heavy in the matter.
You can find several alpha dogs among strays and ferals, you have real alphas in kennels when the breeders, as I did, allow dogs to live together… but unleashing in the same place dogs who don’t know each other, or meet for an hour a day, you can’t properly talk about alphas.
You can, at the very least, talk about dogs who “would like” to be alphas, or dogs “inclined” to assume that role… until proved otherwise. And we’re still able to misunderstand, because usually the common nice little lady would deem “alpha” (or “dominant” or even “the pack-leader”: what, without a pack?) the dog always bothering any other, growling and starting rows all over the place.
In reality, the true alpha dog (or the dog feeling as one) it’s a dog who doesn’t give a damn about the others: he can assume dominant attitudes (tail up, ears up, stiff body, sometimes fur up on its end…) when other dogs come near him, but he NEVER is, for any reason whatsoever, a “row dog”.
He never looks for fights (but if others do, they might find it: he’s a leader, not a dupe), usually he inclines to isolation and he likes being on his own, possibly somewhere high.
He can go checking on the newcomers (for a ritualized “introduction”): but near dogs he knows, he’s like a quiet supervisor, watching everything, seeing everything and knowing everything, but never bothering anyone without necessity.
The alpha dog is not a barker jerk.
The alpha dog, from his privileged high position, hardly descends to mingle with the mass, for fighting or even playing. In fact, he plays near only with puppies (that he cherish like his children, all of them): with adults, maybe he will accept a brief playful fight (during which sometimes the hierarchy is completely reversed, so DON’T try to acknowledge a dog status during games).
For this very reason, a part from some cases when a very intense intervention is needed, as for smells or any other signal, the alpha dog is rarely utilized as tutor.
In wolf packs, betas are the “policemen”: they’re committed to maintain order and answerable for the safety of the pack. Usually a couple, bigger and tougher than the average wolf, their duty is to delimit their pack’s territory (urinating and throughout their paws’ pads glands: wolves – and dogs – desperately rasping the ground after the act, are almost all betas), to “preserve the order” when some fights issue and to protect the pack from invasions.
You find a lot of betas (together with omegas, they’re the most part of existing dogs) and they also are the ones to cause more trouble when not properly socialized with a real pack.
They’re dogs apt to “run into the fray” whenever there is a row, usually trying not to appease spirits (omegas are for that), but to help the leader… and since, usually, in dog fights there is not a leader, they help the one apparently stronger, sometimes turning the classic picture “big dog against small dog” into a tragedy. Because betas, when and if running into the fray, help the bigger one… and since the real world isn’t Walt Disney’s, the smaller one can incur into much trouble.
Many “row dogs” are betas with poor (if any) social skills: the very same dogs, when able to interact within a pack, could be wonderful “regulators” (something different from tutor dogs: a regulator is a natural, a tutor is trained for his job, and he always acts according to human orders).
Usually betas “introduce” themselves walking boldly towards the enemy, but according to canine etiquette (moving from the side, calming signals, Olympian calm); typically they put their mouth over the other dog’s shoulder (a signal of pacific dominance). Sometimes they complete the ritualization with the act of mounting.
Among “tutor dogs” you often see betas employed for their skill in forcing others to respect the rules… if the client dogs know them: if not, you’ll need first the intervention of other dogs, as omegas and nannies.
Betas are pretty common among lower neotenic lines (especially molossus and Retrivers).
Now we know that among wolves those individuals are the ones with keener ears, so, their duty is to warn the pack against potential dangers coming. Usually they are mistrustful of novelty.
But, they chief characteristic is that – when death occurs – they can take the place of any other wolf, with any status, within the pack.
The number dog it’s hard to sort out, at least for me, because of this ability to change role: usually, looking at a group of dogs, we can say that “numbers” are those who seems interested in learning from alphas and betas and more eager to obey them. They’re probably the most common of dogs, even if you need more time to understand their role in the group.
Number wolves have also the job to make a pack sound more numerous than it really is, leaving several olfactory tracks (due to a varied diet) and several type of vocal sounds.
Looking at my dogs, I can be really sure about just one female number husky (the adult in the picture above on the left), whose behavior mirrored the wolves’: she liked eating several things (even my favorite tree’s cherries, whose lower branches she could “clear” completely staying on her hind legs, so that I was forced to take the ladder when I wanted a cherry, finding none at arm reach), she could howling with several types of notes (she could even bark like a German Shepherd and like a Maltese, imitating the two non-husky dogs in the house) and she always followed the alpha female (her mother) like a shadow, till when the alpha died and she took her place.
I couldn’t say I spotted any sure numbers in any other case, but you can think of this status when you find a dog with eclectic skills and behaviors about food, playing and territory guarding.
The OMEGA dog
When talking about omega wolves (or dogs), people often get the impression of poor little things always crawling at someone’s feet.
Well, it’s true that they crawl: they’re dogs used to come near other with the maximum level of calming signals and submission. But they’re not little things, poor fellows, unlucky dupes.
On the contrary! They have a privileged status, because their duty is to soften tensions and solve disputes between others: for this reason, among wolves they enjoy some very interesting privileges. For example, they eat last, it’s true, but they eat valuable parts of the pray, left there especially for them.
Of course, you can’t see this in house dogs’ packs (even my huskies, they ate from their bowls and when they hunted, I didn’t get the chance to see how they planned to divide up the pray, being busy paying for it a very angry shepherd or peasant).
But you can beautifully see their behavior to soften tensions: the omega dog, like the wolf, it’s the one approaching the others to ask them to play, fooling around, wagging his tale at full speed, licking and affectionately head-butting all around the place. It’s the dog “good with everyone, always eager to play”… but in reality he’s so much more than that, because he’s born to spread peace.
His chief duty among wolves its’ a very crucial task: to keep everybody calm during the meal, when everyone wants to eat first and more: without omegas, every lunch time would become a fight, and the pack would suffer many a loss, certainly, or would end up with half of his members wounded and bleeding (and you haven’t a vet ready at hand in woods…)
Among house dogs, usually you have less chances for tension (if we don’t create them ourselves: typically, throwing a ball between dogs who never met each other before, so that they’re ready to go for each other’s throat to get it); omegas still are the ones to ask others to play, to approach everyone showing passive and active submission (omegas are used to roll over without problems), ready to pacify others when they look like they’re preparing for a fight (if they’re fighting already, their intervention isn’t needed any more: at that point, usually is a beta to intervene helping the stronger dog, as we said before… and the fight will end up anyway, but with much more blood involved).
Omegas wolves are able to emit several “pacifying” vocalizations, very musical and relaxing; you rarely get to see this in dogs, even if omega dogs can emit soft whimperings when trying to pacify tense dogs.
Both wolves and dogs are able to send forth calming and softening smelling. For all of those reasons, omegas are the most popular dogs for tutoring.
You can easily find omegas in any breed, but especially in Goldens, Border Collies, Setters… and even several Pit Bull Terriers: many of them are omegas as puppies, but a lot stay like that even in adulthood.
Among wolves you find two kind of specialists: hunters and nannies.
Hunters, as the name goes, are the one chasing game, tiring it down or trying to guide it towards betas, ready to attack and kill.
I was so unfortunate to spot two huntresses among my dogs, but usually you have not a chance to say if an house dog has that kind of skill.
Much easier (and important, especially with a pup) to identify a nanny dog, who in the wild has the role of “aunt” (or “uncle” when a male) for alphas’ puppies. As for dogs, it’s easier to find male nannies; females are rare.
Nannies “introduce themselves” to other dogs like betas, but, after putting their head over the puppy shoulder, they lick him. Then they start teaching a lot of things, always and solely throughout playing, often playing hunt (dogs do this to, because no one of them is really convinced that the bowl will always be full again).
Nanny dogs are also the one to steal food and toys from puppies, to teach them about possessiveness: you need caution there, because puppies living a long time with a nanny dog could become very possessive.
Nanny wolf is the one to guard the den with mother and children, and he’s the one and only authorized to enter it before the puppies are weaned and ready to go outside.
As for dogs, you can see this behavior in the dog “watching” a youngster asleep: they often do the same with human babes.
Nanny dogs are a treasure not as tutor dogs, but as useful aid in socialization classes (this doesn’t mean to “throw unknown dogs in at the deep end”, as unfortunately happens in some places, but to gather carefully selected groups of puppies and adults fit for each other, so that the youngsters can learn from the elders how to interact correctly, without any shock occurring). But we’ll talk about socialization classes elsewhere: I stop here for now, in the hope I succeeded in making clear something about the very complex (and wonderful) world of canine interaction and interspecific roles… once again, saying that to really understand them you need to watch them, watch them and watch them again!
Remarks: Regarding wolves, I took several information from the book “Talking as dogs” by Claudio Mangini (much more acquainted with wolves than me). As for dogs, instead, all comes from my own experience, and I repeat that it consist mainly on a pack of Siberian Huskies, dogs way up the neotenic line, so very much alike wolves. Other breeds could show (and do show) different kinds of behavior: but I noticed that the social roles are very much the same for all of them. Sometimes, external manifestations are less visible, and so less recognizable for humans.