Scientists Discover that Wolf Pups Play Fetch Too

Their discovery questions the long-standing belief that dogs only learnt to play fetch after domestication.
Fabienne Lang
Flea, one of the wolf pups in the experimentChristina Hansen Wheat/Stockholm University

Playing fetch with dogs is always great fun. Up until now, scientists believed that only dogs as canines could play fetch with people. It turns out that wolf puppies also enjoy the stick- or ball-fetching game. 

Scientists from Stockholm University made a surprising discovery when observing 13 wolf puppies from three different litters. Their research suggests that interpreting human social communication skills doesn't just belong to regular dogs but wolves too. 

Their study was published in iScience on Thursday.


Tests to find out wolf puppies also enjoy a game of fetch

During a number of tests, three eight-week-old puppies showed their interest in a ball and then even more surprisingly, returned the ball to complete strangers. 

Scientists Discover that Wolf Pups Play Fetch Too
One of the wolf puppies playing fetch, Source: Christina Hansen Weight/Stockholm University

These actions took the researchers by surprise as the widely believed theory that the cognitive abilities required to understand human cues, for instance for a game of fetch, only appeared in dogs after they became domesticated some 15,000 years ago

Christina Hansen Weight of Stockholm University said "When I saw the first wolf puppy retrieving the ball, I literally got goosebumps."

She continued, "It was so unexpected, and I immediately knew that this meant that if variation in human-directed play behavior exists in wolves, this behavior could have been a potential target for early selective pressures exerted during dog domestication."

The team was running a series of tests to understand how domestication affects behavior in dog and wolf puppies. 

The first two litters of wolf puppies showed no interest in the ball-retrieving game, which was part of the tests. When it came to testing the third litter, however, the scientists were pleasantly taken aback. 

Not only did the wolf puppies show interest in the ball, they also followed social cues given by an unfamiliar person and brought the ball back. 

Hansen Weight explained "It was especially surprising that the wolves retrieved the ball for a person they had never met before."

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