Wolf Pups Play Fetch Just Like Pet Dogs, Scientists Find

Scientists who played with wolf pups were surprised to find they could play catch just like dogs, even though this is thought to be a learned behavior.

Past studies suggest that a pet dog's ability to understand cues from humans developed after the animals were domesticated at least 15,000 years ago. As a result, scientists behind the new study, published in the journal iScience, didn't expect to see this type of behavior in wolves.

In fact, the team didn't set out to test whether the pups know how to play with humans at all. They discovered this as part of a larger round of tests, study co-author Christina Hansen Wheat of Stockholm University told Newsweek.

To carry out the study, researchers hand-raised 13 wolves from three litters, sourced from animal parks in Europe since they were 10 days old, Hansen Wheat said. The wolves, who had never been trained and only spent time with their carer, took part in standardized tests where researchers used their voices to encourage the animals to retrieve a tennis ball. This involved the animals taking a social cue from a person they had never met before. Researchers noted how cooperative the animals were.

They found the young wolves were able to retrieve a ball for a person even if they didn't know them. Three wolves from the same litter retrieved the ball at least twice, and one all three times. Eight others from two litters showed no interest in the ball at any time.

"It was very surprising that we had wolves actually retrieving the ball. I did not expect that," said Hansen Wheat. "I do not think anyone of us [the team] did. It was also surprising that the wolves retrieved the ball for a person they had never met before."

wolf pup
A wolf pup who took part in the study. Christina Hansen Wheat

She acknowledged that the study was limited because the team presented results based on a small number of wolves. But she argued the results provide a proof of concept showing the presence of a specific behavioral trait in wolves, "so the number of tested individuals is not crucial for the interpretation of our results."

Hansen Wheat said: "Our findings indicate that behavioral responses to human social-communicative cues are not unique to dogs.

"By showing that a behavior thought to be unique to dogs also exists in wolves, our findings have significant implications for our understanding and expectations of the genetic foundations of dog behavior."

Hansen Wheat argued: "Similarities [between dogs and wolves] can tell us something about which traits our forefathers likely selected upon to create the dog at least 15,000 years ago. Here we show that such a trait could have been human-directed play behavior, which will likely surprise dog owners as much as it surprised me.

"However, taking a step back it makes sense—we connect with our dogs when we interact with them, for example through play. Wolf puppies showing human-directed behavior could therefore have had a selective advantage in early stages of dog domestication."

Finding the pups and having someone there to take care of them 24 hours a day was the most challenging part of the study, she said.

"It is rare for researchers in my field to get the opportunity to work this closely with their study species for longer periods of time," said Hansen Wheat.

"I became interested in animal behavior at a rather young age and loved just watching animals for hours on end," she explained. "This project made me relive that feeling, and spending long periods of time with the wolves on a daily basis was truly a privilege."