Wolf cubs shock researchers by playing fetch just like dogs

Wolves can play fetch: Cubs shock researchers by retrieving balls just like dogs – proving its a natural instinct and NOT 15,000 years of training

  • Three eight week old wolf puppies spontaneously played fetch with a stranger 
  • The Swedish team of researchers study wolf and dog puppies from 10 days old 
  • They did not expect to see the wolf pups running after a ball or bringing it back 

It was thought dogs only played fetch thanks to thousands of years of domestication, but a new study has found that even wolf pups will run for a ball. 

Researchers from Stockholm University, Sweden made the serendipitous discovery during an unrelated behavioural test on 13 wolf puppies from three different litters.

The research suggests the ability to interpret human social cues to catch a ball and bring it back also exists in modern wolves and may be innate to all canine species.

In one test, three eight-week-old wolf puppies spontaneously showed interest in a ball and returned it to a perfect stranger upon encouragement.  

This image shows a wolf puppy named Flea, who comes from a non-fetching litter born in 2015 and tested by the researchers. Other puppies from the same group of 13 wolves seemed to have a natural ability to fetch a ball

Researchers said the discovery was a shock as it was previously thought the ability to follow human cues only developed after domestication 15,000 years ago.

They thought that dogs only developed the ability to fetch a ball thanks to millennia of humans selectively breeding only those canines able to respond to commands. 

‘When I saw the first wolf puppy retrieving the ball, I literally got goosebumps’, said study author Christina Hansen Wheat from Stockholm University.

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

The team raise wolf and dog puppies from the age of 10 days and put them through various behavioural tests to understand how domestication affects behaviour. 

In one of those tests, a person the pup does not know throws a tennis ball across the room and, without the benefit of any prior experience or training, encourages the puppy to get it and bring it back. 

The researchers never really expected wolf pups to catch on. 

The first two wolf litters they worked with showed little to no interest in balls, let alone retrieving one. 

But when they tested the third wolf litter, some of the puppies not only went for the ball but also responded to the social cues given by the unfamiliar person and brought it back. 

‘It was very surprising that we had wolves actually retrieving the ball. I did not expect that’, Dr Hansen Wheat said. 

‘I do not think any of us did. It was especially surprising that the wolves retrieved the ball for a person they had never met before.’ 

The researchers said similarities between dogs and wolves can tell us something about where the behaviour we see in our dogs comes from. 

Video grab footage showing a wolf pup named Sting fully retrieving the ball

Video grab from footage showing a wolf pup named Elvis, who plays with the ball, but ignores the puppy assessor’s call to return it

While it was a surprise to see a wolf puppy playing fetch and connecting with a person in that way, Ms Hansen Wheat said it also makes sense. 

She said the results, although probably rare, show our ancestors may have attempted to domesticate wolves as well as dogs.

Dr Hansen Wheat added: “Wolf puppies showing human-directed behaviour could have had a selective advantage in early stages of dog domestication.”

Her team will now continue to work with the data they have collected over the course of three years hand-raising wolves and dogs under identical conditions to learn even more about their behavioural differences and similarities

The research has been published in the journal iScience. 

HOW DID DOGS BECOME DOMESTICATED?

A genetic analysis of the world’s oldest known dog remains revealed that dogs were domesticated in a single event by humans living in Eurasia, around 20,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Dr Krishna Veeramah, an assistant professor in evolution at Stony Brook University, told MailOnline: ‘The process of dog domestication would have been a very complex process, involving a number of generations where signature dog traits evolved gradually.

‘The current hypothesis is that the domestication of dogs likely arose passively, with a population of wolves somewhere in the world living on the outskirts of hunter-gatherer camps feeding off refuse created by the humans.

‘Those wolves that were tamer and less aggressive would have been more successful at this, and while the humans did not initially gain any kind of benefit from this process, over time they would have developed some kind of symbiotic [mutually beneficial] relationship with these animals, eventually evolving into the dogs we see today.’

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