Playing fetch with your dog isn’t as simple as it seems. Your pooch must be perceptive enough to realize you want the ball back—and social enough to want to play with you in the first place. It’s such an advanced skill, in fact, that many scientists think it could have arisen only over thousands of years of domestication.
But a new study reveals that some gray wolves—the ancestors of dogs—can also play fetch. The work supports the idea that the roots of many of the traits and behaviors we see in domesticated animals, from cats to chickens, may be present in their wild relatives.
“It’s a really clever study—it’s crazy that no one has done this before,” says Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona. Still, he says, it’s not clear that the wolves are playing fetch in the same way dogs do, which could blunt the impact of the findings.
Behavioral ecologist Christina Hansen Wheat and ethologist Hans Temrin didn’t set out to see whether wolves could fetch. Instead, the duo, based at Stockholm University, wanted to learn more about how the animals socialize with each other. Over 3 years, they took three litters of gray wolves—13 pups in all—from animal parks in Europe to a wooded field station about 100 kilometers southwest of the university.
The pups were only 10 days old when they arrived, and the researchers took shifts so they got 24 hours of human contact every day. (Unlike dogs, wolves aren’t born comfortable around people, and it takes a lot of human socialization to get them to hang out with us.) The scientists slept with the pups in sleeping bags and woke up every 3 hours to bottle feed them. “It was tough, but it was so much fun,” Hansen Wheat says.
As the pups grew, the scientists noticed that some would retrieve a tennis ball thrown across the room. Intrigued, they tested all the wolves for the ability. When the pups were 8 weeks old, Hansen Wheat brought each one into a large, barren room with someone the animals had never met before. Then she left, and after a few minutes, the stranger threw a tennis ball.
Most of the wolves ignored the ball. But two pups—Lemmy and Elvis—returned the ball twice, the team reports today in iScience. One pup named Sting returned it all three times it was thrown, as seen in the video above. (All the wolves were named after musicians.)
Hansen Wheat acknowledges that it’s a small study. But she says what’s important is that researchers saw the behavior at all, indicating that it’s present in at least some wolves. “What we’re seeing is that wolves can read human social cues if they choose,” she says.
Hansen Wheat says the findings support the idea that many of the traits we associate with dogs—from their ability to understand people pointing to their capacity to digest our unusual starch-rich diets—did not arise during the domestication process, but were present in some form in their wild ancestors. Then, over thousands of generations, humans intensified those traits by preferentially favoring pups who had them.
Indeed, she says, playfulness and other traits may have attracted us to wolves in the first place. “We connect with our dogs by playing with them,” she says. “If ancient humans were able to form a similar connection with some wolves, it may have started them on the path to domestication.”
MacLean isn’t sure the wolves are really playing fetch, however. “What you’re seeing here is two separate behaviors,” he says. “One, which is totally unsurprising, is that a predator will chase an object thrown across the room. And then, if the pup does get the ball, he sort of meanders back, and it takes a lot of cajoling from the stranger.”
Still, MacLean agrees that this sort of primitive fetch is just the kind of thing domestication could have turned into the full-fledged behavior we see in dogs today. “We probably saw wolves doing things that we saw potential value in.”
In turn, the wolves likely found value in humans, as Hansen Wheat discovered. When the study pups were seven to 10 months old and too big to keep, the team adopted them out to animal parks. “I cried for a week when they left,” she says. Even 3 years later, she visits them. “They get very excited when they see me,” she says. “They jump up and down, and they lick your face.”
Not, it turns out, much different than a dog.