By now, the story is a familiar one: Tens of thousands of years ago, our human ancestors turned to wolves for companionship, taming and trading their wild ways to make way for the cuddly, docile pooches in our living rooms today.
But the tale of dog domestication might not be as simple, or as dramatic, as researchers once thought. Some of the friendly, human-centric behaviors we see in modern mutts—like puppies’ propensity for play—might have been present in their lupine predecessors, too, according to a study published this week in iScience.
For the first time, researchers have documented a small number wolf pups playing fetch—a big surprise for a species that hasn’t spent the past several thousands years being groomed to socialize with humans, explain study authors Christina Hansen Wheat and Hans Temrin, both biologists at Stockholm University, to the New York Times’ James Gorman.
When researchers tossed a ball, only three of 13 pups tested brought it back. But the fact that any of them managed it at all hints that humans can’t take all the credit for our pets’ fetching feats. “I think we too often assume that things we observe in dogs are special and unique, without really ever proving that,” Elinor Karlsson, a dog geneticist at the Broad Institute who wasn’t involved in the study, tells the New York Times.
Hansen Wheat and Temrin made their discovery entirely by accident, while raising litters of wolf puppies for a separate study investigating how the canines socialized with each other. After spending several weeks with pups to get them accustomed to the researchers’ presence, they noticed that some of the young wolves expressed interest in tennis balls, even retrieving them on occasion, reports David Grimm for Science magazine. Intrigued, Hansen Wheat decided to run a more formal experiment, recruiting another researcher—one the pups had never met—to interact with the animals one-on-one and toss a ball for them to fetch, three times in a row.
Most of the wolves paid the ball no mind. But three, all from the same litter, returned it at least twice. (To be fair, not all dogs fetch, either.) “What we’re seeing is that wolves can read human social cues if they choose,” Hansen Wheat tells Science.
But the wolf version of fetch might not be an exact echo of what’s seen in dogs, some experts note. While our pooches will chase and retrieve the ball in a single, dedicated action, the wolf pups in the study first went after the ball and bit it, and only later loped back to the researcher, almost as an afterthought, notes Evan MacLean, who studies dog cognition at the University of Arizona but wasn’t involved in the study, in an interview with NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce. The wolves, he says, didn’t seem to approach the task in the same goal-oriented way many dogs do.
To our ancestors, though, even a hint of this playful behavior may have been enough to help spark the domestication process. Then, over time, thousands of rounds of selective breeding could have intensified the wolves’ more primitive chase-and-return into dogs’ full-fledged fetch. Either way, something about those wild animals clearly clicked for people, MacLean tells Science. “We probably saw wolves doing things that we saw potential value in,” MacLean says.