Wolf Puppies Play Fetch Like Domesticated Dogs Do, Scientists Find
Wed, April 21, 2021

Wolf Puppies Play Fetch Like Domesticated Dogs Do, Scientists Find

While dogs are pros at understanding human-directed verbal or physical signals, wolves are not supposedly expected to respond to social cues from humans / Photo by: jessiefeross via Pixabay


Many domesticated dogs find it natural to play the game of fetch, wherein a ball or a stick is thrown at a distance away from the animal so that it will be retrieved by the pet. Dogs enjoy the game because it gives them excitement, mental challenge, and exercise. Researchers have recently reported that the innate ability of dogs to interpret the social-communicative cues of humans to go after the thrown ball also exists in wolf puppies.

The study, which appeared in the journal iScience, emphasizes that even untrained wolf pups are capable of spontaneously retrieving the ball based also on human cues. Their study involved three 8-week-old wolf pups that responded to the social-communicative behaviors of an unfamiliar person. The researchers went on to state that although the ability may be rare in wolves (Canis lupus), some will retrieve the ball with a little vocal encouragement from the person throwing the object even if the wolf puppies have not met the person before.

While dogs are pros at understanding human-directed verbal or physical signals, wolves are not supposedly expected to respond to social cues from humans. The findings were made after Christina Hansen Wheat and co-author Hans Temrin from the Stockholm University’s Department of Zoology took 13 hand-raised wolf pups from three different litters (2014, 2015, and 2016). All of them were raised since they were 10 weeks old and had only spent time with their caregivers before the fetch test.

Results of the Ball Retrieving Tests

Out of the 13 wolf puppies, three of them from the 2016 litter were able to fully retrieve the ball at least two times and one of these three wolves retrieved the ball three times. One of the three wolves that fully retrieved the ball even played with the ball during the experiment but ignored the assessor’s call.

One wolf from the 2016 litter and another from 2014 showed some interest with the ball but aborted. The other eight wolves (two from 2016 litter, two from 2015, and four from 2014) showed no interest at all in retrieving the ball in the three trials conducted. All retrieving tests were measured on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 meaning no cooperation and 5 meaning full cooperation. One wolf puppy that received the 5 scores was named Sting, who fully retrieved the ball with vocal encouragement from the assessor. The researchers from Sweden also named Elvis, who received a score of 3. Eight-week-old wolf puppy Hendrix was recorded showing no interest in the game and received a score of 1.

Wheat and Temrin have shared the video of their experiment in the iJournal. “Here we provide the first empirical evidence that wolves, and not only dogs, express interspecific play with a human-based on social-communicative cues,” they wrote. The duo added that the novel trait even exists in dogs only after domestication.

Importance of the Scientists’ Observations on Wolf Puppies

The duo shared that their observations are highly important as there is still an ongoing discussion on the effects of domestication on the behavior of animals. The results also have significant implications for people’s expectations and understanding of the genetic basis of behavioral changes in modern-day canines. They believe that the current research attention on dog behavior should refocus. It should not just give attention to doing direct species comparisons but should include whether the certain behavioral variation also exists in wolves. Knowing such have important implications as to how domestication of canines proceeded.

Wheat said that her interest in animal behavior started at a young age. Ever since she was young, she already loved watching animals even for hours and her current project with Temrin has helped relive that feeling. She calls it a “privilege” to have spent a long period studying the wolves. “It’s rare for researchers in my field to get the opportunity to work this closely with their study species for long periods,” she added.

The author also said that their study was limited because there were only 13 wolves involved. Yet, the result is already a “proof of concept” as it showed the presence of a certain behavioral trait. She believes that the number of tested subjects is not “crucial” in terms of interpreting the study. The most challenging part of their research is to find the wolf puppies and have someone willing and able to take care of them 24 hours every day while they are experimenting.

Comment From a Wolf Expert

Wolf expert Kathryn Lord from the Broad Institute in Cambridge and the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester commented via science platform Gizmodo that the research conducted by Wheat and Temrin is an “exciting” one. Although she was not involved in the study, Lord expects that the authors would have found more wolf puppies capable of responding to human solicitation if these animals were used to strangers. She believes that the authors have “handicapped” themselves because they used wolf puppies that had not even been previously socialized with strangers as previous studies on the topic of dogs were conducted.

Wolf Facts and Statistics

In history, wolves may have roamed far and wide on Earth, but their population is now scarce today. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) red wolves are now critically endangered. There are only 20 to 80 red wolves currently living in the wild. There are other classifications of wolves aside from the red wolf (Canis rufus). The other two are the Eastern wolf (Canis Lycaon) and the gray wolf (Canis lupus).

According to the International Wolf Center, which helps advance the survival of wolf populations by teaching about wolves and their relationship to wildlands, pup survival is now directly related to the availability of prey in the surroundings. The overall survival of adult and yearling wolves has been documented to vary between 60% and 80%. Gray wolves can live up to 16 years in captivity and 13 years in the wild, but it would still depend on the animals’ geographic location.

The problem with this study is that the researchers relied on small sample size. Nevertheless, it is a good start for future studies to better understand dogs and why they are so happy and willing to play with humans.