As it turns out, playing fetch might not be a behavior that's exclusive to dogs.

Playing fetch with your pooch is a normal way to stimulate play and exercise, but it's not a natural instinct among wolves—or so scientists previously thought. Christina Hansen Wheat, a behavioral ecologist in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University, is one of several scientists that study how domestication has affected behavioral development in wolves and dogs. Hansen Wheat raised three separate litters of wolf puppies, feeding them and acclimating them to human contact without any other form of formal training or play.

wolf puppy in nature
Credit: Christina Hansen Wheat

After eight weeks, Hansen Wheat and her team conducted a series of tests, which included a fetch test, usually done by dog breeders to assess how puppies will act in social situations. While the first two litters failed to retrieve a tennis ball, several wolf puppies from the third litter followed a tennis ball, retrieved it, and returned it to the tester, according to the study.

"When I saw the first puppy fetch—I still get goosebumps when I talk about this—it was such a surprise," said Hansen Wheat. "It wasn't just one puppy, it was actually three of them. That was very exciting."

While scientists previously believed that playing fetch and reading social cues from humans was a trait inherent in domesticated dogs, this exercise proved that it may have previously existed in some wolves. "It might have been something that we have tried to select upon during early domestication," Hansen Wheat says. "Wolf puppies doing this during early stages of domestication might have had a selective advantage, if they managed to establish a connection to our forefathers."

More research is needed to understand how and when dog domestication happened, but Hansen Wheat believes that dogs and wolves may not be so different after all.


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