Quirks & Quarks

Wolf, fetch! How scientists discovered a 'domesticated' trait in wolves

The simple act of retrieving a ball could be why we domesticated dogs perhaps around 15,000 years ago

Traits like this could have been significant in the process of taming wolves, leading to modern dogs

Sting is one of three wolf pups that fetched a ball during an experiment at the University of Stockholm. (Christina Hansen Wheat)

Christina Hansen Wheat has what many would call a dream job.

In her lab in Stockholm, she raises dogs and wolves to study how domestication has changed their behaviour.

"We spend 24 hours with the puppies for their first three months of life," Hansen Wheat told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. "You have wolves in your sleeping bag when you sleep down there...sometimes six at a time."

Recently, while doing a standard dog behaviour assessment test on the wolves, they had a stranger throw a ball for one of the wolf pups. And surprisingly, the wolf proudly brought the ball back to the stranger — without ever being trained, or even seeing a game of fetch happen before.

"I could hardly believe what I was seeing," said Hansen Wheat.

A wolf puppy named Flea, who was hand-raised by Christina Hansen Wheat at the University of Stockholm. (Christina Hansen Wheat)

Previously, it was always assumed that the ability to understand cues given by a human, like those required for a game of fetch, evolved in dogs only after humans domesticated them, perhaps around 15,000 years ago.

The wolf pup's ability to understanding the human's cues to bring the ball back suggests that this trait isn't just found in dogs, and in fact, it might be a trait that humans selected in wolves during the early days of domestication.

"If we had wolves close to us at camp when we were hunter gatherers, some of them might have been used for food, or some used for clothing, but the ones that fetched for you might not have been used for these things, because they had a connection with humans," said Hansen Wheat. 

"So these puppies showing this human directed behaviour might have had an advantage over the puppies that didn't, because they connected with our forefathers."

The research was published this week in the journal iScience.

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