• Robb G. Best

A Fetching Discovery

They are quite possibly the first animal we ever domesticated, at least 15,000 years ago. Before the Pyramids of Giza, before Stonehenge, before the Megalithic Temples of Malta, humankind somehow found a way to turn wolves into dogs into allies. This meant not only creating a strain of canines disinclined to, for instance, eat our young, but also one that could respond to human-given cues, which doesn’t seem like a trait that a wild wolf would be born with.

Thus, conventional wisdom has held that behaviors like responding to a human’s distal pointing (indicating a far object by extending the pointer finger, as opposed to indicating an object by tapping it), or retrieving a thrown object and returning it to the thrower are purely, to put it simply, a dog thing. Surely these behaviors must have only arisen after generations of selective breeding rendered what had once been wolves into something more closely resembling a Samoyed.

And it is true that these behaviors seem ingrained into dogs. Recently, Dr. Anindita Bhadra of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Kolkata, India and her colleagues conducted a survey of sorts involving stray dogs across several Indian cities. These dogs, who had, by definition, never been trained by humans, were presented with two covered dishes, one containing food. The researcher would indicate the dish with food in it via distal pointing. Of the dogs who were willing to participate (only about half of all dogs the researchers approached), roughly 80% took the cue, even if the pointing was momentary.

This is not natural behavior for wolves, who must receive basically a lifetime of training before they are able to respond to such pointing. However, this alone is not the only measure of responsiveness to humans. What about a simple game of fetch?

Christina Hansen Wheat of Stockholm University, Sweden set out to test just that, with 13 8-week-old wolf pups from three different litters. The first two litters of pups weren’t interested in balls in general, let alone going to the trouble of chasing down a ball and bringing it back to the human who threw it. The third litter, however, was where things got interesting.

Not only did some of the wolf pups from the third litter engage with the ball long enough to chase it and retrieve it, they also reacted to social cues from the ball-thrower to the point of bringing the ball back to the unfamiliar human. The fact that this behavior wasn’t uniform across all the wolf pups is enough to make a person wonder if maybe we’re seeing the traits those very first dog breeders looked for, all those millennia ago.

“When I saw the first wolf puppy retrieving the ball I literally got goose bumps,” Hansen said. “It was so unexpected, and I immediately knew that this meant that if variation in human-directed play behavior exists in wolves, this behavior could have been a potential target for early selective pressures exerted during dog domestication.”

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