Some dogs just love to play fetch. When you have the ball, they need you to throw it immediately so they can catch it.

But it's not just dogs that love this game. Researchers recently found that wolf puppies will also chase and return a ball, picking up on human cues on how to play fetch. Their findings were published in the journal iScience.

"When I saw the first wolf puppy retrieving the ball I literally got goose bumps," Christina Hansen Wheat of Stockholm University, Sweden, said in a statement. "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."

Hansen Wheat and her team stumbled upon the discovery during their research studying the differences between dogs and wolves to see how domestication impacts behavior. As part of their research, they raise litters of wolf and dog puppies and put them through various behavioral tests that are often used by breeders to see how puppies act in social situations, Hansen Wheat tells NPR.

The role of domestication

wolf puppy named FleaThis wolf puppy named Flea was one of a litter that showed little interest in chasing a ball. (Photo: Christina Hansen Wheat)

During one of those tests, a person who had never been around the wolf puppies throws a tennis ball and encourages the puppies to go get it and bring it back.

In tests with two earlier litters, the wolf puppies showed no interest in the balls, much less fetching them. But this time around, three of the 8-week-old wolf puppies were intrigued by the ball and returned it to strangers with a little encouragement.

The discovery is surprising because researchers hypothesized that the abilities to pick up on cues given by people — like those they need to understand to play fetch — came about in dogs due to 15,000 years of domestication.

Seeing the behavior in wolf puppies can give us information about where the fetch behavior in dogs comes from, Hansen Wheat says. While it was surprising to see wolf puppies playing and connecting with people that way, she says it makes sense.

"Wolf puppies showing human-directed behavior could have had a selective advantage in early stages of dog domestication," she says.

Mary Jo DiLonardo covers a wide range of topics focused on nature, health, science and anything that helps make the world a better place.

Wolf puppies play fetch, surprising researchers
Wolf puppies pick up on human cues and can catch and return balls.