The Wolves of Yellowstone Love to Play—Just Like Dogs

Rick McIntyre's "The Rise of Wolf 8" is a goldmine of all sorts of information.

Posted Sep 15, 2019

Social, solitary, and object play have been described in numerous and diverse nonhuman animals (animals). My own focus has been on canids, members of the "dog family," for whom there are many detailed studies of what they do when they play and why they play—why play has evolved and what it's good for. I'm often asked how play behavior observed in domestic dogs resembles that of their wild ancestors, wolves, and I was thrilled to read a forthcoming book by wolf expert Rick McIntyre called The Rise of Wolf 8: Witnessing the Triumph of Yellowstone's Underdog in which there are numerous detailed descriptions of all sorts of play by wild wolves of all ages and of different social/dominance ranks living in Yellowstone National Park. There's also much more about all aspects of wolf behavior from his extremely meticulous observations and stories about the individual Yellowstone wolves he knew well and followed for many years. The amount of time Rick spent watching these amazing beings is staggering. From June 2000 to August 2015 he went out into the field for 6,175 consecutive days, and by the end of the day of February 27, 2019, he had 100,000 wolf sightings. He also has compiled more than 12,000 pages of detailed notes.  

Rick also offers detailed descriptions of the rich and deep emotional lives of these wolves, including empathy for others. They also display a wide range of personalities. He notes that dogs' personalities come from their wolf ancestors such as alpha male wolf 21 who showed empathy for a young pup. Rick had previously seen a sickly lone pup on a hill who was shunned by the other pups and watched 21 go up to the pup simply "to hang out with him." (Page 101) He later notes that this high-ranking male loved to play with pups more than any other alpha male. (Page 157) Rick's descriptions of the wolves of Yellowstone remind me of Dr. Jane Goodall's early groundbreaking research on wild chimpanzees in which she named each individual and wrote about their unique personalities, a practice for which she was initially criticized by her professors, many of whom had never seen a wild animal of any type. Of course, her critics were totally incorrect as has been shown by subsequent research on chimpanzees and a wide variety of other animals. 

How and why wolves play

The simple answer to the question of whether play in wild wolves resembles that of our canine companions is, "Yes, it does." Here's a summary of Rick's seminal work. Wolves, like dogs, often play to have fun and play for the hell of it, because when they goof off it feels good and they get much-needed exercise; they engage in frenetic "zoomies;" they love to play tug of war; they engage in take-away games; they hone social and cognitive skills during play; they get exercise when they play; and they play alone by flipping sticks and other other objects and also used sticks, bones, and pieces of hide to get others to join them in their play, an event he called "catch me if you can." Not only do youngsters play with one another, but so too do adults and youngsters. Adults also play with one another. When wolves of different ages, sizes, and dominance ranks play, they even the playing field by engaging in self-handicapping and role-reversing, during which a high-ranking dominant wolf allows another wolf to play with them by restraining themselves by not biting as hard as they could or by not knocking them around. Restraint in play is called “self-handicapping.” High-ranking dogs will also often allow themselves to be “dominated” in play by engaging in “role reversing.” 

Wolves, like dogs, also use play signals such as the bow to let others know they want to play rather than to dominate or mate with them. When they talk with one another about play, they share their intentions to play. Play also serves to relax them and to reduce tension and to "train them for the unexpected." The kaleidoscopic nature, unpredictability, and randomness of the actions that arise during play are inherent to play itself. Animals lost in play truly don’t know who will do what next. Based on an extensive review of available literature on play behavior in numerous species, my colleagues Marek Špinka, Ruth Newberry, and I have suggested that this is one reason animals play, namely, to practice improvising when faced with novel situations. By increasing the versatility of movements and the ability to recover from sudden shocks, such as loss of balance and falling over, play can enhance the ability of dogs to cope emotionally with unexpected stressful situations. To obtain this “training for the unexpected,” wolves and dogs actively seek and create unexpected situations in play, which may be another reason why they actively put themselves into disadvantageous positions and situations. Along these lines, Rick observed that wolves solicited play from a cow elk to get the elk to chase them. 

All of Rick's observations sound like just what dogs do when they're allowed to run freely and play with one another or alone. There are no surprises here. I wasn't all that surprised by Rick's observations because years ago my students and I also observed similarities between the play of wild coyotes and domestic dogs

Here are some specific examples of what wolves do when they play. I offer them to whet your appetite for more information on the importance of play to these wild canids and to get you to read Rick's outstanding book. When describing play between 2 wolves he writes, "They ran, pranced, and twirled around in front of each other. It did not matter who chased whom, the point of all that playing was not to win. It was to have fun. The best way to describe the behavior of the yearlings was exuberant. As I watched them, I had a thought: they loved being wolves." (Page 33) He also saw a wolf playing with a stick they tossed in the air and then caught. He writes, "It was a display of physical grace and agility worthy of basketball play Michael Jordan." (Page 77) Wolves also engaged in stick-tossing games in which they would play with a stick and then give it to another wolf. (Page 78) Dogs also play this game.

Chapter 11 of The Rise of Wolf 8 is called "The Games Pups Play" and is packed with wonderful and very important descriptions of wolf play. Rick notes how wolves used bows "to keep the game going" (Pages 89-90) and to play fairly. (See "When Dogs Talk About Play They Take Turns Sharing Intentions" for a discussion of fair play in dogs.) He also observed an alpha wolf playing with pups. Using role-reversing and self-handicapping, the dominant male allowed a pup to slap him in his face. (Page 90) Adults would also allow a younger and smaller wolf to "win" a game of play. (Page 148) When wolf pups engaged in zoomies they'd run around in circles, drop down into ambush position and then jump up and charge one another. 

There's much more in Rick's book. He writes about how adults were vigilant when pups play to make sure they would be safe when they were totally absorbed in having fun. (See "Can Animals Be Too Happy or Have Too Much Fun?" for other examples of how animals at play can be at risk when they're lost in play.) He also observed wolves playing stealing games and king of the mountain by climbing on boulders. (Pages 227-228) On Page 210 he lists many of the games in which pups and yearlings engaged. They included ambushing, catch me if you can, catch and release, snow sliding, sparring, tossing and catching, tug of war, wolf pinball, wrestling, and tackling. 

Rick's book is a goldmine for information on all aspects of wolf behavior and clearly shows they are clever, smart, and emotional beings. His numerous and detailed observations of different types of play are invaluable. I look forward to further studies and detailed descriptions of play behavior in a wide variety of species because we will then be able to compare different species-typical play styles, learn more about individual differences and the reasons why individuals play—the possible functions play may serve, learn more about how social and ecological factors influence play, and come up with informed ideas about why play has evolved.

For now, it's clear that wolves can be very playful and that it's best to be careful when making statements about how assertive and aggressive they are while ignoring what it's really like to be a wild wolf. Sure, wolves do fight with one another and aren't always all that nice, however, they do know how to have fun and play just like our domesticated canine companions. Stand by for an interview with Rick about his landmark book. 


Numerous references about play in a wide variety of nonhuman animals can be found here and here.

Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2018.

_____. The Power of Play: Dogs Just Want to Have Fun

_____. Dogs at Play: Fun-Filled Zoomies Exercising Senses & Bodies

_____. The Importance of Play: Having Fun Must be Taken Seriously.

_____. When Dogs Talk About Play They Take Turns Sharing Intentions

_____. Theory of Mind and Play: Ape Exceptionalism Is Too Narrow

_____. How and Why Dogs Play Revisited: Who’s Confused?

_____. Goofing Off: Psychological & Physical Benefits of Having Fun

_____. Do Animals Play Just for Fun? Watch this Dog.

_____ and John Byers. (editors) Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative, and Ecological Perspectives. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1998. 

_____ and Jessica Pierce. Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2009. 

_____ and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, Novato, California, 2019.

Burghardt, Gordon. The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005.

Fagen, Robert. Animal Play Behavior. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981. 

Lents, Nathan. Why Play Is Important

Špinka, Marek, Ruth Newberry, and Marc Bekoff. Mammalian play: training for the unexpected. Quarterly Review of Biology, 76, 141-168, 2001.