It always makes me happy when people choose the perfect name for their dog. As I mentioned in Choosing the Right Name for Your Puppy, it makes me a little crazy when people hang names on a dog without thinking about whether it suits the animal, or even bothering to think about it much. People can spend years thinking up names for a kid they haven’t even had yet, but when it’s a dog, so often it’s off-the-cuff and determined in no time at all, and the poor dog has to go through the rest of its life answering to Fluffy, or Blackie or Max or Ginger or something equally unoriginal.
If you’ve been reading regularly, you no doubt have observed that I typically choose “human” names for my dogs. It’s just a personal preference of mine. I usually stick with two syllables, three at most, because dogs respond better to short names. And I always make sure that the name suits the dog – I’ve never said to myself, “I think I will get a dog and name him Boris,” for instance, because how do I know, without meeting the dog, that the name is going to suit him?
I think your dog’s name matters on a lot of levels, and you should choose something that fits with the dog’s personality, doesn’t relate just to his appearance, and is, of course respectful. So, if you’re one of those people who thought it was funny to name your dog “Asshole,” please leave this site right now – I don’t want you here.
Your dog’s name, and how you use it, is also going to be very important in training, too, because that’s how you get his attention – by using his name. So, his name is one of the first things you’re going to have to teach him.
When You Need to Name a Dog
Of course, if you’re bringing home a new puppy, you’ll have to choose a name. If you’re taking in an older dog, the best course of action is to let him keep the name that he already has. Sometimes, though, that might not be possible. You could end up with an adult dog that you’ve rescued from a shelter, for instance, and shelter staff do not know what his name might be. Of course, you can experiment with a few standards – does the dog answer to Rex, Max, Molly, Sheba, Simba, or some other popular name?
Breed could also provide a clue. If he’s a Jack Russell Terrier, though, he might be called Eddie, after the dog on the TV show, Frasier. A Saint Bernard might be Beethoven, after the dog in the series of movies. A Great Dane might answer to Scooby Doo. You get the idea. Basically, just try out a few different names, and if you get a consistent reaction from the dog, then you’re good to go. If you can’t determine the dog’s name, though, you’re going to have to come up with one, and he’ll need to learn the new name, and how to respond to it.
People learn their names at a very young age, and respond to the use of their name very early on. Of course, we all know people who dislike their name, and who may even choose to change it. I’ve noticed, though, that people who report that they had a happy childhood almost always seem to like their names. I think this could be because when their name was spoken, it was usually kindly or neutrally, not in an angry tone.
It’s the same way with dogs. You want him to know his name, and also to enjoy hearing it. So your dog’s name should not be spoken in an angry or scolding tone. You want your dog to enjoy hearing his name, and associate it with good things.
Some people will insist that dogs don’t really associate their names with a sense of “self.” When I say “Janice,” she’s the only one who responds. When I say “Leroy,” Janice shows no interest. If I say their names together, I get a reaction from both of them. Believe me, they know who they are. Each of them responds to the sound of their own name; not to the sound of the other one’s name. But does that mean that they identify as their name? Does Janice think “I am Janice,” and Leroy think “I am Leroy,” in the same way that I know that I am Ash?
I’m not sure. And maybe I’m getting too philosophical here. I guess the main thing is that your dog identifies with his name – whether it’s on any deep, meaningful level probably doesn’t matter.
So, back to the point. The goal is to teach your dog how to respond to his name. And, as is the case with most training activities, that means positive reinforcement – you want your dog to know that hearing his name means that something good is going to happen, and this is why you should not use his name in anger. You don’t want him to be slow in responding because he’s not sure if there’s going to be a good outcome or a bad one. You want him to react instantly and positively when he hears his name – it should be the very best thing he ever hears, every time.
When you’re teaching your dog to respond to his name, don’t confuse the name and the command you’re trying to teach. The name is how you get your dog’s attention. “Leroy,” for instance, does not mean “Come.” It means “I want your attention.” Then, you deliver the command. So, it’s “Leroy, come.” What you’re trying for here is an enhanced level of communication, with each and every cue that you offer having a clear, specific meaning. So before you embark on any other type of training, the first thing you want to do is teach your dog to respond to his name.
You can do this by saying your dog’s name, and then when he responds to it by using a clicker to reinforce the concept. Of course, praise is also a good way of reinforcing, and you know I’m a big believer in treats as a training aid as well. You might want to keep the clicker and some treats on hand at all times in the early stages. If you see your dog looking at you, offer a click, or a verbal reinforcement, and then offer a treat. The more you do this, the more of an association your dog is going to develop – the sound of his name means a click and then a treat. Most dogs will pick up on this very quickly.
The best way to do this is by starting off with a treat that your dog really, really likes. You could think of it this way – if I wanted to get you to respond instantly to me when I said your name, you’d be more likely to do it if, say, I gave you something like a glass of champagne or a gourmet chocolate every time, but maybe not as likely to respond if I offered a drink of water or a celery stick. Once you got used to getting the champagne or the chocolate, though, if I threw in water or a celery stick from time to time, you’d still respond every time – because you wouldn’t want to take the chance of missing out on the champagne or chocolate.
It’s the same with your dog – for the first little while, always offer something wonderful. Then occasionally give a less desirable treat. Later on, dispense with the treats and simply offer praise. Your dog will respond every single time, because there might be something really good waiting for him.
You can also use toys to teach response. If your dog loves playing with a ball, for instance, say his name, and when he looks at you, throw the ball. Of course, this method won’t work quite as quickly as the treat reward – after all, you’re going to have to retrieve the ball or convince your dog to bring it back before you can repeat the exercise, but you can bet that your dog will react enthusiastically. Getting a bit of exercise doesn’t hurt either.
Now, once you think that your dog has begun to associate his name with the high-value treat or the fun activity, wait until he looks away, and then say his name. If he looks back immediately, give him the treat, or throw the ball. If he doesn’t respond right away, don’t repeat his name. Instead, make interesting sounds like whistling or “kissing” in order to get him to look at you. Then, give the treat or throw the ball.
Once your dog is responding instantly when you say his name, start adding in some distractions. This is important, because you want your dog to respond immediately to his name no matter what else might be going on. To begin with, just use small distractions, like maybe having someone else make a slight noise – the reason you’re going to use small distractions to start with is because you don’t want to set up your dog to fail. So, have your helper go to the other side of the room or the yard, and make a sound. Your dog is obviously going to look in that direction. When he does, say his name and if he turns right back to look at you, offer a treat and some praise. If he doesn’t, then whistle or kiss. You might need to go back to working without distractions a bit, but keep at it.
Now, if you’re getting an immediate response with little distractions, take it up a notch. Again, you want your dog to focus on you each and every time you use his name, so add more helpers making more sounds, or have a single helper make louder noises. Again, when your dog responds to your use of his name despite the distraction, reward him.
When he’s good with more significant distractions in the house and yard, take it up yet another notch, doing the name response exercise when you’re out for walks or at the dog park. Always remember to praise and reward, and if your dog fails to respond at any stage, just go back to the last level for a little while. If you keep at it, you’ll soon have your dog responding to his name every time he hears it, and then you can begin obedience training, teaching your dog to associate his name with the actions that you want him to perform.
The Final Word
It’s not enough for your dog to know his name. You want him to respond to it. Every time you use your dog’s name, you want him to turn immediately, forget about everything else that’s going on, and wait to find out what it is that you want from him. So, start by choosing a name that pleases you – I just love the names “Janice” and “Leroy” because they suit my dogs so well, and they sound so pleasing. I think they like hearing their names, too, not just because they know that there’s pretty much always going to be a good outcome when their names are spoken, but because they probably hear the happiness and love in my tone when I use their names.
Dog should almost always, if they come to you when they’re past the puppy stage, keep the names that they were originally given, but I would add a caveat to this. If the dog is a rescue that’s been abused, changing the name might be a good idea. This is because his name will have had bad connotations, and was probably used in anger and to instill fear. Pick a new name – one that hasn’t been “poisoned,” and use the above methods to get the dog used to his new name.
The ultimate goal here is for the dog to develop an association – “My name = something good happening.” Once the association is mastered, your dog will respond to his name every time.