By Courtney Emken
co-written by Jen Larson, KPA-CTP
“What’s in a name?” We name our dogs all sorts of things, ranging from the run of the mill types like Fido, to outrageous titles like Sir HotRod Whoofington (that’s not made up). But, the real question is—which dog actually likes their name better?
You may be surprised to find out that it’s not really the name itself that a dog responds to. What’s far more important is how you’re saying it. Here’s why you can call your dog HotRod and still get away with it.
Tone & Syllables: The Building Blocks Of A Good Dog Name
Dogs tend to respond better to names with two syllables. They’re not short enough to be confused for a cue like sit, down, or come. But they’re also not so long that they become puzzling. Here’s a few common examples of names dogs can easily recognize:
Even one syllable names can work well when you stretch out their pronunciation. We know a dog named “Coach,” but his owner doesn’t address him as just “Coach.” Instead, she stretches the syllables to “Coh-Oatch,” and uses a rising tone when calling him over.
Dogs respond well to happy, excited, and high-pitched sounds. These tones encourage them to come to you. Use quiet and soothing sounds instead if the dog looks a little nervous about approaching. If you want them to slow down instead, say “woah” or slow your speech.
We can also help our dogs recognize their name by using a sing-songy voice when saying it. Instead of muttering Buster in a flat monotone, inject some musical flair! This helps them differentiate their name from normal words.
However, be careful not to desensitize any word, especially their name. Even if you use the tips above, it’s possible to call to your dog too often. The more you do this, the more the word loses its meaning, and becomes nothing but noise to your dog.
Changing Names Can Seriously Confuse Your Dog
This often comes up when people adopt a dog from the shelter. Typically, these dogs either had a name before they arrived at the shelter, or their caretakers have already given them a name. It’s best to keep that name, or make their new name very similar to their former one if they already know their name well.
If you are changing or choosing a name, make sure you consistently reinforce your choice with treats, praise, and lots of affection. Every time the dog hears their name something good should happen. This is the most reliable way to make them respond to it.
It can take a while for dogs to distinguish a new name from other words that they don’t recognize. In some cases, they may never fully transition. This is because dogs aren’t just responding to a name, they’re responding to its entire history of reinforcement.
We once met a dog who went by the name of Buster. But, after his owner saw the movie Marley and Me, she renamed him Marley. His pet sitter continued to call him Buster. Despite the owner’s efforts, poor Marley never learned his new name. There was so much history with the name Buster that no other name made sense to him.
Also, if a dog always gets in trouble when his name is called, they’ll learn to stay away. Even if your dog runs away, don’t yell “get back here, Max!” This discourages them from responding. Instead, praise them when they return. This reinforces returning to you as a positive thing.
Looking Dog by Jeff Ro
Hopeful Pup by Anja Pietsch
Excited Dog by Rudy Norff