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A Dog by Any Other Name
The science and art of naming your dog or Sometimes, what you say is what you get.

“His name is ‘Baby,’” Helen told me as she stroked her dog’s massive black head. “Baby” weighed in at about 65 pounds, was seven years old and had bitten 13 times. The last bite had been to Helen, when she tried to stop an attack on her disabled son. Needless to say, we had a lot to talk about, and one of the topics was her dog’s name. Helen explained to me that Baby had always been “her baby,” and that she did everything she could to make him happy. I countered, as graciously as possible, that Baby wasn’t actually much of a baby anymore. Rather, he was the equivalent of a 50-year-old man living in her house rent-free, not helping with the housework, and getting full-body massages on demand. Half jokingly, half not, I suggested that Helen change the dog’s name to something more fitting of his age and appropriate role within the family.

And that’s when I lost her. As soon as I mentioned changing Baby’s name, Helen’s face snapped shut like a book. Of course, we continued to talk through the appointment, but as I drove away, I guessed I’d never hear from her again, and I didn’t, even after calling her twice and leaving messages. In hindsight, I should’ve waited to talk about her dog’s name. Names are important, so important that Vicki Hearne wrote an entire book —Adam’s Task—about the weight of words in our relationship with dogs. What we call our dogs has meaning, and can have important consequences, both for ourselves and for our dogs.

One of the reasons that names are so important is the effect they have on us when we say them. Calling a male dog “Baby” makes it difficult to think of him as an adult dog, and makes it easy to excuse his behavior—it gives him “puppy privileges” that should’ve expired long ago. Labeling a Rottweiler “Brute” (as did one of my clients) does little to convince the neighborhood that your 85-pound Rottie plays well with Yorkies. Names evoke emotions in us, and those emotions influence our behavior. Since our behavior influences the behavior of our dogs and others around us, a name—all by itself—can have a surprising amount of power.

Emotions evoked by a name can have a profound effect even if you’re not conscious of it. Much of our behavior is driven by the unconscious—just look at the research of psychologist John Bargh, who found that people walk more slowly if you ask them to play word games with phrases that include indicators of age (like the words “wrinkled” and “bingo”). Believe it or not, if you’re named Georgia, you are more likely to move to the state of Georgia than you are to the state of Virginia, and vice versa. (To quote columnist Dave Barry, I am not making this up.) According to David Myers in the book Social Psychology, people’s careers are also affected by their names. Geologists and geophysicists are named George more often than is statistically predictable, and if you’re named Dennis or Denise, you are more likely to go into dentistry than if you’re named Tom or Beverly. Amazing stuff, yes?

Reflect, then, on the impact of naming your dog “Baby” or “Brute.” You say your dog’s name often, and the above-quoted research suggests that the repetition will have an effect. The good news is that the effect can be good as easily as it can be bad. I love spring tulips almost as much as chocolate (okay, not quite), and naming my huge white fluff-ball of a Great Pyrenees “Tulip” was one of the best ideas I’ve ever had. Just saying her name, “Twooooo-lip,” makes me smile. In a joyful swirl of classical conditioning, my love for her and for tulips have become intertwined in the best of ways. Surely Tulip is aware, either consciously or unconsciously, that her name, and thus she herself, make me happy—what a wonderful start to a relationship. Along those same lines, a friend of mine is considering naming her new dog “Sparkle.” After losing four beloved pets in the last year, she is more than ready to add a daily dose of light and joy into her life.
Moving to the other end of the leash, your dog’s name has another and more direct effect on his or her behavior. The structure of a sound—whether it consists of soft vowels or hard consonants for example—has an influence on how your dog responds. Most of us say our dogs’ names because we want their attention; that is, after all, the way we use names in human communication. No matter who it is spoken to, dog or person, “Margaret” means: “Margaret, please pay attention to me at this moment. I would like to communicate with you.”

Thus, it’s useful to know that different types of sounds vary in their ability to get your dog’s attention. If you analyze the acoustics of spoken language, you’ll find that saying hard consonants, such as “k,” “p” and “d,” create what are called “broad-band” sounds, with lots of energy across a range of frequencies. If you were looking at a picture of the word “Kip,” you’d see a vertical spike (the broad band) for the “k” and another for the “p.” Those types of sounds are good at capturing your dog’s attention because they stimulate more acoustic receptor neurons in the brain than do the flatter sounds made by vowels and soft consonants. (That’s one of the reasons that clickers work so well—lots of broad-band sound.)

Thus, if you want your dog’s attention, you’re more likely to get it if she’s named Kip rather than Gwen. Of course, you can train a dog to pay attention to any sound at all if you condition her well enough, so if you want to name your dog Gwen, go right ahead. However, it’s useful, especially in performance events, to be aware of the effect of sound on your dog’s behavior. For example, short names with lots of hard consonants are great for people working dogs in fast-action events, such as agility and herding. The value of a short name is obvious: speed (you don’t want to be singing “Gwennnn-de-lynnnnn” when you’ve got a tenth of a second to get a response out of your dog) and focus (the consonants at either end of a name like Kip help you keep your dog’s attention). Indeed, so many working Border Collies are named “Hope” and “Jed” and “Drift” that conversations about the lineage of some dogs sound like “Who’s on first?” jokes. “Is your new little bitch related to Knox’s Hope?” “No, she’s out of McGregor’s Hope, sired by Jed.” “Is that Glynn-Jones’s Jed?” “No, I mean the Jed owned by….” And on and on. I’ve joked that for every 100 handlers in the sport, there are only 20 names for dogs.

That said, I must add that there’s something satisfying about a two-syllable name; “Pixie,” “Tulip” and “Sparkle” all flow off the tongue in a way that just feels good. I’ve also wondered if, in some cases, two-syllable names can actually help get a dog’s attention, in that the first syllable acts almost as a primer for the second. Perhaps the handiest names are the ones with a lot of flexibility. My forever dog’s name was Luke, but his recall signal was his name said twice: “Luke Luke!” When we were working sheep and the pressure was on, I’d belt out “LUKE!” to bring his attention back to me. In quieter times, if he did something silly, I’d say, in a rising, drawn-out drawl, “Luuuuuu-cas, what are you doing?”

Luke’s name brings up one more thing to think about when you’re naming your dog (and yes, of course you can change a dog’s name if you don’t like the one she came with!). I named Luke’s daughter “Lassie,” not because of the acoustics of the name, but because she came to me as a dog rejected by two people who had missed her potential to be as devoted and responsive as the television star of the same name. But listen to the consequence of that choice—say the names out loud: Luke. Lassie. I gave two dogs in the same household names that start with the same sound, and as hard I tried to keep things clear, it made life a little bit more confusing for the two of them. You can see it for yourself in a video I made, Feeling Outnumbered, in which I tell all my dogs to “Wait” at the door of the car, and then release Lassie by calling her name. If you watch carefully, you can see Luke start to move forward when he hears the “L—,” and then self-correct when the rest of his daughter’s name comes out. Luke and Lassie were so amenable and responsive that my mistake barely mattered, but keep this in mind when you’re naming a new dog. I sure will. Living with humans is confusing enough for dogs, why make it any harder?

In summary, there are several facets of a dog’s name that bear consideration. It’s good to be informed about all of them, but I have to admit: When push comes to shove, I’d vote every time for the name that fit my dog’s personality and that made me happy to say over a name with the “proper” acoustics. It’s good to be aware of all the ways a name can affect your dog’s behavior, but nonetheless, a dog by any other name … will still roll in cow pies.

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Patricia McConnell, PhD, is an animal behaviorist and ethologist and an adjunct associate professor in zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as well as the author of numerous books on behavior and training.

patriciamcconnell.com

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