Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

The Art and Science of Naming a Dog

The most important word dogs ever learn is their name.

When humans hear the names Lassie, Rover and Fido, they immediately know that refer to dogs. For dog's themselves, their name is, perhaps, the single most important word that they will ever learn. Think of it this way, a dog lives in a sea of human sounds and, with only the language ability of a human 2-year old, it has to decide which words are directed at it and which are not. Thus if you say to another family member "Why don't you come here and sit down beside me," how does the dog know whether the words "come",  "sit" and "down" were meant as commands for  him? Obviously, if you were looking directly into the dog's eyes and had his full attention the "sit" or "down" would clearly be directed at him and he should know that you mean for him to respond. In the absence of that sort of body language, however, the dog's name becomes the key to his understanding. In effect, a dog's name becomes a signal which tells him that the next sounds that come out of his master's mouth are supposed to have some impact on the his life. Thus a dog's name linguistically translates into something like "This next message is for you."

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Given the significance of the dog's name this puts an obligation on us to be precise when we are talking to our dog. Each time we want him to do something we should start off with his name. That means that "Rover sit" is proper dog talk. On the other hand, "Sit, Rover," is not good grammar for a dog, since the command that you want the dog to respond to will have disappeared into the void before he has been alerted that the noises that you are making with your mouth are addressed to him. That means that when you say "Sit, Rover," since nothing meaningful follows his name you may well end up with a dog simply staring up at you with that "OK-now-that-you-have-my-attention,-what-do-you-want-me-to-do?" look that we all have seen so many times.

All of my dogs have three names. The first is their official name, which is the name that is registered with the kennel club and appears their pedigree certificate. These are usually marvelously pompous and/or meaningless, such as "Remasia Vindebon of Torwood," "Rashdyn's Braveheart Rennick," or "Solar Optics from Creekwood." The American Kennel Club gives you 28 letters to come up with this formal title. If you decide on a name that has already been used by somebody, then some of those letter spaces are used for a number to distinguish your dog's name from all of the others. I sometimes wonder whether there is a collie out there with the name of "Lassie, number 6,654,521."

 The dog's second name is their "call name." After all, you really don't want to be standing out in your backyard yelling "Remasia Vindebon of Torwood, come!" The dog's call name becomes its own unique and solely owned name, which is the one that we actually use when we talk to them. For my dogs, they are names like Wiz, Flint or Odin. Over the years I have found that two syllable names seem to roll off of my tongue more easily and tend to produce a better response. Thus Wiz is actually called Wizzer, most of the time, while Flint became the fake Latin name Flintus. I like there to be some link, no matter how tenuous, between the registered name and the registered name. Thus "Koy's Abracadabra Alchemist" got the call name "Magic" while "Remasia Vindebon of Torwood" simply became "Vinny."

All of my dogs also have a third name. This is a group name, which for me is "Puppy". This is their alternate name, thus when I yell "Puppies come" I expect all of my dogs within earshot to appear at a run. A friend, who only has male dogs uses the word "Gentlemen," while another (a former officer in the Army Tank Corps) uses the group name "Troops."

The kennel club only allows one change of the dog's registered name during its lifetime. Dogs, however, are more flexible, as long as there is a chance for them to learn their new label. My daughter by marriage, Karen, for example, had a dog named Tessa, which became Tessa Bear, then for many years was simply Bear, and eventually went back to being Tessa. Tess handled all of these changes of title with equanimity.

Tessa's name change problems were minor compared to those some other dogs have experienced. For example, there is the case of the Skye Terrier owned by Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson is best known for writing such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His little dog was initially named "Woggs", which was then changed to "Walter", which was then modified into "Watty", then transformed to become "Woggy" and finally ended up as "Bogue".

Any sound that is consistently used with a dog can come to be its name, at least for a while. I had an interesting experience with one dog, a Siberian Husky named, Polar. I had been invited to be a special guest speaker at a scientific conference which was being held at a ski resort. I was housed in a cabin which was shared with Paul, one of the program directors of the conference. Paul lived within driving distance of the resort, and had brought Polar with him. He knew that I liked having dogs around me at all times and thought that it might help me get over the separation pangs that I have when I am on the road and away from my own puppies.

It was interesting watching Polar and Paul interact. Although Paul clearly loved the dog, he was having some trouble controlling this rambunctious, bouncing ball of fur. As soon as the car door opened Polar dashed out. Paul yelled "No," and the dog obediently came back to his side. When I went to greet the dog, it jumped up on me and Paul again brought it back down to the floor with a sharp "No!" Early that evening, as Paul and I sat chatting over a drink, Polar began nuzzling him to try to get him to give him one of the pretzels that we had in the bowl between us. Again a quick "No," and Polar, settled down with a sigh.

Over dinner that night, Paul confided that he sometimes felt that he didn't really have the dog under control for much of the time. "For example, there are times when I don't even think that Polar knows his own name."

"Polar knows his name," I told him, "however, you might not." In response to his puzzled look I continued "We'll run a little experiment when we get back to the cabin tonight."

Later that evening we were back in the cabin. I instructed Paul to stand in the kitchen area, and I took Polar with me out on the deck just off of the bedroom. I was petting Polar, who seemed pleased with the attention that he was receiving, when Paul, standing in the kitchen shouted (as we had pre-arranged) "No!" Polar stood up and quite obediently trotted off to his master. On the basis of what he had experienced during his life, the sound that he had heard most frequently associated with consequences for him personally was "No." In Polar's mind, then, "No!" was his name!

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

 

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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