Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

Does Your Dog's Name Affect How People Think of Him?

What you name your dog may affect how people interpret its behavior.

dog dogs canine pet name bond perception aggression
People seem to spend a lot of time and care when they are choosing a name for their dog [see here for more]. Much in the same way that some people choose names for their children, people tend to consult lists to find out what the most popular names are and to provide suggestions and ideas for names that they might use [see here]. People seem to recognize that their pet's name is important, and that they will be using it a lot over the next 10 or more years that they live with the dog.

There are people, however, who enter the naming process with a specific idea. Some people use their dog's name to try to create a specific impression which they believe might carry over from the dog to its owner. For example, in the world of professional athletics, people are often trying to establish an image of themselves as being tough and dominant people. These people often select big tough-looking dogs, such as Rottweilers, Bullmastiffs, Doberman Pinchers and Great Danes, to emphasize the fact that they, themselves are also big, powerful and tough. Such dogs are usually adorned with the proper accoutrements to reinforce that image such as heavy leather collars with metal studs. In addition to looking tough, these people believe that the dog must have the right name. For example, Herschel Walker, who became the all-time leading yardage gainer in professional football in 1995 had a Rottweiler named Al Capone. Some other names of dogs owned by professional athletes include: Slugger, Rocky, Hawk, Ghost, Jagger, Trooper, Rocket, and Shaka Zulu. A dog with the name of Fluffy, Honey, or Fifi, just won't work for these individuals.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Does giving your dog a dominant sounding name cause people to view you as more tough and dominant? Well this is not really clear. However, giving your dog a tough or threatening name certainly seems to affect the way in which other people will view and react to the dog. This is confirmed by some experimental data that I collected.

The study was set up like this. In a large auditorium I gathered 291 university students. Each was given a booklet and on the top page was a paragraph which read:

 "We are interested in your ability to determine the personality and intentions of dogs by simply looking at their behavior. We will show you a brief video clip of a dog named Ripper, interacting with a person. Watch the dog carefully because we will be asking you some questions about Ripper's behavior."

What the people in the experiment did not know was that the dog's name was not the same on all of the test booklets. In fact, instead of "Ripper" many people received other tough names in their description of the dog, such as Killer, Assassin, Butcher, Gangster and so forth. On the other hand, roughly half of the group were told that the dog had a much more positive sounding name such as Champ, Teddy, Happy, Buddy, Lucky and so on.

After they had read the description, which included the dog's name, the observers were shown an edited video clip lasting around a minute in length. The video was made up of some scenes taken from a television series which starred a German Shepherd Dog. The short video sequence consisted of a man walking into view, then, from off screen there is some barking followed by the dog appearing from the side. The dog quickly runs up to the man. There is a close up of the dog barking at the man followed by the dog jumping up and placing its paws on the man's shoulders. The man pushes the dog away and the dog runs barking out of the scene.

Once they had seen the video clip, the observers turned the page which contained the description of the dog with what was supposed to be its name, and on the next page they found a list of words. Observers were supposed to read through the list and check off those that they felt best described the dog that they had just viewed. These words included typical adjectives used to describe positive attributes, like friendly, sociable, cordial or playful, and also negative attributes like aggressive, threatening, hostile, or dangerous. When the dog's name was tough, like Assassin or Butcher they were more than three times more likely to describe the dog's behavior as being hostile or menacing than when the dog that they had viewed had been introduced with a more positive and less threatening name.

One of the most interesting aspects of this study was that after the checklist people were asked to write a few sentences to describe the events that they had seen in their own words. Those who had read that the dog's name was one of the tough and threatening ones, such as Slasher, were more apt to say things like "The dog saw a man and didn't like him. The dog barked at him and tried to jump up on him to make him go away, but the man pushed him off before he could be bitten and the dog ran away." People who had had the dog described as having a more positive name, such as "Happy," were more apt to describe the very same scene as "The dog saw a man coming and ran out to say hello. The dog barked and jumped up to try to get the man to play. Then the dog ran ahead of him to lead him home." Remember, both of these people had seen exactly the same video clip. The only difference was the name of the dog.

This kind of data makes it clear that the name that you give to your dog makes a statement about that dog to other people who are going come into contact with it. They may reinterpret the behaviors of your dog based on its name. When your dog runs up to greet them with a few barks, and they hear you call him back using the name "Gangster" or "Ripper", it appears that they are more likely to feel you were trying to retrieve the dog to avert an attack on them, as opposed to what they might think if you had called the dog back using the name "Happy" or "Buddy".

Obviously, the name choice will be more important for a larger dog. Somehow, I doubt that a Pekingese, Chihuahua or a Maltese, will produce of a sense of dread or threat, even if it is named Exterminator, Killer, or Assassin.

 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.

more...

Subscribe to Canine Corner

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.