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Does Your Dog Have a Secret Name?

Any sound repeated frequently enough can effectively become a dog's name.

Key points

  • A dog's name is an important signal which tells him that the next sounds that he hears are addressed directly to him.
  • During a dog's lifetime he may learn that several different names apply to him.
  • In a case study a dog learned a secret name that controlled its behavior unbeknownst to its owner.
Image by gullevek licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Source: Image by gullevek licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

One recurrent theme in fantasy novels and myths is the idea of the secret name. This is especially important when magic is involved. In a typical tale, a mother gives her newborn child this name at birth and keeps it clandestine between them.

According to the typical meme, knowing an individual's secret name provides a person with power over them, allowing them to control their behavior. It is just possible that some dogs have a secret name that their owner is not aware of but which does control their behavior.

What's in a Name?

A dog's name is, perhaps, the single most important word that he 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 to 3-year old, it has to decide which words are directed at it and which are not. Thus if you say to another family member, "I am going to sit down and watch some TV," how does the dog know whether the words "sit" and "down" were meant as commands for him? If you were looking directly into the dog's eyes and had his full attention, the "sit" or "down" would be directed at him, and he should know that you mean for him to respond.

However, in the absence of that sort of body language, the dog's name becomes the key to his understanding. In effect, a dog's name becomes a signal which tells it that the next sounds that come out of its master's mouth are supposed to have some impact on his life and translate into something like "This next message is for you."

This means that we should be precise when we are talking to the dog. Each time we want it to do something, we should start with its 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 you want the dog to respond to will have disappeared into the void before he has been alerted that the noises you are making with your mouth are addressed to him. So if 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.

Are There Special Requirements for a Name?

Dogs are fairly flexible about what they will accept as a name and are willing to change it from time to time. 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. The dog learned to respond to each of the monikers assigned to him properly.

A Case Study of a Dog's Secret Name

Any sound 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 was invited to be a special guest speaker at a scientific conference held at a ski resort. I was housed in a cabin 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 puppies for any extended period of time.

Paul and I shared a cabin for the duration of the four-day conference. As a psychologist, I found it 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!" That evening, as Paul and I sat chatting over a drink, Polar began nuzzling him 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.

Later that night, there was some commotion on Paul's side of the room. Polar had tried to snuggle his way onto Paul's bed and was pushed off with a sharp "No."

In the morning, the first sounds that I heard were from Paul telling Polar, "No, it's too early. I don't want to get up yet."

Then a few minutes later, "No, let me sleep. I'll let you out in a while."

Later, over dinner, 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 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, when 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 the bedroom. I was petting Polar, who seemed content at the attention 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.

Based on what he had experienced during his life, the sound he had heard most frequently associated with consequences for him personally was "No." In Polar's mind, then, "No!" was his name! It had become the secret name that controlled this dog's behavior.

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.