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Alexandra Horowitz Ph.D.

What Not to Name a Dog

How to avoid having a dog named "dog."

James Thurber, the artist who even in blindness drew a charismatic, familiar bloodhoundy mutt, once wrote a short story called "How to Name a Dog." Thurber was not a dog researcher; he was a dog illustrator. And he was an accidental one, at that. But his observations and reflections on dogs have had staying power. So I was surprised to read his recommendation for what to name a dog. He suggested "Stong."

I've met a lot of dogs. In my 21 years of living with dogs as an adult, and 12 years of studying dog behavior, I reckon that I've met thousands of dogs. It appears that few have taken his recommendation. I've never met a "Stong."

Thank goodness. I think the naming of a dog deserves more thought than Thurber gave it—even some serious reflection. No one has yet asked me to name their dog for them. Should someone, I would demur. It's a personal choice, not unlike naming a child. But there are some universal naming principles which I would offer, drawing from common sense, and from dog research.

First: "Dog" is a not a good name. Nor is "Puppy," "Mongrel," "Little Dog," or "Hey You Dog." (You might roll your eyes, but they're out there.) While descriptive, the names convey an attitude that does not represent a good start to the dog-human relationship. The dog you are about to bring into your home is an individual, with a unique personality, look, and behaviors. To name him "dog" is to treat him as utterly unspecial.

Alexandra Horowitz
Source: Alexandra Horowitz

Some have the theory, when naming a child, that it predestines the child to a certain life. Not all baby names seem to lead equally often to a career as an artist, or as a banker. I don't know that anyone has studied whether naming a dog is predestination, but it seems to me plausible that names lead owners to consider their dog as though he is living up to his name. A person who names a dog "Rascal" may be more likely to see the dog as mischievous, not as well-behaved. "Bella" is sweet; "Zeus" is formidable; "Pandemonium" is, well, not low-energy.

Second: Choose a word or name that allows you to go from serious to playful to stern to chatty by changing only the tone of your voice. A two-syllable (or longer) name works splendidly here. Dr. Patricia McConnell discovered that dogs more readily come to short sounds rising in pitch rather than a long, falling sound (the serious, brow-furrowed "COME NOWWWW," which people tend to say when their dog isn't immediately responsive). You can call "Marmaduke" high or low, rising or falling in tone, but it's hard to say "Spot" more than one, declarative way. And two syllables allows for the shortening into one-syllable nicknames for those informal, chatty conversations you have with your pup after dinner.

Third: Embrace whimsy. Of all the ways that we oblige the dog to suffer our attempts at entertainment—putting them in party hats, propping sunglasses on their grand snouts, dressing them up as a prison guard or leprechaun for Halloween—a silly or playful name is the least harmful. Hats and costumes might be fun for us, but not for a dog, who only feels strange and unrelenting pressure on his head or body. Much better a red dog named Pumpkin than one dressed up as the Great Pumpkin; or a long dog named Groucho rather than one forced to wear Groucho glasses. Finally, make it a sonorous word—sonorous to you. For you will be using this word so much more than most words in your days. Choose a name that draws you to snuggle up next to your dog on the floor and start the conversation that you will be having for (if you're lucky) the next two decades of your life.

References

McConnell, Patricia B. Acoustic structure and receiver response in domestic dogs, Canis familiaris. Animal Behavior, 1990, 39, 897-904.

Thurber, James. "How to Name a Dog." In "The dog department: James Thurber on Hounds, Scotties, and talking poodles," M.J. Rosen, Ed. 2001, 27-35.

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About the Author

Alexandra Horowitz, Ph.D., is a Term Assistant Professor of Psychology at Barnard College and the author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know.

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