Michael is an avid pet-lover and content writer on topical themes related to dog care, training and behavioral development.
Establishing a New Identity
To Name or Rename?
Giving a dog a new name is not restricted to the time when it is first adopted as a puppy. A new owner once brought home a dog that had previously been in four separate homes. In each of those homes, the pet had been given a different name. The new owner did not wish to have their freshly acquired canine associated with the experiences it had had in any of the former residences. In a manner of speaking, the owner wished to have a welcome start and sort of ‘wipe the slate clean’. They had to give the dog a new name and it had to be retrained to master what was now to become its fifth identity.
So aside from adoption, there are several other reasons why an owner may decide to rename their pet. The current name may be too long or inappropriate, or they may have come across something more fitting in terms of the dog’s physical features and mannerisms. Behaviorists agree that it is perfectly fine to change your pet’s name. A renamed dog will not go through an identity crisis or have chronic psychological aftermaths. It can easily adjust to the change provided the appropriate training is provided.
The Alert Signal
The same words we use to issue commands to a pet will inevitably be used in our regular conversations around the home as well. A dog that has been trained to respond to such words as cues for obedience may gradually learn to ignore them as commands, if it keeps overhearing them in other unrelated contexts. The words, used in ordinary conversations and other instances, cease to have significance since they do not have a direct association. Added to this is the fact that there are a multitude of sounds captured by the dog in the course of a day that may or may not help develop its obedience.
This is where a dog’s recognition and responsiveness to its own name becomes essential. It is the one signal the owner has to alert the pet that its attention is required immediately. When that name is mentioned, the dog’s ears prick up and it turns its head toward you because it knows that whatever follows is not directed to anyone else.
Of course, there are other indicators that help a dog to understand whether or not communication is to be responded to like body language and tone of voice, but always the best way is to teach it to properly recognize its own name. So if you have just adopted a new puppy, wish to rename your dog, or are just trying to improve its attentiveness, the following steps will be helpful.
- Take suitability into account
- Develop a positive association
- Preserve the role
- Create a distinction
- Establish a pattern
1. Take Suitability Into Account
Sites like American Kennel Club and Dog Named provide excellent free resources for owners to choose the most suitable name for their pet. If you just don’t like the old name or you have come across a new one you consider to be more fitting, it is always possible to familiarize your pet with its new identity.
The name you choose should be short and easy for your dog and everyone else to recognize. The shorter the name, the simpler to pronounce and the easier for it to be recalled by the dog. Avoid selecting a name that would confuse the pet or interfere with its training and development. This may occur if, for example, other pets or family members have similar-sounding names like Alfie and Evie, Allie and Ellie, Amy and Emmie, Beverly and Everly, Davis and David, Joan and June, Carla and Clara. Also, the name should not resemble words you use as commands or during training.
The sooner you train a puppy to properly recognize its name, the quicker you will be able to command its attention. However, even if your puppy is not paying much attention presently, it may not necessarily be due to arrogance. Your pet may not be old enough yet to adjust to the language, or the name may still be too foreign. With patience, it will be able to pick up the learning process.
One method you could use if you want to replace the name your dog is currently used to with a new one, is to combine both names together (old and new) when addressing it. Eventually, once your pet has become accustomed to the use of both names, the old name can be dropped in favor of the new one.
The action-memory-desire progression means a dog will first do something, recall the consequences, and then decide whether the action is favorable or not. This is the basis upon which it determines if that specific action will be repeated in future.
2. Develop a Positive Association
W.R. Koehler, in his book Koehler’s Method of Dog Training, explains the action-memory-desire progression. The concept means that a dog will first do something, recall the consequences, and then decide whether the action is favorable or not. This is the basis upon which the animal determines whether that specific action will be repeated in future. It is this dynamic that the conditioning process should focus on, while paying heed to the adage: repetition is the key to retention.
Association is a powerful determinant of how your dog will respond to its name when called. A dog may refuse to respond when called because it associates the sound of the name with something like being placed on a leash or going back home when it really wants to have more time to explore around the park. It fails to respond because it associates the name with losing its freedom to chase objects, have contact with other dogs, or check out a new curious scent.
In short, a dog may fail to respond at once when its name is called because of the situations or outcomes it has learned to associate that name with. It is therefore important to ensure that the name is not used in a negative context, for example, when you are about to scold or reprimand. If you use the dog’s name when you are about to discipline it, your dog will begin to associate the name with a negative experience. Hence, it may not be so eager or inclined to respond when that name is used in future, even for a good cause. One way of encouraging positive association is refraining from using the name when something wrong has occurred and the dog needs to be corrected.
Whenever you call your dog’s name, do so with enthusiasm. The dog needs to sense the positivity in you and this will encourage it to respond in the right way. Remember that a dog can sense the mood that you are in, judging it by indicators such as your external manner and tone of voice. So whenever you train your dog or engage in behavioral modification activities, inject the interaction with positivity and passion. Any form of training you provide should be exciting for the dog so that it will keep looking forward to the next session.
If the prevailing mood and conditions are negative, the dog will associate the use of the name with unpleasantness and may not therefore be too keen to cooperate. So make it your practice to react with gusto and excitement with phrases like ‘Good dog!’ or ‘Well done!’ whenever your pet responds by stopping whatever it was engaged in and turns to focus fully on you.
3. Preserve the Role
One critical element that affects a dog’s development is its ability to pay attention. If an owner is unable to command the complete attention of the dog, their developmental influence over the pet is limited.
It is important to understand the way we communicate as humans. For us, using someone’s name doesn’t always mean we want to draw their attention to us. It could be out of sheer excitement, the same way one expresses a surprised remark, or simply as a means of acknowledging each other. We may call someone’s name by way of encouragement. This is true of children playing in a neighborhood park or soccer players in a stadium. There are several contexts in which the use of a name is not intended to make someone stop what they are doing and focus on us.
It can be confusing for pets when the same approach is used when we interact with them. For example, a family organizes a fun-filled day outdoors with their pet. There is plenty of playtime and the dog’s name is called throughout the day. It may be out of fondness, excitement, or to keep the fun going. While the behavior is understandable and perfectly natural from a human point of view, it devalues a core purpose of the name, which is to draw the attention of the dog immediately to the caller.
If no practical meaning is attached when the name is called, its significance begins to fade. This is one reason why a dog will fail to pay attention or seem to ignore its owner. The name has been used too often without any direct connotation or practical relevance, such that the dog has come to assume it is of no consequence. The fact that a pet has had a name for years does not necessarily mean this identity bears value. The value may have diminished over time. To avoid this situation, all persons involved need to recognize that the name has a role that needs to be preserved and used for its intended purpose.
The actions connected with or leading to a favorable result are bound to be repeated to form a pattern, provided the same stimulus is used.
4. Make a Distinction
Remember, the objective at this stage is not necessarily for the dog to respond by doing anything special or even to physically approach you. It is for your pet to learn how to instantly switch focus when that name is called.
There are owners whose interactions indicate that they wish their dog’s name to be synonymous with the come command. However, this approach can create confusion in contexts where the dog’s name is used without the necessity for it to come to the caller. It would be best to keep these two separate. The use of the name should be for attention, while the come command belongs in the same category as the stay, sit or fetch commands.
There will be times when you simply want the dog to turn its attention toward you, for example, if you want to direct it somewhere. If the name has been correlated with the come command, it will be difficult to separate the two later. The come command should be reserved for bringing the dog to your heels, whilst the name should be for attention. This distinction is also useful in gesture training, where the dog is taught how to perform specific actions in obedience to hand motions or signals. In such cases, it does not need to come to you.
Developing a dog’s ability to promptly focus its attention on you determines how easy or difficult other instructional sessions will be. For example, it is much easier to train a dog to stay or to fetch when it knows how to establish eye contact. Teaching a dog how to recognize its name is also how your pet starts bonding with you. Having this training early on in puppyhood will determine the success of subsequent training sessions. It facilitates the learning process and makes it all the more effective. Teaching the dog to pay attention when its name is called should be done as early as possible because it will significantly affect how things play out later on.
5. Establish a Pattern
Thorndike’s law of effect is an important principle. It states in effect, that the actions connected with or leading to a favorable result are bound to be repeated to form a pattern, provided the same stimulus is used. The converse is also equally true: actions without gratifying outcomes tend to be discontinued. A study conducted by the University of Porto showed that trying to change a pet’s behavior by punishment has negative long-term effects on its mental health. The cons of bringing correction in this way outweigh any short-term results and can lead to undue stress or depression.
It is not necessary to use force or compulsion to gain results. What is required is to maintain the same stimulus. The conditioning process is not difficult at all. Simply monitor the dog and wait for the opportune moment when it is busily distracted by something. Call out its name and observe the reaction. If your pet turns its head toward you, focusing with definite eye contact, reward it with praise and a treat.
This way, the dog will begin associating the directing of its attention to you with the reward. It will become the trend, going forward. The reward expectation is the incentive that attracts the pet to the new deal. Practice this procedure from time to time, during moments when it is absorbed in various activities, and do so when it is more deeply distracted.
Once the dog picks up the habit, rewards will no longer be necessary. At the beginning however, you may need to vary the rewards in terms of quality and attractiveness, in order to keep the dog interested. You will be arousing curiosity, expectation, and the element of surprise, combining them to work in your favor.
Throughout the following days, try getting your dog’s attention using the same method, in different contexts. The reward-conditioning will impress upon your pet it is necessary to always stop to pay immediate attention to you, irrespective of whatever else may be taking place. The aim is to bring it to the point of recognizing and responding to its name in any given situation, whether convenient or not.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.