Features January 2011 Issue

The Importance of a Dog's Name with Regards to Training

Why your dog should know – and like hearing! – his name.

There’s a new dog coming into your life who needs to learn her name. A puppy perhaps? Or maybe an adult rescue “do-over” dog? You might even have a dog who’s been with you for a while, but just doesn’t respond to her name as promptly as you’d like. If you’re eagerly anticipating the arrival of a new canine family member, be sure to put “teaching the name response” on top of your dog to-do list. And if you’re frustrated that your current dog doesn’t appear to know who she is, don’t fret; it’s never too late to teach this very important behavior.

The Importance of a Dogs Name

How beautiful! This is our goal: A dog who hears her name and responds alertly with focus and relaxed attention. We can spoil this response, however, if we use our dogs’ names in a scolding or angry tone.

What’s in a name?
We humans develop a personal attachment to our own names at a very early age. I am Pat Miller. Your WDJ editor is Nancy Kerns. Even a young child, when he hears his name, registers a “that’s me!” response. Our dogs, probably not so much. Although we can’t know for sure unless and until some day we can actually get inside their heads, it’s likely that a dog just learns to associate the sound of her name with (we hope) “good stuff” in the same way she associates other things (a ball, a leash, the car keys, the clicker) with good stuff.

Looks can be deceiving. When I say “Lucy!” only our Corgi gets excited. If I call “Scooter!” our Pomeranian does the happy dance. Our Scottie comes running if I call “Dubhy!” while we’re doing barn chores, while the rest of our dogs continue about their business. It sure seems that they know who they are! However, the simplest and most likely explanation, is that each of them, over time, has learned that good stuff happens for them when they hear their name sound, but not the other name sounds. That doesn’t mean they grasp the “I am my name” concept that we humans seem to instinctively understand.

The Importance of a Dogs Name

This foster dog is highly distracted, even in this empty training center. Starting this exercise in the comfort of her foster home would make it easier on her to succeed.

Here is the key to teaching your dog to respond to her name: Name = good stuff. It’s almost as simple as that. While teaching your dog that her name means good stuff, you also need to be careful not to send her a mixed message. If you sometimes use her name to yell at her in anger, she’s likely to stop and weigh her options. “Let’s see… I wonder if a good thing will happen this time, or if a bad thing will happen. Hmmmmm.”

If she has to stop and think about it, it’s too slow. You want that unpoisoned, instantaneous, automatic “Yay! Good stuff!” response when she hears her name-sound.  So, as you go forward teaching your new dog her name, be sure to keep it always positive. If you must yell at your dog, do it without using her name. If you think your dog’s name is already poisoned, consider giving her a new one, and then teach her that the new name is the best sound in the world.

The Importance of a Dogs Name

That said, she’s keen to earn treats and responds with a whiplash head turn when she hears her new name from Cindy Rich, KPA CTP, of The Canine Connection in Chico, California.

Teaching the name response
Remember that your dog’s name does not mean come. It simply means “Look at me and wait for further instructions.” It’s important to make this distinction. There will be times when you want your dog’s attention but you don’t necessarily want her to come running to you. If she’s on the other side of the room and you want her to lie down there, you might say, “Lucy,” and when she looks at you, say “Down.” The more you aspire to advanced levels of communication and training with your dog, the more important it is that each cue has a very clear and specific meaning.

In order to train your dog you must be able to capture and retain her attention. Teach your dog to respond to her name by associating it with a click (or a verbal marker such as “Yes!”) and a food reward. At first, when your dog is already looking at you, say her name, click, and offer her a treat. Do this several times to create an association between the sound of her name and the resulting click-and-treat.

Teach her to continue to focus on you by clicking and giving her a reward several times, for time periods that gradually increase in length, as she continues to look at you.

The Importance of a Dogs Name

Because Chaco was recently feral and is spooky, Cindy keeps her movements slow and her body language quiet. With your own dog, you might celebrate her success with more exuberance.

You’ll have the most success with this if you start off with a high-value treat. If I wanted you to look at me instantly when I say “Fribbit,” I might say “Fribbit” and hand you a one hundred dollar bill. That would get your attention! If I give you a one hundred dollar bill every time you hear me say “Fribbit,” you’ll probably become pretty consistent about looking at me for “Fribbit.” In time, even if you don’t get a hundred dollars for every “Fribbit,” you’re still going to look, in hopes that this“Fribbit” might be a winner.

Now think about your response if, instead of a hundred dollar bill, I gave you a penny every time I said “Fribbit.” You probably wouldn’t care much, if at all. You’d quickly get bored with pennies and look for something more rewarding and interesting to do. Find your dog’s equivalent of a one hundred dollar bill. It might be dried liver, cheese, anchovies, bits of canned chicken . . . try a variety of foods to find the one that immediately captures your dog’s rapt attention.

You can also use life rewards for teaching the name response. If your dog is a tennis ball nut, say her name, and when she looks, toss her the ball. Life rewards tend to slow down the repetition process (it usually takes longer to deliver repeated life rewards – you have to get the ball back before you can do it again), but if it’s something your dog really loves you can make up for lost repetition time with the enthusiasm of the response and the faster positive-association time.

When you think the association has been established between your dog’s name and the high-value treat, wait until she glances away, then say her name. (You might have to hide the treats behind your back, stop making eye contact, and wait a while to get her to look away.) If she looks back at you right away when you say her name, click and give her a treat.

If she doesn’t look at you immediately, don’t say her name again; instead, make a “kissy noise” (very technical dog training term) to get her to look at you; then click and treat. If you have to make the kissy noise several times in a row as you repeat the exercise, back up and spend more time creating a stronger association between the name and the click-treat while she’s looking at you, before trying again when she looks away.

The Importance of a Dogs Name

The same exercise with a much more confident dog. When working with very small dogs, it’s helpful to get down on their level.

Adding distractions
When you’re getting a very prompt and consistent “snap” of your dog’s head back to you at the sound of her name, you’re ready to start adding distractions. Start with small distractions at first; you want to set up your dog to succeed, not flunk the first test. Ask a family member to make a small noise on the other side of the room. When your dog glances in that direction, say her name, and when her head snaps back, click and give her a treat.

If she doesn’t look back at you immediately, use your kissy noise to get her to look. When she looks, click and treat. If you have to “kiss” to get her to look several times in a row, go back to working without distractions again for a while, and/or find a higher-value reinforcer.

When you’re getting a reliable snap-back name response with low-level distractions, gradually increase the amount of environmental interference. First, increase distractions in your own home environment with more sound and/or movement of other family members, including four-legged ones, then up the ante by taking the show on the road. Play the name-response game when you’re taking your dog for a walk around the block, hanging out at your son’s soccer game, and playing at the dog park.

If you lose your dog’s response at any step of the process, back up to your last level of success, spend some more time working at that level, then move forward again, perhaps in smaller steps. Eventually you’ll have a rock-solid name response from your dog that, along with reinforcement for increasing length of attention, will serve you both well as you live and learn together for many years to come.

Pat Miller, CPDT-KA, CDBC, is WDJ’s Training Editor. Miller lives in Fairplay, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center. Pat is also author of several books on positive training, including her latest: Do Over Dogs: Give Your Dog a Second Chance for a First Class Life. See page 24 for more information.

Comments (7)

My husband and I have been married for almost 17 yrs. He'd never had a pet of any kind to speak of. In fact, he WAS a self proclaimed animal hater. Then, just over a year ago, the most beautiful Australian Sheppard/Akita mix showed up during a sleet storm. We took her inside an kept her warm for the night. This was just b4 the first anniversary of my mom's passing. That I wasn't dealing with well. Long story short... She showed up twice more. The 3rd time the ACO said I guess this is where she wants to be. She yours if you want her. So I named her Nezzy in honor of my mother Inez. Because she's the first thing that popped in my head every time I looked at the dog. She responded to it in just a couple of days. She's a good dog and so smart. She has my husband wrapped around her dew claw. :-) We later found out that the previous owners never got her to respond to the name they'd given her. My husband thinks I'm nuts, but I believe that mom sent her to me help me move forward. He calls her Nezzy Baby Girl! Lol

Posted by: Ladyoneill | May 2, 2016 2:02 AM    Report this comment

I know alot of people like to use a dogs name to get their attention, like this article suggests, but I prefer to use a dogs name as a release command. That really helps when you have multiple dogs. For example, My dogs all line up at dinner time. I fix everyone's bowl, and set everyone's bowl down in front of them, and they wait to eat until released. I can release each dog individually by saying their name. Using their name as a release command instead of an attention command really helps with control in multiple dog situations.

Posted by: Jay S | July 25, 2013 12:15 PM    Report this comment

All 3 of my dogs know their own names, but rather than call each of them individually, I just use "DOGS" when I need them all to come or go. It's actually pretty funny to see them all leave the kitchen and sit right outside the doorway when I say "All dogs, leave the room!" while I'm cooking. They seem to get the concept of each other's name in conjunction with objects because if I tell Wishbone to "get out of Cole's bed" or to "leave Maddie's bone alone and get your OWN bone", he will! And they all know the distinction between each of their own beds and my bed, because MY bed is called "the Big Bed or Mom's Bed".If they are invited to "get up in the Big Bed" they hop right up, but if I tell any of them to "get in your OWN bed" they each know where to go!
Despite knowing what I'm asking, they are only about 50% reliable when simply asked to "Come". The first thing they do is to look at my hands to see what I'm offering! Sometimes they simply ignore my request. I guess I need to come up with better rewards that are only given for this command. It's just so frustrating (and funny)to KNOW that they know what I'm asking and to see them basically just'roll their eyes' and go 'la-la-la : you're not the boss of ME!'...because I AM! ;-)

Posted by: rsqdogsmom | June 18, 2013 11:09 AM    Report this comment

Our cocker spaniel, Charlie, recognizes his doggy friends' names in addition to his own. When we mention "Bo", a lovely basset hound he plays with in the local dog park, he looks around as if his playmate is nearby. During off-lease hikes with our friend and her lab, Bob, Charlie turns his head whenever Bob is called. Charlie seems to know that Bob would come running toward us, and then follows suit....Charlie always follows Bob. In fact, we just call-out Bob's name when we want both dogs to come to us because Bob has better and faster recall. Charlie seems to understand that each name represents a specific dog, and therefore, he should also understand that the name Charlie represents himself. It is not the same as having a self-concept, but it seems pretty close to the "I am Charlie" concept that goes beyond mere association.

Posted by: Nobuko P | June 16, 2013 11:44 AM    Report this comment

I adopted my first rat terrier Jake,from an elderly couple who had moved to an apartment building after living in a house with a yard in Texas. They had no idea what to do with him when they left the apartment, since there was no dog house! so they decided to re-home him. I took him in as a foster, but he bonded with my large Airedale mix female, Penny, and tolerated my a-social male spaniel mix Ricky, so we kept him. However, the elderly couple had named him "Baby" which was not going to work for me--I was not going to call "Baby" while walking down the street with a tough looking little terrier! As soon as we called him Jake he got so excited! He probably hated the name, too--only kidding, I think the new name made him feel he was part of a family that gave him lots of love and attention and he thrived with us.

Posted by: kimfatty | June 15, 2013 10:36 AM    Report this comment

I would like to share the story of how my Pinkie got her name -- because I agree that their name is very important to their sense of self --

When I adopted Pinkie her name was Christine and she was a very shy 5 pound black poodle. When my vet first met her, she suggested that perhaps a name change may help her to blossom and become more outgoing. I watched to try to see if there was a different name that would better suit her. I noticed one thing special about her was that after seeing the groomer, her bow stayed put for the next month. Most dogs get the bow out immediately. So I looked at that pink bow, and called out - "Pinkie?". The affect was electric! She wagged her tail and began to quiver all over. "Pinkie?" I called again and she ran to me, bounding in joy. Clearly it was the name she wanted. And being Pinkie has helped her shyness. When people see her, this intense tiny black poodle (with the blackest eyes you have ever seen) named "Pinkie", they SMILE. Being greeted this way by strangers has helped her to see the world as one of welcome and kindness. And if asked about her name, usually I say only "Well, she has a pink belly...."

Posted by: GAYLE GOLD | April 5, 2013 12:42 PM    Report this comment

Our first weim was named Clevus, so when we got our female weimaraner we wanted something to go with his name... Chloe Louise was perfect we call her Chloe. We also have Yukon, Mossy, and Cinny (short for cinnamon her coloring)and our beloved weim Bama who passed away last year! They all respond to their names, and they each have their own personal song and the minute I sing their song...they step forward. We love our dogs!

Posted by: sissy | January 11, 2011 6:39 AM    Report this comment

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