Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
What's in a Dog Name?
How to Choose a Name for Your Dog
If you are looking for tips on how to name your dog, you've come to the right place. Naming a dog is something that shouldn't be taken lightly, after all, the name will be with them for a lifetime. Just as new moms and dads spend time finding the perfect name for their newborn baby, you should invest some time into finding the perfect name for your dog.
Dogs aren't born knowing their names and require conditioning to learn how to respond to them. Unlike humans, they aren't verbal beings, so they can easily confuse their names with words that share a similar sound. You will, therefore, need to choose a name that is distinct from any other words you frequently use.
What about changing a name? Many people adopt from shelters and may wonder what name swapping entails. Yes, this happens more often than expected. You may adopt a very sweet dog from a shelter with a name you prefer not to keep. Try to convince your neighbors how friendly your dog "Brute" is, especially if he's an imposing-looking Rottweiler or an English Mastiff! Here are some tips on how to choose a name.
Short Names Are Easier to Work With
Tip: Keep Your Dog's Name Short and Simple
Have you ever been to a dog show and glanced at the list of names only to wonder, "Why in the world are such names so long?" Well, breeders and seasoned exhibitors are very familiar with long and fancy names. The American Kennel Club allows registration of names up to a maximum of 36 characters long, but if owners need more (for a $10 fee), they are authorized to use up to 50!
It turns out there are actually many good reasons for these long names. The names of dogs exhibited in shows need to stick out from the crowd and leave a strong impression. Many of these dogs come from prestigious bloodlines, and their owners and exhibitors are very proud of them. It would feel somewhat degrading for their prestigious pooch to carry a common name such as "Rover" or "Missy." Show dogs are given names that may sound peculiar, but that's because the names incorporate clues of the dog's ancestry and kennel of origin. On top of that, titles are often mixed into the names to further complicate things.
For example, the 2017 AKC championship winner was a Cocker Spaniel by the name of "GCHP CH Silverhall Strike Force." In this case, the GCHP stands for "Grand Champion Platinum," while CH stands for "champion." The name "Silverhall," is there to remind the audience that this handsome stud comes from a kennel known as "Silverhall Cocker Spaniels."
As one may imagine, if the owners were to call a prestigious show dog by its official name, they would be long gone by the time the owner finishes pronouncing the name! So, what do owners of show dogs do? Easy, they give them what is known as a "call name," or a working name. The owners of "GCHP CH Silverhall Strike Force," for example, would simply call him "Striker."
Moral of the story: If you want a dog who easily and promptly responds to its name, keep it simple and short. The name should be no longer than two syllables. This allows you to pronounce it quickly should you need to get your dog's immediate attention. A short name, therefore, works great for working dogs or those enrolled in sporting events.
While short names work best, two-syllable names may actually work better than one if your dog is distracted. This first syllable alerts them, while the second one gets them running. If they are distracted or miss the first part, they receive confirmation when they hear the second.
Your dog may not readily come when called if his name is "Kai," especially in noisy or windy conditions, but you may have more luck if you follow up "Kai" with "ser," which, by the way, is my male Rottweiler's name.
I’ve also wondered if, in some cases, two-syllable names can actually help get a dog’s attention, in that the first syllable acts almost as a primer for the second.
— Patricia McConnell
A Name Should Grab Your Dog's Attention
Tip: Choose Sharp-Sounding Consonants
You may have found a name that is appealing to you, but have you considered what your dog thinks of it? We're not talking about whether he likes it or not. We're talking about how he perceives it. They may be attracted to certain names more than others because of the way it sounds to his ears. Consider this: Dogs appear to respond better to names with sharp-sounding consonants. Examples of some sharp-sounding consonants include the letters P, K, and D.
Let's go into some specifics. According to Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Patricia McConnell, the reason why dogs seem to respond best to these consonants is that they tend to produce a more "broadband" sound (similar to the noise emitted by a clicker) compared to others. These sounds, therefore, create more energy and are more likely to act as attention grabbers.
For those folks interested in the neuroscience behind this, these strong consonants work particularly well because they tend to stimulate the dog's acoustic receptor neurons in the brain (compared to softer sounds produced by vowels or soft consonants). Now you have a reasonable explanation as to why so many working border collies are called "Hope!"
Hard Consonant Dog Names/ Two Syllable Dog Names
|Male Dog Names||Female Dog Names|
Avoid Names That Overlap With Common Sounds
Tip: Differentiate Your Dog's Name
A day will come when you will have to start training your puppy some basic cues such as "sit," "down," "come," "heel," "stay," etc.. Just as with your dog's name, these verbal cues will eventually have meaning, and will recruit your dog's interest and encourage operant behaviors.
To help avoid confusion, it's important to pick a name that is different from these verbal cues:
- Clown, Brown, and Crown are confused with the verbal cue "down."
- Chay, Jay, Kay, and May are confused with the verbal cue "stay."
- Britt, Ritt, Pritt, Tidbit, and Smitt are confused with the verbal cue "sit."
- Plum, Thumb, and Crumb are confused with the verbal cue "come."
- Neal, Steel, and Teal are confused with the verbal cue "heel."
- Oliver is confused with the verbal cue "roll over."
So, what can you do if your new dog already has a name that is too close to a verbal training cue?
Tip for Multiple Dog Owners
As cute as it may be to own two dogs named Twixie and Pixie, try your best to give your dogs names that are easily distinguished from one another. This will save you from a lot of headaches!
Tip: Working With a Current Name
Method 1: Change the Verbal Cue
If your dog answers to his name, you can simply change the verbal cue that sounds too similar. There's no rule about sticking to popular verbal cues. For instance, if they respond beautifully to his name "Steel," and you need to teach him to "heel," simply replace the word "heel" with something else such as "fuss" which is the German name for "heel."
Method 2: Weaken the Name Association
If your dog's name is too close to a verbal cue, but your dog doesn't respond to his name very well and he's already fluent in responding to the verbal cue in question, you can change the name and create a very strong conditioning history.
Make Your Dog's Name Standout
Tip: Choose a Dog Name With Strong Meaning
The most important tip of all is to choose a name with a strong meaning. What do you do with a name if it means little to your dog? Dogs are not born knowing their names, and their names are neutral stimuli. It is totally up to you to give a name a very strong meaning. You can easily accomplish this by creating a strong conditioning history. You may find the need to occasionally tweak and maintain conditioning training throughout your dog's life to keep it strong.
Dogs live through associations. To train a strong response to a name, they will need to learn to pair it with pleasant associations. The process of making the name meaningful is like the process of charging a battery. There are some things you can do to charge it to make it more potent, and things you can do to weaken its power.
- Use Food as a Motivator: Food is always a great incentive, so why not find a quiet area with little distractions to start pronouncing the dog's name? Every time you say the name, toss a treat on the floor. When your dog eats it, wait for your pup to wander away a bit. The moment he's leaving or turns around, pronounce his name again and toss a treat the moment he turns in your direction. Rinse and repeat several times.
- Add a Verbal Cue: Once you have this down, it's time to add some fun training and some verbal cues. Pronounce the name and ask him to "sit" or go "down." Reward him for complying with praise and treats.
- Expand the Territory of Use: When your dog is at a distance from you or in another room, say his name followed by the verbal cue "come!" in an enthusiastic tone of voice; reward him with a meal, access to a brand new toy, or a fun play session. Surprise him! You can even reward him for coming to you with life rewards (things he loves naturally), such as going for a car ride, going for a walk, or just heading out in the yard for some quality time. Make sure access to these things/situations happen immediately when he comes to you, otherwise, the association won't be clear.
How to Empower vs. Weaken Your Dog's Name
|Empower Your Dog's Name||Weaken Your Dog's Name|
Use your dog's name only when needed, turning it salient
Repeatedly pronounce your dog's name over and over, making it redundant
Always follow your dog's name with pleasant happenings (toys, food, play, walks)
Use your dog's name for negative happenings (scolding your dog, giving him a bath if he dreads baths, etc.)
Use your dog's name when something positively meaningful is about to happen immediately afterward
Use your dog's name often with nothing positive or meaningful happening immediately afterward
"A dog's name becomes a signal which tells him that the next sounds that come out of his master's mouth are supposed to have some impact on his life. Thus, a dog's name linguistically translates into something like, 'This next message is for you.'
— Stanley Coren
Don't Like Your Dog's Name? You Have Options
Tip: "Fade" Your Dog's Old Name
Now, what if you just adopted a dog from a shelter and you want to change his name either because it's too long, it's embarrassing, or simply ruins his reputation? Is this possible? The good news is that it is entirely possible, but you will have to stick to a specific procedure depending on whether he currently responds well to his name or not.
If he doesn't respond to his name, there's nothing really to lose. Simply follow the above tips (give the name a strong meaning), and create a strong conditioning history.
If your dog responds beautifully to his current name, but you really feel the need to change it either because it's embarrassing or inappropriate, you can fade the old name and establish the new one. Let's imagine you have adopted a very sweet Rottweiler whose name is "Brute," but you now want to call him "Cooper."
How to Fade a Name:
- In a quiet room with little distractions, call his current name "Brute!" and toss him a treat.
- When he wanders away, repeat the same exercise. Do this about three times. On the fourth time, be ready to add the new name to his current one.
- Say his new name immediately followed by the current one: "Cooper, Brute!" He may hesitate a bit when you say "Cooper," but upon hearing "Brute," he should act interested. When he does, again, toss him a treat. Repeat several times.
- Start to fade the name "Brute." Start saying "Cooper-Ute," and toss a treat for getting his attention. Rinse and repeat. You can then start saying "Cooper-Ut," followed by a treat, aiming to eventually pronounce the "ut" part in a lower and lower tone of voice until it's barely perceptible. Finally, just say "Cooper!" dropping the parts of the old name completely and following up with a jackpot of treats (toss several treats at once).
Keep practicing this and then move on to making the name "Cooper" extra exciting by using it to call your dog for mealtime and other happy happenings. Don't forget to have other family members practice saying the new name, too! Practice makes perfect!
- Psychology Today, "The Art and Science of Naming a Dog," retrieved from the web on Dec 9th, 2016.
- "The Bark, A Dog by Any Other Name," retrieved from the web on Dec 9th, 2016.
© 2018 Adrienne Farricelli
Karen Hellier from Georgia on February 05, 2018:
This is a great article filled with tips I will definitely use when I name my next dog. Thanks so much for the time it took to create this. Very helpful!
Sp Greaney from Ireland on February 03, 2018:
Very entertaining hub. Great list of names here for any future dog owner.
Robin Carretti from Hightstown on January 31, 2018:
Hi I love this bark of a read dog should be so blessed to have the right names just like humans they have the most amazing hearts thanks so much for this read pls if you have the time check out my reads
K S Lane from Melbourne, Australia on January 30, 2018:
Great Hub! My naming debacle is with a cat, not a dog, but I found that a lot of the points you raise are transferable. Your suggestion of 'Dinkie' as a name is particularly cute.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 29, 2018:
We have never had to change a dog's name but what you wrote about how to approach and accomplish it makes good sense.