Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."
If your dog doesn't respond to his name, don't feel demoralized about it. You are in good company. Countless dog owners deal with dogs who struggle to recognize their names and therefore aren't coming when called. Indeed, that's why there are dog trainers and countless books and articles about the topic.
Before troubleshooting why a dog may not respond to his name, it may come in handy to first understand how dogs perceive their names. Do dogs have enough self-awareness to understand that when we say "Rover" it relates to him? Interestingly, research shows that dogs have some self-awareness, but not in the same way we humans do.
What's in a Name?
It's a human habit to assign names to objects, animals and people. Perhaps we do this to gain a sense of control and familiarity in a big world or more simply for ease of communication so we can describe things and others will know exactly what or who we are talking about.
Dogs instead may care less about naming, unless you purposely train them to associate a specific word with an object or person.
Your dog's name is something that will be initially insignificant to your dog, just like a mother's words are insignificant to a baby who is too young for having receptive language skills.
A learning process is therefore needed for a dog to learn his name. However, even when a dog learns his name, it's not perceived in the same way we humans perceive names.
For instance, when Rover hears his name, he's likely to rush towards you because he might get a treat. It's not the same type of association we have with our names as we perceive our names as "ourselves."
So yes, this brings us to wonder whether dogs have a sense of "self."
Do Dogs Have a Sense of Self-Awareness?
When we see ourselves in the mirror, we know that that person is "us." This self-awareness though is something we weren't born with.
Babies under the age of 9 months old, only see a baby in front of them when looking in the mirror, explains Robert Louis Krulwich, a science correspondent for NPR news.
The sense of self-awareness is something that comes up later when two-year-olds who are marked with a marker on their forehead will see themselves in the mirror and touch their face as a sign of self-recognition.
This marked body mirror test has been conducted on a variety of animals, and chimps, great apes, gorillas, bonobos, orangutans, elephants, dolphins and magpies pass the test.
The "Snow Test" for Dogs
When it comes to dogs, they don't pass the mirror test. This seems to suggest that dogs are unable to think of themselves as unique individuals, so with this info on hand, you may think it excludes them from the self-conscious club. Well, not so fast.
Professor emeritus Marc Bekoff felt that this verdict was unfair to dogs since dogs are olfactory beings. So in lieu of the mirror test, he decided to propose a self-recognition test custom-tailored to dogs and therefore based on scent.
Introducing the "yellow snow test." In this test, Bekoff collected urine from other dogs in the snow and relocated it to other areas and then collected his own dog's pee in the snow as well, and then he observed his dog and his reactions to the smells.
His observations over the course of five winters generated proof that dogs spend less time sniffing their own urine than that of other male or female dogs. This implied that dogs are capable of recognizing their own pee which may be suggestive of having a "sense of mine-ness."
A further test conducted by Gatti and published in the 2015 issue of Ethology Ecology & Evolution confirmed Bekoff's findings.
The Art of Giving Your Dog's Name a Meaning
As mentioned, your dog's name has very little to no meaning at first. You will need to spend some time creating positive associations with the name, so that it becomes music to your dog's ears, informing him that something wonderful is going to happen.
Upon hearing you say your dog's name, you, therefore, want a response, a state of attentiveness that tells you that your dog will be looking at you immediately for information on what you would like him to do next.
To give your dog's name meaning, you will therefore have to start in a room with little distractions. Pronounce your dog's name and toss him a treat his way.
Do this several times, and then, at some point, wait it out. In other words, just say his name and see if your dog starts looking at you in anticipation of the treat. When he does, make sure to give him a jackpot of treats (that's several pieces of treats scattered all at once for a fun treasure hunt).
This is the ultimate goal of the exercise: for your dog to stop whatever he is doing to look at you. Make sure you use yummy treats to keep your dog's interest alive.
Practice in various rooms and then try the same exercise outside. If at any time your dog doesn't look at you, consider that the level of distractions is likely too much for him or you have gone too fast through the process.
Walk away and evaluate what may have happened (were there too many noises or was he concentrated on sniffing?) and resume later in a quieter area so you can aim for more success.
Aim to practice this several times a day (like a dozen times) until you get a reliable response. Your dog's name should be music to his ears!
Consider that the more attention you get the more you are energizing your dog's name. The less attention you get, the more you are weakening it. So make sure to set your dog for success by increasing the chances of him responding!
Using Your Dog's Name for Recalls
Once your dog looks at you reliably upon hearing his name, start adding obedience cues. For example, with your dog nearby, you can say, "Rover, sit!" or "Rover, down" or "Rover, stay" and then, the moment he complies, praise and reward.
To use your dog's name for recalls, you'll do the same. You'll be saying "Rover come!" in a happy tone that denotes great happenings.
Of course, you'll need to train your dog to have good recall before your dog comes rushing to you. This should be started once again in a room with little distractions.
You can have a helper hold your dog initially across a hallway and you can crouch down and say "Rover come!' and your helper releases your dog and he is fed several small pieces of treats in a row as soon as he reaches you. You can take turns with your helper holding or calling your dog.
You should then start doing this exercise in more distracting environments—as always carefully evaluate how your dog responds. As with the name exercise above, you want to increase the chances of success so that you can power up your dog's recall as much as possible.
It's important to recognize that no recall is not without struggles. All of us, even the best trainers, have stumbled upon situations where our dogs were too distracted to come when called. As upsetting as this can be, embrace the challenge and take it as a little lesson to further empower your recall by overcoming these little hurdles.
Below are several reasons why your dog doesn't respond to his name, and therefore, fails to come when called.
Why Doesn't My Dog Respond to His Name?
When a dog doesn't respond to his name, it's important to carefully evaluate what may be happening. Training a dog to come when called is something that is built through time. There's a lot more to it than just calling a dog to come to you as you do when calling your child to tell him dinner is ready.
It's about establishing a strong reinforcement history, creating a strong relationship and competing against distractions. It also entails making good judgment calls. Not to mention, it's important to know about a few phenomena that may take place without you even knowing.
With all this in mind, let's take a look at several possible causes as to why your dog doesn't respond to his name.
Evaluate Their Name
Yes, the name of your dog plays a big role in grabbing his attention. If your dog's name is too short or too long it can be a problem. For instance, if your dog's name it Liz, it may be a little too short to grab your dog's attention.
Indeed, when naming a dog, it is usually recommended to use two-syllable words— my dogs were named "Pe-tra" and "Kai-ser." 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.
Also, consider that names with more consonants such as P, K and D are better attention grabbers. Intrigued? Here's a read with more tips on naming your dog.
Solution: If your dog's name is Liz, saying "Liz, Come!" can help a bit compared to just calling "Liz" since you are adding an extra word that makes up a bit for the lack of extra syllables. Alternatively, you can use another name a "call name" just for recalls.
Stop Playing the Repeat Game
It's a strongly ingrained human habit to repeat stuff when we don't get the results we want. Don't make the mistake of repeating cues (commands) in dog training.
For example, avoid calling your dog repeatedly if he doesn't come the first time. If you are guilty of this, you have likely trained your dog, after a series of repetitions, that the cue is no longer just "Rover, come," but "Rover, come, Rover, come, Rover, come!"
This is similar to a child who has learned not to attend to mom the first time she tells him to do his homework. However, don't get upset with your dog. It's not like he's blowing you off and being stubborn for not listening the first time.
Very likely, if your dog could talk, he or she would be saying something along these lines: ''You have recently taught me the command is ''Rover, come, Rover, come, Rover, come'' so when I don't come rushing towards you right away, please consider that I am simply politely waiting for you to finish the command!''
Solution: Avoid repeating the cue but rely on a second lifeline—for example, you can try making a smacking sound you have previously conditioned to get him coming or you can try running away in hopes your dog chases you.
Watch Your Tone
As mentioned, your dog's name should be music to his ears. You need to sound happy and welcoming. If you are upset with your dog for some reason, as frustration builds in, you may use a louder or much harsher tone which can put your dog off.
The use of this tone will only lead to further problems. As dogs perceive our built-up frustration, they will often shut down or engage in calming signals in an attempt to calm us frustrated owners down.
The dog may therefore perhaps yawn, turn around, sniff the ground, walk away or come walking very, very slowly which only irritates owners more.
Solution: Avoid harsh tones. Even if you are frustrated, try to hide your emotions and think about some endearing traits or something you love about your dog as you call him.
Avoid Poisoned Cues
Have you been guilty of calling your dog to give him a bath, trim his nails, or close him in a crate when you were about to leave for work? Well, if your dog dislikes any of these activities, he has learned to associate his name and your recall with these negative happenings.
In such a case, it can be said that his recall has been "poisoned." Poisoned cues are common in dog training and recall is one of the cues that are most commonly impacted.
Once your dog makes this negative association, he may become tentative in coming to you or eventually stop coming altogether.
Solution: Once a cue is poisoned, it is complicated to restore its value. It is often just easier to switch and just start fresh with a new cue.
Avoid Learned Irrelevance
Learned irrelevance is a phenomenon where your dog stops attending to your cues because they have become insignificant sort of like background noise such as the birds chirping in the trees.
This often takes place when you call your dog too many times and you fail to get a response. This weakens your cue considerably, leading it to reach the point of no longer having an effect.
Solution: Avoid calling your dog when you are unsure if he will listen. For instance, at the dog park, do not call him while he's playing if his recall isn't too reliable. Remember to add distractions gradually; you can't go from teaching a dog to come in your hallway and then move to the dog park the next day!
- NPR News: Sniff, Therefore I Am. Are Dogs Self-Conscious? by Robert Krulwich
- M. Bekoff. “Observations of scent-marking and discriminating self from others by a domestic dog (Canis familiaris): tales of displaced yellow snow.” Behavioural Processes. Vol. 55, August 2001, p. 75.
- Roberto Cazzolla Gatti (2016) Self-consciousness: beyond the looking-glass and what dogs found there, Ethology Ecology & Evolution, 28:2, 232-240.
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.
© 2021 Adrienne Farricelli
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 31, 2021:
All of our dogs had two-syllable names. Those are good tips about not calling them to cut their nails or other things that they may dislike. You offer such good advice in your articles regarding dogs.
FlourishAnyway from USA on July 30, 2021:
I loved reading the behavior-based strategies here. Behavior consequence with kids, pets, so much in life! I love your explanations from the dog’s perspective.
Some of my cats are smarter than other to be honest and they learn easier whereas one or two others over the years have really struggled. The favorites have tended to have multiple names. I also have a deaf low vision cat but he knows when I am addressing him. We’ve worked out a system.
It must also be confusing for adopted/rescued animals to learn new names sometimes several times.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 30, 2021:
This is excellent advice, as always, Adrienne. I know it takes time and work to teach your dog anything. This article is very interesting.