To understand how our dogs view their names, we must first understand why we use names and what they mean to us.
Our use of names has two distinct functions. Firstly we use names in the same way that we use other nouns, to describe the article in question (in this case another person) to a third person.
In this way, when I say, “Elvis Presley” everyone knows exactly who I mean and I don’t have to go to any greater descriptive lengths. If I didn’t have a name for Elvis, I would have to describe him in a way sometimes used when I forget someone’s name, “You know, that girl who married him that used to work in the butchers before he fell off his bike, drunk on Shrove Tuesday, broke all his fingers, you know, brown hair in a bob, used to wait for the bus in the morning with her mate, the one with the pretty nose and the limp…?” Much easier when I can remember her name is Sharon.
The second use of a name is to inform someone that these words are intended for them. “Claire, you put your feet up for a minute. Stuart, this is for you.”
In both purposes they identify a particular person, either to a third party, or to themselves. There is some evidence that dolphins have “signature” whistles, identifying themselves to other dolphins that know them, but this isn’t quite the same as referring to a third dolphin. It is the equivalent of saying, “This message is sent by Dave Dolphin…” but not, “Did you see the size of the fish that Dave Dolphin caught yesterday?”
There is no evidence that dogs communicate to other dogs about third parties by using personal names, but our dogs can understand the use of names in identifying individuals, be it themselves or a third party. Hence they understand, “Bob, leave. Belle, fetch.” And also, “Find Dan for me.” So long as they know who Dan is.
Understanding “Dan” is much the same as understanding what a ball or a bed is. It, or he, is an item that is identifiable by using a noun, and our dogs often learn third party personal names in the same way. This can take a long time, particularly if we let it evolve rather than set out to specifically teach it. In fact, people are usually better at teaching “ball” and “bed” because we intentionally teach them, but we let personal name recognition evolve. We produce a ball and say, “Ball”, and we take them to their bed and say, “Bed”, but we don’t actually produce Dan with a treat and say, “Dan”
But what about their own name? What does a dog’s own name mean to them?
Most people let their pet’s own name evolve in the most confusing way, because they use it for a huge variety of different things. One word, “Sandy!” is assigned many meanings. These are some of the meanings I have heard assigned to dog’s names:
- Come here.
- Stop what you’re doing.
- Don’t do what you are about to.
- Good dog.
- Bad dog.
- Would you like to eat this?
- Don’t eat that.
- Get off the sofa.
- Get in the car.
- Get off my knee.
- Get on my knee.
- Be quiet.
- Stop pulling.
- You! Not you!
- Don’t use there as a toilet.
It is no wonder the most popular answers to, “Does you dog respond to their name?” are, “Sometimes” and “When they feel like it.”
So, how do you get a dog to respond to their name? Not by confusing them for a start! First you have to decide what your dog’s name means to them. If you think about it, if we want to communicate with our dog, we use their name to tell them it is only them we’re talking to. This is the same use of a personal name as, “Claire, you put your feet up for a minute. Stuart, this is for you.” It is a way of gaining their attention, before giving an instruction or providing information.
It is simply a way of gaining their attention, and it’s dead easy to teach. The “secret” to getting your dog to respond to their name every time is to assign it one meaning and one meaning only: “Look at me, something good’s about to happen.”
For the first week after you adopt you pup (or adult dog – age doesn’t matter) carry a bag of treats with you everywhere you go. At random, call your dog’s name, bend down and give them a treat.
Make sure that you don’t tie it in with any other behaviour, for example if pup is about to run off. Bend down, so that they don’t learn to jump up. Occasionally throw them the treat after calling their name, so they don’t become fixated on your hand. Once pup is reliably looking at you in expectation of a treat when you call their name, don’t throw one. Substitute lavish praise and cuddles instead.
From now on, any time you want to give your pup something nice, call their name first. Before picking up their lead, or going out the door, before playing any games, or mealtimes, or stroking and petting. Their name quickly takes on only one meaning: Look at me, something good’s about to happen.
If you are sharing your pet with other people, get them to do the same.
The different value that your dog puts on the varieties of rewards they receive for responding makes them even keener (it’s called a variable reinforcement schedule) and more reliable. You don’t even have to reward every time you use their name, you can substitute the possibility of earning a reward instead. For example “Sandy” gets her attention, and “Sit” gives her the opportunity to gain a reward for sitting. Even the “Sit” doesn’t have to be rewarded every time, so long as it is rewarded occasionally to keep the possibility alive.
There is, of course, a proviso with this. Your dog’s name has now become a valuable commodity. Don’t waste it unnecessarily. Don’t repeat it, unless they obviously haven’t heard; don’t even say it in their hearing unless you want them to respond. That’s right. Long conversations where I describe how “Sandy did this, then Sandy did that…” within their hearing devalues their name unless her responding is rewarded. Tough? Not really, just make sure you’re fondling their ears whilst you’re talking about them!
In a nutshell: If your dog’s name only means, “Look at me, something good’s about to happen”, they will respond every time. To preserve the meaning, keep it precious.
Try it. Sit three people on the sofa, all with treats. Say “Dan” and let your dog go. When they choose the right person, Dan rewards with a treat. When they reliably go to Dan, change and say, “Sue” and only reward when they choose Sue. It works! If you spread the people out a bit more, it becomes a great game of hide and seek.