What’s In a Name?

What’s In a Name?

This week, I got some very interesting questions about dog names and how to use them. In this post, I’m going to discuss the nuts and bolts of using your dog’s name. Knowing how we use our dogs’ names can help us become better dog owners and trainers.

As human beings, we use names to refer to things in the world. But, what does your dog’s name mean to your dog? How do dogs’ names function in our shared lives with our dogs? And, how does our usage affect our dogs’ behavior?

Here are a few examples of how I used the names of my own dogs today:

  1. “Miles, did you sleep well?”

  2. “Thelma, you are such a good girl.”

  3. “I’m going to make a vet appointment for Mulligan.”

  4. “Paloma, are you okay?”

  5. “Gus, circle!”

One of these examples, No. 5, is a cue for attention before asking for another behavior: spinning. In No. 2, my dog’s name was worked into a bit of praise. Another example, No. 4., features my dog’s name as a cue for attention without another behavior after it; I was about to come look at Paloma’s leg and didn’t want to startle her. In No. 3, I used my dog’s name to refer to him while speaking to another person. And, the remaining example, No. 1, is likely an informal cue for attention, but it’s more about my own behavior: I just like to talk to my dogs. 

Your Dog’s Name as a “Feel Good” (+CER)

When I’m teaching a dog their name, I use classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is when your dog notices that one thing predicts another. Does your dog get excited when you pick up their leash? That’s an example of classical conditioning. Your dog has noticed that you picking up their leash reliably predicts going for a walk.

When I’m teaching a dog’s name, my goal is what’s called a “positive conditioned emotional response” (+CER). In other words, when I say a dog’s name, I want the dog to notice that the utterance of their name predicts good stuff for them! They will, in turn, feel good about hearing their name.

The training process for teaching a name as a +CER looks like this:

(1) Say the dog’s name once in a cheerful voice.

(2) Then, feed snacks from your hand.

After several repetitions, the dog will begin to notice that saying the name is what predicts snacks. And, the dog is also noticing that the snacks come from my hand. Because of this, the dog will begin to orient to me upon hearing their name. In this way, I’m using the delivery location of the snacks (otherwise known as the “conditioned stimulus” or CS) to my advantage. Once I start to see the dog’s tail wag and see them turn to me with a happy look on their face when I say their name, I know that the dog is starting to feel good about hearing their name.

Why do we want dogs to feel good about hearing their names? For two reasons: (1) Because our dogs are our friends. We don’t want our dogs to cower and run away when we say their names; and (2) Because we use dogs’ names in multiple ways, a +CER helps our training goals.

In the beginning, I’ll work this exercise in a low distraction environment, and then I’ll gradually add in distractions and work in different environments to help the dog understand that their name predicts good stuff everywhere, no matter what.

In classical conditioning, the association between one thing predicting another is best learned when a 1:1 ratio is maintained. That means that when a dog is first learning their name, every single time I say their name, it predicts snacks. I coach owners of new puppies and newly adopted dogs how to do this well. 

If your dog’s name only predicts good stuff for them half of the time, and the other half of the time, their name predicts the stoppage of fun or some other unpleasantness, your dog won’t develop the +CER that we need to use their name in other ways. Protect their name!

And if your dog is doing something undesirable? Use their name cheerfully or redirect without using their name. There are lots of words to mutter under your breath to express your frustration instead of your dog’s name. You have the entire colorful, dynamic English language at your disposal when your dog is waist deep in the trash!

Using Your Dog’s Name as Cue for Attention

After achieving a +CER, I can switch to using operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is when your dog performs a behavior and then learns from the consequences of that behavior. Consequences can include (but are not limited to) punishment, which makes a behavior occur less frequently in the future, or reinforcement, which makes a behavior occur more frequently in the future. 

When using my dog’s name as a cue for attention, I have to be clear about my criteria. What do I want my dog to do when I say their name? Here are some examples:

  • Turn his head and look in my general direction for two seconds

  • Turn his head and look at my eyes for two seconds

  • Turn his head away from a distraction and look at my eyes for five seconds

  • Turn his head away from a distraction, run to me from ten feet away, and look at my eyes for ten seconds

  • Turn his head away from a distraction and maintain eye contact with me while walking past a distraction for fifteen steps

It’s likely that the first couple of these examples would be easier for your dog, while the ones at the bottom of the list are more difficult. It’s important to be clear about what we expect from our dogs when we use their name as a cue for attention. Attention is a behavior that we can reinforce! And, we have to pay our dogs generously and strategically to build sustained attention. If you use your dog’s name as a cue for attention and don’t reinforce it, your dog will pay attention less frequently because paying attention doesn’t work for them. 

Dogs who do not respond to their names, or who cannot pay attention in challenging environments are frequently accused of “not listening” or being “stubborn.” The good news is that these dogs can learn how to pay attention and they’re not actually suffering from a character flaw. When we know we’re using our dogs’ names as a cue for attention, we can align our expectations with what our dogs can do and incrementally build the behavior of paying attention.  

Using Your Dog’s Name as Praise or Happy Talk 

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“Gus, you are so good, and so smart, and so special. And you are the best rashy Chihuahua mix on the planet!” This is an example of working my dog’s name into a bit of praise. Praise is a “conditioned reinforcer.” That means that it has value to my dog because I’ve paired praise and happy talk with snacks and other stuff that my dog enjoys! Because I’ve worked his name as a +CER, his name fits in well with praise when I use it this way. If his name predicts unpleasantness for him on a regular basis, using it in praise may confuse him and also make my praise less effective.

An aside, we adopted Gus when he was ten years old. We changed his name to Gus. We trained his name in the way I’ve described, and this is his expression when you say his name and talk to him. Even old dogs can reinvent themselves.

Using Your Dog’s Name as a Noun

As human beings, we need to communicate to other human beings about our dogs (perhaps some of us more than others). We use their names to refer to them in speech, even if we’re not addressing them. “I’m going to make a vet appointment for Mulligan” is the example listed above.

What if Mulligan hears me and walks over because he heard me use his name? I’d likely reinforce his behavior somehow, even though my purpose was not to cue his attention.

Using Your Dog’s Name Because It’s Reinforcing for You

I talk to my dogs. A lot. On any given day, you might hear me asking how they’re doing, telling them what we’re going to do, etc. They cannot converse with me. So, why do I do it? The best reason I can think of is simply that I like doing it. I keep talking to them because it’s reinforcing for me and it makes me feel good.

While I try to be thoughtful about using their names, I do say my dogs’ names in my everyday speech to them. It’s likely that when I’m speaking to my dogs that they interpret their names as a +CER and/or a cue for attention, and the rest of my words as praise or happy talk. It’s also likely that their attention is what’s reinforcing my behavior of talking to them. But, I predict that if I’m lucky enough for my dogs grow old and lose their ability to hear, I will likely still talk to them, even if their attention behaviors decrease.

Thoughtful Usage

As you can see, our usage of dogs’ names works in several ways in our shared lives together.

In my group classes, I frequently coach students on using their dog’s name thoughtfully. It’s up to us to help our dog’s names become meaningful to our dogs.

When you say your dog’s name, what do you hope will happen next? How can you help your dog be successful when you say their name in this context?


Special thanks to Melanie Cerone of Melanie Cerone, Ph.D., Canine Behavior Consulting for helping me analyze my own behavior of asking my dog how he slept last night.

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