Should You Change Your Rescue/Adopted Dog’s Name?

It’s common to adopt an adult dog with a name that doesn’t really thrill you, and many people have soldiered on for the rest of the dog’s life, stuck with a name that they just don’t feel right about. But you can change your dog’s name if you don’t like it.

Names like Baby, Poopsie and Pudding are often not popular with new adopters. On other extreme, many people feel a mismatch when they adopt a dog who has been going by Killer, Spike or Vengeance.

Whether your dog is four months or fourteen years old, I recommend that you do change the dog’s name. First, many dogs’ names are changed virtually the instant they walk into the shelter. So eight year old “Max,” may well have been “Harry” two days ago anyway. Second, and perhaps more importantly, if “Max” really was his name in his first home, you have no idea what baggage may be associated with that name.

Changing a dog’s name is one of the easiest parts of adopting and training a new dog. Here’s how you do it. Start by saying the new name and giving him something great like a piece of chicken, a belly rub or a play session if he looks at you. This teaches him to love hearing his new name and responding to it. Most dogs learn a new name within a few weeks if you do this multiple times each day, and some learn it in just a couple of sessions. Progress will be faster if you avoid using the name for no reason and also refrain from associating it with anything bad.

Dogs don’t respond to their names for a number of reasons, including:

  1. The dog has not been taught his name. Yes, you do actually need to teach a dog to respond to his name and that responding to his name will predict good things happening for your dog. If you don’t teach him that name response has value, why would he respond to it any differently than he’d respond to any of the zillions of words you likely utter each day which have no meaning to him?
  2. The dog has learned that his name means he is in trouble. “Max, no!” when he chases the cats. “Max, bath time!” “#&$^@*#*$(*&^!it, Max!” If name = trouble, the dog will likely not only ignore his name, he will actively avoid engaging with you when he hears his name. The cue has been, effectively, poisoned.
  3. The name cue has been used so many times when the dog is ignoring it, that you become background noise. In my own home now, I stopped typing for a minute. I hear traffic sounds, the fan running, water dripping, etc. At my classroom, I know that the lights and air conditioner both hum. This is all background noise – my brain tunes it out because it’s irrelevant to me – there are no meaningful consequences associated with these sounds.
  4. The dog is reinforced for sloppiness and lackluster performance. When people repeat their dog’s name OVER AND OVER AND OVER again, they become the ceiling lights humming, the distant sounds of meaningless traffic. Exacerbating the issue is that many will reward the dog when he finally listens, teaching him that reinforcement is available whether he listens the first time or the 20th time.

You should teach your dog a new name to avoid dealing with the baggage that his old name may have. You can teach him to respond enthusiastically and reliably with just a bit of training.

ADDITIONAL TIPS:

  • Teach your dog that no matter how your voice sounds, responding to his name is always a good thing. If he is running toward a busy road, you will likely not say his name in the same tone of voice you’d use if you were announcing the presentation of the brand new toy you bought him. Unless you teach him that you yelling his name means good things, he may well think he’s in trouble and run away! Consider giving your dog extra-special treats when you practice your “please-don’t-run-into-rush-hour-traffic-on-the-highway-voice.”
  • Avoid using your dog’s name as a cue for recall – you should teach recall separately and the name should be a cue for instant and sustained eye contact. Your first instinct when your dog is running toward the road is to use his name – if he believes this is a recall cue and you are on opposite sides of a busy street, you’re in trouble.
  • Avoid pairing your dog’s name with unpleasant consequences. If your dog is getting into trouble and you need to interrupt, train the positive interrupter. If you must do something your dog doesn’t like, give him a bath for example, simply go get your dog – avoid using his name or recall cue.

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