“His name is ‘Baby,’” Helen told me as she stroked her dog’s massive black head. “Baby” weighed in at about 65 pounds, was seven years old and had bitten 13 times. The last bite had been to Helen, when she tried to stop an attack on her disabled son. Needless to say, we had a lot to talk about, and one of the topics was her dog’s name. Helen explained to me that Baby had always been “her baby,” and that she did everything she could to make him happy. I countered, as graciously as possible, that Baby wasn’t actually much of a baby anymore. Rather, he was the equivalent of a 50-year-old man living in her house rent-free, not helping with the housework, and getting full-body massages on demand. Half jokingly, half not, I suggested that Helen change the dog’s name to something more fitting of his age and appropriate role within the family.
And that’s when I lost her. As soon as I mentioned changing Baby’s name, Helen’s face snapped shut like a book. Of course, we continued to talk through the appointment, but as I drove away, I guessed I’d never hear from her again, and I didn’t, even after calling her twice and leaving messages. In hindsight, I should’ve waited to talk about her dog’s name. Names are important, so important that Vicki Hearne wrote an entire book —Adam’s Task—about the weight of words in our relationship with dogs. What we call our dogs has meaning, and can have important consequences, both for ourselves and for our dogs.
One of the reasons that names are so important is the effect they have on us when we say them. Calling a male dog “Baby” makes it difficult to think of him as an adult dog, and makes it easy to excuse his behavior—it gives him “puppy privileges” that should’ve expired long ago. Labeling a Rottweiler “Brute” (as did one of my clients) does little to convince the neighborhood that your 85-pound Rottie plays well with Yorkies. Names evoke emotions in us, and those emotions influence our behavior. Since our behavior influences the behavior of our dogs and others around us, a name—all by itself—can have a surprising amount of power.
Emotions evoked by a name can have a profound effect even if you’re not conscious of it. Much of our behavior is driven by the unconscious—just look at the research of psychologist John Bargh, who found that people walk more slowly if you ask them to play word games with phrases that include indicators of age (like the words “wrinkled” and “bingo”). Believe it or not, if you’re named Georgia, you are more likely to move to the state of Georgia than you are to the state of Virginia, and vice versa. (To quote columnist Dave Barry, I am not making this up.) According to David Myers in the book Social Psychology, people’s careers are also affected by their names. Geologists and geophysicists are named George more often than is statistically predictable, and if you’re named Dennis or Denise, you are more likely to go into dentistry than if you’re named Tom or Beverly. Amazing stuff, yes?