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A Dog by Any Other Name

Reflect, then, on the impact of naming your dog “Baby” or “Brute.” You say your dog’s name often, and the above-quoted research suggests that the repetition will have an effect. The good news is that the effect can be good as easily as it can be bad. I love spring tulips almost as much as chocolate (okay, not quite), and naming my huge white fluff-ball of a Great Pyrenees “Tulip” was one of the best ideas I’ve ever had. Just saying her name, “Twooooo-lip,” makes me smile. In a joyful swirl of classical conditioning, my love for her and for tulips have become intertwined in the best of ways. Surely Tulip is aware, either consciously or unconsciously, that her name, and thus she herself, make me happy—what a wonderful start to a relationship. Along those same lines, a friend of mine is considering naming her new dog “Sparkle.” After losing four beloved pets in the last year, she is more than ready to add a daily dose of light and joy into her life.
Moving to the other end of the leash, your dog’s name has another and more direct effect on his or her behavior. The structure of a sound—whether it consists of soft vowels or hard consonants for example—has an influence on how your dog responds. Most of us say our dogs’ names because we want their attention; that is, after all, the way we use names in human communication. No matter who it is spoken to, dog or person, “Margaret” means: “Margaret, please pay attention to me at this moment. I would like to communicate with you.”

Thus, it’s useful to know that different types of sounds vary in their ability to get your dog’s attention. If you analyze the acoustics of spoken language, you’ll find that saying hard consonants, such as “k,” “p” and “d,” create what are called “broad-band” sounds, with lots of energy across a range of frequencies. If you were looking at a picture of the word “Kip,” you’d see a vertical spike (the broad band) for the “k” and another for the “p.” Those types of sounds are good at capturing your dog’s attention because they stimulate more acoustic receptor neurons in the brain than do the flatter sounds made by vowels and soft consonants. (That’s one of the reasons that clickers work so well—lots of broad-band sound.)

Thus, if you want your dog’s attention, you’re more likely to get it if she’s named Kip rather than Gwen. Of course, you can train a dog to pay attention to any sound at all if you condition her well enough, so if you want to name your dog Gwen, go right ahead. However, it’s useful, especially in performance events, to be aware of the effect of sound on your dog’s behavior. For example, short names with lots of hard consonants are great for people working dogs in fast-action events, such as agility and herding. The value of a short name is obvious: speed (you don’t want to be singing “Gwennnn-de-lynnnnn” when you’ve got a tenth of a second to get a response out of your dog) and focus (the consonants at either end of a name like Kip help you keep your dog’s attention). Indeed, so many working Border Collies are named “Hope” and “Jed” and “Drift” that conversations about the lineage of some dogs sound like “Who’s on first?” jokes. “Is your new little bitch related to Knox’s Hope?” “No, she’s out of McGregor’s Hope, sired by Jed.” “Is that Glynn-Jones’s Jed?” “No, I mean the Jed owned by….” And on and on. I’ve joked that for every 100 handlers in the sport, there are only 20 names for dogs.

That said, I must add that there’s something satisfying about a two-syllable name; “Pixie,” “Tulip” and “Sparkle” all flow off the tongue in a way that just feels good. I’ve also wondered if, in some cases, two-syllable names can actually help get a dog’s attention, in that the first syllable acts almost as a primer for the second. Perhaps the handiest names are the ones with a lot of flexibility. My forever dog’s name was Luke, but his recall signal was his name said twice: “Luke Luke!” When we were working sheep and the pressure was on, I’d belt out “LUKE!” to bring his attention back to me. In quieter times, if he did something silly, I’d say, in a rising, drawn-out drawl, “Luuuuuu-cas, what are you doing?”

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