Naming our last family dog was easy. He was a Christmas gift to my mother, who was from New Orleans; I’d been researching the Civil War for a writing project; and the puppy was a winsome Cocker Spaniel. I anointed him General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, Beau for short. We three siblings and Mom enjoyed calling the soft, sleepy fellow “the General.” In my recollection of junior high French, “beau” meant handsome and “regard,” to look at; I figured Beauregard was French for “good looking.” (For y’all not familiar with the original general—and none of our California friends were — he was Louisiana’s leading officer during the conflict.)
My only concern about the name came when I realized, during our amateurish training efforts, that “Beau” sounded similar to “no.” But since he paid as much attention to commands as the average toddler, it was a moot point. There was nothing aggressive about Beau, so the General nickname faded while he gained others, including Chablis, when he whined; Mr. Foo-Foo La Rue, when he needed grooming; and the Prince, when he roamed the house caped with a purple-striped towel after coming in from rain.
We’d had other dogs: a Beagle named Diamond (a white mark on his forehead); a Basset Hound we called Cindy (sometimes adding Lou); and another Basset, Venus. Do dogs consistently recognize the names we give them? My unscientific observations show mixed results. But as an editor who has putzed around with words for decades, I think names are important.
Nowadays, I do volunteer work at a humane society (my apartment building does not allow pets, so I’m dogless). I take one dog at a time for a 30-minute walk. On any day, some 20 to 30 dogs need walking, mainly Pit Bulls and Chihuahuas. Most have people names, frequently old-fashioned: Bessie, Alice, Violet, Gus, Emmet, Ruth. Before I worked with them, I would not have claimed affection for these two common breeds, but I’ve learned they are as individual as their names. Sugar can be an apt name for a Pit Bull.
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Some shelter dogs arrive with names, while the staff bestows them on others: Pirate for a one-eyed dog, Cookie for a chubby Chihuahua. Many do not respond when I say their names, although I call each by name throughout our walks, hoping by upbeat inflection to link that word with positive reinforcement—a sort of aural osmosis—because shelter dogs are often wary, shy or nervous. Some have never walked on a leash. Some have been mistreated. A few don’t like to go outside. “Good job, Peabody!” I’ll say when he crosses the street briskly. “Way to go, Brandon” when a fearful Toy Fox Terrier keeps walking despite the rumbling large trucks passing us in the shelter’s neighborhood.
Perhaps they don’t seem to respond to their names because the names are new or so many different people say them. Perhaps it’s because, as in a Gary Larson cartoon, they have their own names for themselves (“Queen La, Stainer of Persian Rugs”). Or maybe they’re waiting until they belong, are part of a family of familiar people, day after day.
Because I’m certain dogs know their names and other words. (According to another Larson cartoon, their name is all dogs hear when we speak to them.) When the General was no longer a puppy, it wasn’t safe to say “I’ll take Beau for a walk” within hearing distance unless you intended to follow through. He knew exactly what “walk” meant and was always eager for one. We resorted to workarounds like “I’m taking you-know-who for a you-know-what” or “We’re going for a W-A-L-K” to postpone the mania the magic words generated.
The irony of naming him after a general was lost on Beau. He didn’t care what we called him so long as it was with affection. And it was (although not so much when he nabbed a turkey leg one Thanksgiving).
Whether namesake, pun, or something easy to call, a dog’s name matters less than having one. No one wants to be nameless. And the actual name— Boots, Hunter, Olaf, Scruffles, Lulu—matters less than how you say it.