Can Dogs Adapt to a New Name?

Why would someone change a dog’s name? Won’t this confuse the dog?  There are various reasons to consider changing a dog’s name.  Think the rescue dog who cowers whenever his name is called.  A dog like this may have a negative association with his name.  The name evokes a fear response.  Some dogs never properly learned their name in their previous home.  My old Seven came from a house that never properly taught her a name.  She had been returned to the breeder when the family lost their farm.  Seen was a working farm dog helping protect livestock.  The parents called her one name, the kids they learned did not like it so were calling her something different. When called, there was no real response.  What if you do not like the name your new dog has?  A woman I trained with took a dog from her son.  He named the young pit bull “Satan”.  Mom said he was not ready to have a dog and removed the dog from his care.  Mom refused to keep the name the son chose.

Seven Ag June 030001

My old Seven – she did not respond well at all to what her family named her so after she came to us, we changed her name.


Before you teach a dog a new name, remember these ground rules. First: do not call the name if you are not in a position to reinforce a response.  If I walk around saying my dog’s name without reinforcing a response, how I can make sure my dog is learning it?  I do not want his name to become ignored background noise. Second: never put a negative association with the name. This means never saying the dog’s name as a precursor to punishment.  How can my dog learn his name is good when I say it and then do something bad? Giving my dog’s name negativity affects our relationship. Now let’s look at the process.

Get a handful of high value treats. Begin in a quiet, low distraction area.  This increases the chance of the dog not getting distracted and increases the chance of a response.  In a pleasant, happy voice, say the new name.  Do not use the treat to get his attention.  Do not wiggle it in front of his nose first.  Keep it hidden. Simply say his name and when he looks, treat.  If he does not look at you, wait a few seconds and try again.  If he still does not look, try getting closer or moving to an area of less distraction. The moment he looks at you after you say his name, reinforce it with a treat. Once he starts reliably responding to his name, increase the distractions a little.  As you increase distractions you must increase the value of the food you are using.

Move around the dog and call. Every time he looks at you, reinforce it. Go to different areas of the house and your community to practice.  This is important as you need your dog to respond to his name in a host of different situations. Along with high value food, use games such as fetch or tug of war to help reinforce the name.  If your dog enjoys being handled, you can do this at times.  Use a host of things to reinforce a response. How often do you need to play the games?

Every interaction I have with any of my pets is a learning experience for them – even if I do not think it is. If my dog has any negative association with his name, it affects my relationship with him.  Therefore I always work on some level to keep the name meaning good things.  When I am in higher distraction situations I will play name games – even with my older dogs. What if you have a new puppy or a different species?  The same concepts apply.

Finally, having a dog who responds reliably and happily to a name lays the foundation for teaching other behaviors.

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