BY REBEKAH OLSEN
Every morning, I perform the “come inside” dance. If you’ve ever been in a rush to get out the door and your dog isn’t in a rush to come in, you know what this looks like. It’s a routine that would rival Bobo the Clown with lots of squeaky dog toys, peanut butter-covered treats, exuberant knee slapping and a dance to the tune of ‘Fido! Come, Fido! Oh, look how exciting coming inside is!’ This is all performed while your dog stands in the middle of the yard looking at you like you’ve lost your mind. (What’s more, your neighbors might agree with him.)
Unfortunately, this scenario happens to even the most avid pet guardians who spend months and a small portion of their child’s college fund training their dog. However, the problem isn’t your dog, it’s his name.
One of the biggest training mistakes pet guardians make, says Kat Martin, owner and trainer at Dogs and Kat in Nashville, is overusing their dog’s name. For humans, our names are a defining factor of who we are, and we are able to understand the variety of ways our name can be used. I know the difference between my friend calling me over to come talk to her, or when she is saying my name because she is talking about me, and as a child, it didn’t take me long to figure out that ‘Becky, come do the dishes’ meant I could take my time while ‘Rebekah Sue!’ meant I should move with just a little more pep in my step.
Often times, we believe our dogs also understand the different ways their name can be used, so we use them even when we aren’t asking for or giving them any attention. According to Martin, dogs don’t make that same intuitive association with their name. They are unable to understand that their name is who they are; instead, they only know the association between the name and what comes after hearing that word. “For a dog, it’s more of, ‘I heard this word, and this happens and the attention was focused on me, and so [my name] has something to do with me’,” explains Martin. “A dog’s name is a verbal cue not unlike any other verbal cue like sit or down or stay.”
Just like ‘sit’ means for your dog to plant his tail on the ground, a dog’s name means that he or she needs to look at you and focus. If overused, their name can begin to take on a different meaning, and that meaning may be, well, nothing.
Michelle Yue, certified behavior consultant and dog trainer at Good Dog DC in Washington, D.C. is training her 18-month-old German Shepherd, Max, for competition. Yue loves to take Max on long walks downtown, but the strolls have turned into a work place hazard. Passersby often stop to love on the handsome young lad, and their first question is usually, ‘What’s his name?’. Once armed with this knowledge, they say Max’s name over and over and over again, making his tail wag, paws jump, and focus disappear. Max has now officially learned that his name means nothing more than to become excited!
Since Yue can’t risk Max not listening when in the ring, she decided to implement one technique into her training sessions that ensures he tunes in every time: she gave him two names. “Max is the name that we use if someone asks what his name is, and we also use Max in the house. Meanwhile, Puppy is the name that I use for training. Puppy means he needs to focus and I’m definitely talking to him and it’s definitely working time,” explains Yue.
Yue only uses the name Puppy when she’s ready to ask for a certain behavior and reward him with praise or a treat. Max has learned that when he hears the name Puppy, if he responds correctly, he will always be rewarded.
Often times, when pet guardians use their dog’s name to give a command, they aren’t ready to reward the behavior and eventually the dog realizes it’s not worth it to listen. According to Yue, “Dogs think, ‘Oh, there she goes saying my name again!’ It takes effort for them to look up and focus, and if they are looking up and focusing and it’s for no reason, then pretty soon they are going to learn that they don’t have to do that.”
Martin calls this ‘poisoning the cue’: “It boils down to what’s known as the Law of Effect: if a behavior is rewarding, then it’s going to be repeated, and if it’s punishing or not rewarding, it’s probably not going to be repeated, or eventually it’s going to be extinguished. So, if we use a dog’s name over and over with no positive or negative consequence, they are going to be less inclined to respond to us.”
According to Martin, my own pup ignores my morning dance routine because he has learned that coming inside means I’m leaving him for work. By inadvertently creating a negative association with my dog’s name, I’ve taught him that it’s not fun to respond to me when I call him.
If your dog’s name has also been “poisoned”, Yue and Martin both suggest hitting the restart button. Give your dog a new training name or even just use his favorite nickname, then spend time positively reinforcing the word. “It’s super easy, anybody can do it,” insists Yue. “Say the training name and put the treat in their mouth. If you do this five to ten times in a week, your dog will soon love responding to the word.”
After your dog has learned to associate his name with yummy treats and lots of love, it’s time for you to do some of your own training. Make it a habit to only say your dog’s new training name when you are prepared to reward him or to engage him further if he doesn’t respond quickly.
“I think dogs aren’t stubborn,” says Martin. “I think they are opportunistic, but so are we. If you make there be an immediate consequence, good or bad, they’re going to respond accordingly. For a correct response, immediately reward your dog with praise and treats, and for an incorrect response, Martin says that sometimes all it takes is for you to turn around and remove attention from your dog. Surprisingly, he will be doing what you asked when you turn back around.
If you aren’t ready to reward your opportunistic pup, use his pet name to get his attention, or even just a sound like “ack, ack” to stop the unwanted behavior. This way, if your dog doesn’t listen, you haven’t lost the power behind your training name. Yue adds that you should only give your friends and family members the pet name to use with your dog. “I would never give people [in public] the name Puppy, because I think people sort of train your dog not to respond to them when they use their name. So it’s nice to have two separate names.”
Unlike dogs, humans aren’t perfect, so there will be times when we’ll slip up and use our dog’s name incorrectly. According to Martin, that’s okay as long as there are more correct uses than not.
The most important thing to remember is that dogs don’t speak our language, and as their guardians we have to show them what our words mean. By reinforcing the meaning of your dog’s name, you can be sure that your canine companion will respond when you need her to the most, whether it be in danger of her running out in the street, or in danger of you being late to work.
JUST FOR FUN
You don't have to follow any particular rules for your dog’s name to be effective. As long as you’re positively reinforcing the word, you can name your dog whatever your heart desires—although you may want to avoid the overused ones!
Here are the most popular dog names for 2013, according to rover.com.
Rebekah Olsen lives in Southaven, MS with her husband, Matt, their Cane Corso Midas, and whichever dog they are currently fostering at the time. She is a freelance writer, small business owner, and also writes a blog for Dogs 2nd Chance Rescue Group.