Should You Change Your New Rescued Dog’s Name?

Many of my clients choose to adopt their dogs from shelters or rescue organizations. Others adopt adult dogs from friends, family, or (yikes!) craigslist. One of the first questions I ask is, “Are you going to change his name?” Frequently, they look at me in horror, “Oh, no, I could never do that to him!”

Whether your dog is four months or fourteen years old, I recommend that you do change the dog’s name. First, many dogs’ names are changed virtually the instant they walk into the shelter. So eight year old “Max,” may well have been “Harry” two days ago anyway. Second, and perhaps more importantly, if “Max” really was his name in his first home, you have no idea what baggage may be associated with that name. By baggage, I mean “nasty stuff.”

Dogs don’t respond to their names for a number of reasons, including:

  1. The dog has not been taught his name. Yes, you do actually need to teach a dog to respond to his name and that responding to his name will predict good things happening for your dog. If you don’t teach him that name response has value, why would he respond to it any differently than he’d respond to any of the zillions of words you likely utter each day which have no meaning to him?
  2. The dog has learned that his name means he is in trouble. “Max, no!” when he chases the cats. “Max, bath time!” “#&$^@*#*$(*&^!it, Max!” If name = trouble, the dog will likely not only ignore his name, he will actively avoid engaging with you when he hears his name. The cue has been, effectively, poisoned.
  3. The name cue has been used so many times when the dog is ignoring it, that you become background noise. In my own home now, I stopped typing for a minute. I hear traffic sounds, the fan running, water dripping, etc. At my classroom, I know that the lights and air conditioner both hum. This is all background noise – my brain tunes it out because it’s irrelevant to me – there are no meaningful consequences associated with these sounds.
  4. The dog is reinforced for sloppiness and lackluster performance. When people repeat their dog’s name OVERANDOVERANDOVERANDOVERANDOVERANDOVERANDOVERANDOVER again, they become the ceiling lights humming, the distant sounds of meaningless traffic. Exacerbating the issue is that many will reward the dog when he finally listens, teaching him that reinforcement is available whether he listens the first time or the 20th time.

Why should you teach your dog a new name?

Don’t feel guilty about changing your dog’s name. Dogs don’t really see their names as defining their identities. Mokie is over six years old now, and if I wanted to change her name tomorrow, I could and she wouldn’t care. A new name, to Mokie, would be just as good as her current name if I taught her that responding to “Dolly” (or whatever) could earn her reinforcement.

You should teach your dog a new name to avoid dealing with the baggage that his old name may have. You can teach him to respond enthusiastically and reliably with just a bit of training. Not sure how to teach a new name? this blog entry I wrote for Dogster will show you how!

ADDITIONAL TIPS:

  • Teach your dog that no matter how your voice sounds, responding to his name is always a good thing. If he is running toward a busy road, you will likely not say his name in the same tone of voice you’d use if you were announcing the presentation of the brand new toy you bought him. Unless you teach him that you yelling his name means good things, he may well think he’s in trouble and run away! Consider giving your dog extra-special treats when you practice your “please-don’t-run-into-rush-hour-traffic-on-the-highway-voice.”
  • Avoid using your dog’s name as a cue for recall – you should teach recall separately and the name should be a cue for instant and sustained eye contact. Your first instinct when your dog is running toward the road is to use his name – if he believes this is a recall cue and you are on opposite sides of a busy street, you’re in trouble.
  • Avoid pairing your dog’s name with unpleasant consequences. If your dog is getting into trouble and you need to interrupt, train the positive interrupter. If you must do something your dog doesn’t like, give him a bath for example, simply go get your dog – avoid using his name or recall cue.

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