A dog's name is, perhaps, the single most important word that he will ever learn. Think of it this way, a dog lives in a sea of human sounds and, with only the language ability of a human two-year old, it has to decide which words are directed at it and which are not. Thus if you say to another family member, "I am going to come over and sit down on the sofa," how does the dog know whether the words "come," "sit" and "down" were meant as a command him? 

Obviously, if you were looking directly into the dog's eyes and had his full attention the "come," "sit" or "down" would clearly be directed at him and he should know that you mean for him to respond. In the absence of that sort of body language, however, the dog's name becomes the key to his understanding. In effect, a dog's name becomes a signal which tells it that the next sounds that come out of it's master's mouth are supposed to have some impact on the his life and translates into something like, "This next message is for you."

This means that we should be precise when we are talking to the dog. Each time we want it to do something we should start off with it's name. That means that "Rover sit" is proper dog talk. On the other hand, "Sit, Rover," is not good grammar for a dog, since the command that you want the dog to respond to will have disappeared into the void before he has been alerted that the noises that you are making with your mouth are addressed to him. That means that when you say "Sit, Rover," since nothing meaningful follows his name you may well end up with a dog simply staring up at you with that "OK-now-that-you-have-my-attention,-what-do-you-want-me-to-do?" look that we all have seen so many times.

Dogs are fairly flexible about what they will accept as a name and are willing to change it from time to time. For example, there is the case of the Skye Terrier owned by Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson is best known for writing such classics as "Treasure Island" and "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." His little dog was initially named "Woggs", which was then changed to "Walter", which was then modified into "Watty", then transformed to become "Woggy" and finally ended up as "Bogue".

Any sound that is consistently used with a dog can come to be its name, at least for a while. I had an interesting experience with one dog, a Siberian Husky named "Polar". I had been invited to be a special guest speaker at a scientific conference which was being held at a ski resort. I was housed in a cabin which was shared with Paul, one of the program directors for the conference. Paul lived within driving distance of the resort, and had brought Polar with him. He knew that I liked having dogs around me at all times and thought that it might help me get over the separation pangs that I have when I am on the road and away from my own puppies.

It was interesting watching Polar and Paul interact. Although Paul clearly loved the dog, he was having some trouble controlling this rambunctious, bouncing ball of fur. As soon as the car door opened Polar dashed out. Paul yelled "No," and the dog obediently came back to his side. When I went to greet the dog, it jumped up on me and Paul again brought it back down to the floor with a sharp "No!" That evening, as Paul and I sat chatting over a drink, Polar began nuzzling him to try to get him to give him one of the pretzels that we had in the bowl between us. Again a quick "No," and Polar, settled down with a sigh. Later that night there was some commotion on Paul's side of the room. Polar had tried to snuggle his way onto Paul's bed and was pushed off with a sharp "No." In the morning the first sounds that I heard were from Paul telling Polar "No, it's too early. I don't want to get up yet." Then a few minutes later "No, let me sleep. I'll let you out in while."

Later, over dinner, Paul confided that he sometimes felt that he didn't really have the dog under control for much of the time. "For example, there are times when I don't even think that Polar knows his own name."

"Polar knows his name," I told him. "However, you might not." In response to his puzzled look I continued "We'll run a little experiment when we get back to the cabin tonight."

Later that evening we were back in the cabin. I instructed Paul to stand in the kitchen area, and I took Polar with me out on the deck just off of the bedroom. I was petting Polar, who seemed contented at the attention that he was receiving, when Paul, standing in the kitchen shouted (as we had pre-arranged) "No!" Polar stood up and quite obediently trotted off to his master. On the basis of what he had experienced during his life, the sound that he had heard most frequently associated with consequences for him personally was "No." In Polar's mind, then, "No!" was his name!

Stanley Coren does a regular informational blog called “Canine Corner” on the Psychology Today.

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Photo: Michael Rammell