Sunday, August 31, 2008

What Is A Name?

***Dedicated to Katie and Travis, who truly know/knew their names and how to respond.***

This weekend, I was at a PetsMart. As soon as I walked in, I was greeted by an adorable 7 week old, white and liver parti-colored, pit bull puppy..... OFF LEASH. Cute and friendly, I kind of wondered how Travis would have reacted 6 years ago when I used to take him to PetsMart to work on lessening his prey drive using the other customers' dogs as bait. I always expected them to be on leash, so I wondered what would have happened to this little guy if he had surprised me back then. Anyways, I could go on and on about all the problems with this picture, but the one that bugged me the most was that the woman was saying "Cocoa, Cocoa, Cocoa".... over and over again as if she really expected a 7 week old puppy to respond. The puppy had not even lived long enough to have had enough training or proofing to even attempt using her name, off leash, and in public.

Since I am anal about this sort of thing, I am going to let you in on a little secret, so you are smarter than many dog lovers around the world. Names are something humans invented. Dogs do not really have names in the same way that humans do. They don't refer to you by name and they don't refer to each other by name. So what exactly is the purpose of a dog name?

The purpose of a dog name is to simply get the dog's attention and ONLY that dog's attention. When I say "Katie", I want for Katie to look at me with a "what?" expression on her face and to start moving in my direction. "Katie" is a special cue for Katie only. If I need Katie, I don't want 5 dogs running into my kitchen.

With five greyhounds (I still want to say 6), we work hard on names. When asked "what is his/her name?", I am tempted to make something up on the spot because #1 - I suddenly have my dog's attention when I say it and I didn't need it and #2 - I don't particularly want other people using it. I loved that other people called Travis by the name "Jigmo". Go ahead, call him "Jigmo" all day long.... it didn't mean anything to him and it didn't unravel any of my work.

Generally, people over use dog names and I think its because when the dog is not responding to it, people tend to keep repeating it over and over again as if it will eventually sink in. It doesn't. The actual effect is that the dog does not learn the name at all and inadvertanly learns to ignore it since its chanted frequently and results in nothing.

I think ex-racing greyhounds are especially prone to never learning how to respond to a name because they have no experience responding to voice cues versus any other non-greyhound dog that grows up in a typical home. When I teach greyhound obedience classes, most people will insist that their greyhound knows his/her name and almost every time the greyhound proves the person wrong. The greyhound may come running in the house when you call his/her name, but the same dog might also come running if you sweetly called out "potato" as well. Try it. If your dog responds to other words, he/she is only responding to you and your tone of voice probably because there is nothing better to do. As soon, as you are outside of the home and there is plenty else to do, your dog won't be responding to any of those names. It also doesn't count if the dog comes running after you have said it 10 times.

So if I haven't bored you to tears yet (because this is much longer than I thought it would be), here are some things for you to do.

1. Take the time to teach your dog his/her name. When your dog is already looking at you, say the name and give a treat. Do not use the name to get the dog to look at you. Wait for it to happen, make a funny noise, and/or hold a treat between your eyes to encourage the dog to look at you and then say the name. After some practice, have a treat handy when your dog isn't paying attention, say the name, and reward if you get a head turn in your direction. Move on to practicing in public.

2. The worse thing you can do is have the dog off leash wandering around the yard checking messages while you fruitlessly repeat the name over and over again. If I don't think I am going to get the dog's attention, I don't ask for it. I try to create successful situations before moving onto more difficult scenarios.

3. If you tend to chatter endlessly to your dog, try to not use the dog's name. The dog's name should truly be a cue or command to look at you and if you tend to over use the name, it loses its effect. Use a nickname if you have to. I do.

4. When choosing a name, words no more than two syllables are best. Once in my class I had a dog named Caballero (ca-ba-yair-o) and another named Cellestral.... in the same class :-). I could hardly pronounce either. Might be best to choose a name that the general public can say just in case your dog is lost and you have people trying to call out the name. Also, in a multiple dog household, make sure that the names are distinctly different. Katie, Reagan, and Travis can't be confused with each other, but Reagan, Pagan, Radar, and Meagan might cause confusion. You also don't want the name to sound like other cues. Names like Moe and Joe aren't good if you want to be able to use the word "no", for example.

Congratulations! If you made it this far, you have passed Naming 101. Now try to put some of it into practice.