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What’s in a Dog’s Name?

by Dennis ODonnell on April 29, 2020

My sister just adopted a 12-week-old Golden Retriever and named him Jamison. And although she is overjoyed at having this new family member, preparing for his arrival has been daunting. She did all of her homework, puppy-proofed her house, bought all the “right” products and read all the house training tips she could get her hands on. But as she ticked off all of the things on her list, I tossed out a casual question, “what’s the first thing you will teach him?”

And, crickets. Should it be sit? come? potty? Nope. All of that will come after he learns…his name. It is honestly my favorite thing to teach a dog. A name is so significant. For us humans, it is a show of love and a promise, “I have named you. You are mine and I will take care of you.” It can also be a creative expression of the kind of dog you hope this pup will grow up to be, “I shall name you Tiny and you will be a giant among dogs.” We humans are a little crazy.

To a dog, on the other hand, a name is a very important tool. It’s a connection to his caretaker. It’s a word that carries meaning and directions. And it can mean the difference between safety and danger.

But back to day one. To teach a dog his name, you sit on the floor in a room with few distractions and a bag of low-calorie, but delicious treats – think Zuke’s Mini Naturals – and say his name and give him a treat. And say his name and give him a treat. And say his name and give him a treat. Then let him explore the room and when he wanders back to you, say his name and give him a treat. Send him off to investigate again, say his name and if he looks back or comes back, say yes and hold out a treat for the taking.

Are you seeing a pattern of wonderful, positive, deliciousness here? Unless taught otherwise, his name will always be connected to you and the wonderfully positive experiences he has around these early moments. This in turn will teach him that positive things happen when he comes to you. As I said, it’s my favorite thing to teach a dog.

So, by participating in the act of teaching a dog his name you do three very important things:

1// You begin a lifelong bond with your dog. When all the things that flow from you are good, positive and delicious, a trust begins to form. To continue this bond, be sure to only use positive reinforcement when training and, if he has to do something he doesn’t like, refrain from calling him to you, instead go get him from where he is. This will protect his belief that coming when called only results in good things.

2// You teach him to think. Throughout his life, your dog will want to use his brain to problem solve, learn, process and play. The process of learning his name is his first puzzle: Why does this human keep saying that word? And how can I get more of those treats? He is working for his treat, so consider your self his first treat toy.

3// You teach the first step to recall. A consistent recall is the most important skill your dog will ever learn. It will allow him more freedom to explore on occasion because you can trust that he will return to safety. And it is the best chance you have of getting him out of an unexpected, dangerous situation. If coming to you is always a good thing, then teaching him to do it every single time without fail becomes a little easier.

Needless to say, I’m pretty sure my sister is sitting on her kitchen floor right now say, “Jamison! Yes!” How I wish I was there.

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