What’s in a Name?

Behavior Clips

By Gary Wilkes

Bumper was an Australian Shepherd mix who belonged to my roommate, Dan, when I was a young shelter manager. Dan liked to let Bumper run loose through the neighborhood each evening at dinner time. After dinner, Dan would want Bumper to come home. That’s when the trouble started.

If Dan wanted to go out for the evening, he would become furious that Bumper was spoiling his plans. He would yell Bumper’s name in the harshest manner possible and threaten him with dismemberment if the dog didn’t return instantly. After a long time, Bumper would slink back into the yard and cower by the back door. Dan would grab him harshly by the collar and drag him inside to teach him a lesson. Bumper learned the lesson perfectly; his name meant that he could expect harsh treatment when he returned home. Ironically, his love for his master made him repeatedly overcome his fear and return, albeit reluctantly. He wasn’t being intentionally disobedient. He simply knew exactly what his name meant.

Bumper’s problems were no different than what some of your clients’ dogs experience. For instance, many trainers suggest that you should precede every command with your dog’s name. Bumper, sit. Bumper, down. Bumper, this. Bumper, that. Bumper, Bumper, Bumper. Soon, the word Bumper will mean nothing at all. That is because any sight, sound, touch, smell, or other sensation that does not lead to a tangible consequence becomes neutral. In essence, this is the process called habituation or “getting used to something.” That is why dogs that are groomed as puppies ignore hot air being blown in their face and the sound of blow-dryers.

“Your Name is Flinch”

The best way to look at a dog’s name is to connect it to these things: stop, look, listen, wait for the next command. When you say a dog’s name, it should cause your dog to look at you and wait for the next command. Perhaps the best way to destroy this association is to follow the dog’s name with the word “NO.” When you say “Bumper!” the dog will initially react by looking at you when he hears his name. That’s what he’s supposed to do. At the sound of the word “NO!” the dog will learn that responding to his name is somehow a mistake – not for the misconduct the owner was trying to identify. The timing of the word “NO!” tells a dog what he has done wrong. If you doubt this scenario, consider how you would respond to your name if you got slapped each time you looked toward the person calling you? In most cases, the only thing that is connected in the dog’s brain is a flinch response when it hears its name.

Multiple Dogs, Bigger Problem

For those people who own several dogs, the chance of abusing their names is even greater. Most people think that if Sadie is in trouble and Buddy is fine, the way to differentiate them is to say “Sadie, NO!” That is supposed to tell the dogs that Sadie is in trouble but Buddy is not. Unfortunately, that is not how it works. To start with, few dogs who live together really know their names. They respond in tandem to anything that remotely sounds like a name. Buddy answers to “Sadie” as often as he answers to “Buddy.” Since the word “NO!” is common to both dogs, both will flinch at the sound of the word “NO!” regardless of the name you call out first. Oops. Sadie then gets punished for responding to her name, and Buddy gets punished for whatever he happened to be doing at the time—usually something acceptable.

A Simple Solution 

The way to get around these problems is to better understand the way that your dog understands words and commands. If you have two dogs and wish to scold only one of them, you must have three words to do the job. “NO!” means that everyone on four feet is in big trouble. Next you need a word for Sadie that means “only you are in trouble” and a different one for Buddy. If this sounds difficult, it’s actually very easy. Color code your dogs. Put different colored collars on them. Sadie is “Pink!” and Buddy is “Blue!” If Sadie is in trouble but Buddy is not, yell “Pink!” and apply whatever safe and effective punishment you are comfortable using, such as a squirt gun or throw pillow. The next time Buddy jumps on someone but Sadie has all four feet on the ground, yell “Blue!” and Buddy knows it’s for him. That is because Sadie has never had anything happen to her when she hears the word blue. Remember that signals that are not connected to tangible consequences become neutral. Likewise, Buddy doesn’t know what “Pink!” means. If both dogs are acting up, fall back on your old standard, “NO!” This process allows you to selectively scold one dog but not the other. “NO!” is reserved for emergencies or identifying both dogs as culprits.

Bumper’s Nightmare Compounded

If you had asked Dan why he called Bumper’s name, he would have told you it was to get him to come home. Sadly, even if he had achieved his goal, it would have seriously eroded his control. Why should a name not mean “come”? If you do that, it will destroy your ability to control your dog at a distance. Imagine that your dog has slipped out the door and is across the street. A car is coming. If you have taught your dog that its name means “Come!” you have no way to get your dog’s attention without having it run in front of the car. The same is true if you break a glass in the kitchen and want the dog to stay so you can remove the danger. In essence, when a dog’s name means “Come!” it’s incredibly difficult to alert them to danger and have them stay until the danger has passed.

In the real world, we all abuse our dogs’ names. My dog Petey is sometimes “Petey-puss” or “Peter-ino” or any other baby-talk variation that happens to come out of my mouth. If I notice that he’s getting rusty and not paying attention the way he should, I specifically spend some training time on polishing his response. Preserving my dog’s “good name” is my most important training task.

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