Most dogs at shelters will already have a name when you sign the adoption papers, and you will need to consider if you like your rescue dog’s name. If you are not crazy about the name, you may wonder if it is okay to give your new furry friend a new name. After all, a name is an important part of how we identify with ourselves and others, so your dog’s name should be given some consideration.
However, dogs do not associate with their name in quite the same way as humans do. So, there are some good arguments for either keeping the name the same or changing it to something else. A lot of it will have to do with the past associations your dog has with his name. If he cowers when you call his name, as an example, it may be a good idea to give him a new one.
Important Considerations Regarding Your Shelter Dog’s Name
There are several factors to take into consideration when trying to decide whether or not to stick with your new best friend’s current name or choose a new one. A lot will depend on his ownership history and life circumstances prior to your adoption. Key questions to explore include:
- Who gave your dog his name?
- How much does he identify with his current name?
- How much do you like (or hate) his given name?
Be sure to see my post, Everything You Need to Know About Adopting a Rescue Dog for more information about adoption.
Find Out the Origin of Your Rescue Dog’s Name
Shelter dogs always have names when adopted out even if their history is unknown. If the dog was not surrendered or does not have a name tag, the shelter staff will usually give him a name. This allows them to connect better with a stray and will also help get him adopted. Nobody wants to adopt a dog identified as “Dog #2894 or John Doe”!
On the other hand, your dog may have lived with a loving family for many years. They named him, loved and cared for him. Then either due to the death of his human owner or other dire circumstances, he ended up in a rescue facility or shelter. He came to know his name and formed positive associations with it during his years with his first family. Therefore, using his given name would be something that is familiar and welcoming to him.
Unfortunately, there are far too many dogs who have not been surrendered or lost, but who have been rescued due to neglectful or abusive situations. These are indeed very sad cases. The names that may be on their dog tags, may conjure up negative memories and associations for them. They may tremble, cower, and back away when their name is called. For these unfortunate pups, hearing their name means something bad is about to happen.
Dogs Have a Limited Sense of Self
Dogs do not have the same self-awareness as humans. A dog who is named Sir Alfred Kingston, the Third, probably won’t feel that regal! And the name is too long! By the time you said his entire name, he would be on to something else more interesting! For dogs, a name is more of a cue, a connection to something else. Calling a dog’s name gets his attention. In fact, dogs do not even know if they are boys or girls! They only know what they need and want and don’t really think about who they are.
Since dogs only understand a few hundred words, they do not make the same associations that humans do with different names. Yet, there is some body of evidence that indicates that dogs do have some self awareness, which could include their names. Some tests have been done with mats and mirrors, which indicate that dogs are aware of their body size and perimeters when placed on a mat. With mirrors, however, dogs often do not recognize themselves as their vision is not that good. But they do recognize their own smell as well as the smell and sound of other dogs and their owners. In actual three dimensional life, dogs do visually recognize other dogs and humans, but mirrors literally fall flat in that regard!
What does all of this mean? A dogs sense of self is probably pretty simple, and his name is only a small part of that. They may be aware of their own body size or smell, but they do not have the same introspective abilities as humans according to an interesting post at AKC.org. Dogs react to ques and triggers as motivators of certain behaviors, but not as something that becomes part of their identity. Rather, they interpret their name and other words as commands, which have practical meaning for them.
How Much Do You Like or Hate His Name?
If your new rescue dog’s name is Gertrude the Avocado or some other such silly name, you may hate it! On the other hand, he or she may have a name like Suzy, Freddie, Frankie, Copper, Sweetpea, or some cute name which you absolutely love. The name itself will have a lot more meaning to you than your dog! Your own sense of identity and your connection with your new canine companion will be a key factor regarding how you think about his name.
Probably the most important consideration is whether or not his name seems to fit him. If he is a rust colored dog, than Copper works. If she is a smaller, very sweet and affectionate dog, the name Sweetpea may seem very adorable. When I was a teenager, my family adopted a new dog after our longtime, beloved, family dog died. Skipper, was a white, overweight, terrier mix. He was very loyal and loved to trot alongside. Whenever we were outside playing, Skipper ran out to join us and ending up skipping alongside in his effort to keep up.
But, the new dog who came after Skipper was mostly tan and had an enormous amount of energy. We think he was probably some mix of herding dog. This new dog barked to beat the band and created a lot of noise and havoc. So we decided to call him Tiger-Lily. He truly lived up to his name! He was smart and lovable, but also quite a handful!
Benefits of Keeping Your New Dog’s Name
Clearly, it is easier to stick with the name that your new dog already has. You do not have to retrain him or think up a clever new name. It may also be much easier for your dog, especially if he does not have any negative associations with the name.
Your new dog will be going through a lot of adjustments and changes as he gets used to his new home environment and new rules. And, he will want to build his relationship with you and your family and understand what is expected of him. Even routine things like his meal schedule and sleeping area will be a big deal as he gets settled in.
Therefore, being called by a name he is used to will feel familiar and add some comfort as he makes the transition.
Argument for Changing a Dog’s Name
Sadly, many dogs in shelters have been rescued from a bad situation. Neglected or abused dogs most likely have traumatic and bitter associations and memories of their name being called or yelled out. In these cases, a new name can be a fresh, positive new beginning. When a dog hears his name spoken in warm, happy, positive ways, he will learn to be less fearful and anxious. Ultimately, his new name will become a que for something good and exciting and will trigger positive emotions.
You might also want to rethink his name if it seems to common like Fido or Max. When you call a name like this at a dog park, you may have more than one dog run toward you! And, it just might not fit the dog. A name like Toto sure would seem silly for a huge Great Dane.
Finally, you may simply hate the name. You could have some negative associations with certain names or find them repulsive. Because of the way humans identify with how we refer to ourselves and others, don’t discount your own feelings. And, if the dog was named at the shelter, he may not even know his shelter name. Shelter staff have little time to interact with the dogs in their care. They rename them mainly for the benefit of the people who adopt them.
How to Make the Change
- Make sure that your dog’s name is not too common
- Keep it to one or two syllables to make it easy for your dog to understand
- Pick a name you really like that seems to fit your new furry friend
- Only say his new name in positive tones, not when scolding or disciplining
- Use positive incentives like treats and mealtime when saying his new name
- Give him some time to become familiar with it
It may take your dog a few weeks to get used to a new name, but he will learn quickly with the proper encouragement. Keep it very positive and say his name frequently especially when calling him for a meal or to go out for a walk. You can reinforce this by calling him to you for treats or to play with a new toy. Dogs have an amazing ability to learn and adapt fairly quickly, and he will get the hang of it. If you have to discipline him, just say something like No!, but refrain from using his name, at least initially.
Most importantly, lavish him with love, kindness, and lots of praise. See my post on How to Bond with Your New Rescue Dog for some tips about this process. You will win him over in time regardless of any less than stellar experiences he may have had in the past. My father always said “I don’t care what you call me, just don’t call me late for dinner!” I think most dogs would agree!