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How Does My Puppy Learn His Name?

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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When children learn their own name, it implies that they have an image of "self," as distinct from others. Presumably, the same holds true for dogs, though not all would agree that dogs are capable of this degree of understanding. By 2-½ years old, a child has formed a concept of "self" - but does a dog ever achieve this level of self-realization?

If we take a young pup aged, say, 12 weeks, and always approach him saying, "Sammy," what does the word mean to him? What does he understand from it? Does he think to himself, "Ah yes, Sammy - that would be me. I'm a small brown dog with bluish eyes and a curly tail"? Or does he think, "Whenever I hear that sound, the person making it is probably focused on me and something is about to happen." Could it be that the bi-syllabic sound, Sa-mmy, has no more meaning to him than a bell indicating food to one of Pavlov's dogs? The latter may be closer to the truth - though that doesn't stop our hero from learning that his given name, when spoken, means that he's now the subject of our attention.

What Does the Pup Understand?

It's truly hard to say what pups understand by their given name. Sure they hear the sound, and they sure react to it. But that doesn't mean they realize that the word they are hearing has anything to do with their "self." And there are other problems with the "name word," too. People don't just use the pup's name when they are addressing it. They also use the pup's name when talking to their friends. "Sammy was so good today. Ate all his food up." Sammy hears "his name," looks up, but no one is paying him any attention. He shrugs, and goes back to chewing on a shoe. The next time he hears his name he doesn't even bother to look up. He has no reason to. He has now been desensitized to his own name. For this reason, some trainers have owners give their pup two names: one for when they're talking to him (say, Sammy) and another (say, Dog Face) for when they're talking about him.

Using the Word "No"

Then there's the old enigma of the word, "No." Unfortunately, this is one of the words new puppy owners find themselves using quite a bit. The dog hears the word No and often notices that people are looking his way. Maybe that's my name, he might think. Of course, No is used in sentences that are not being directed at the pup, but much less frequently. Half the dogs in this country think their first name is No, so for this reason, trainers often ask owners to use different, more specific words to denote what they want the pup to do. E.g. stop it, leave it, out, and off.

Choosing a Name

Assuming that a dog can be trained to respond to his name, whatever he understands by it, it is as well to stack the deck in your favor by choosing a distinctive name. I don't mean one like "Claude," because it sounds fancy. I mean one that he can distinguish easily from all other words. The basic requirements are a) one syllable b) distinctive c) a hard sound (ending in a consonant). One name that should work, for example, is Kurt (as in curt!). Scooby doo is a distinctive name but is too long and is packed with vowels. On hearing the unusual and staccato sound, Kurt, the dog knows he is in for some attention. That means it's time to approach, grin, wag tail, and all that jazz. (It's almost as if he knows his name).

How You Say It

One other thing about the name is the tone in which it's used. When speaking to our imaginary friend, Kurt, we would bark out the name, KURT. When speaking with friends we should make a positive attempt to shield him from its impact. "I saw Kurt today and he was looking simply marvelous." (Note: Kurt said softly, almost under the breath) In asking a pup to come, always use his name first, to attract his attention. Kurt, come here (and then praise him, good boy, even before he comes so he knows he's not in trouble). The pup's name is only spoken toward him when you want to get his attention. If you use it before every command, e.g. Kurt, Sit! It will eventually lose it power.

So....How Does He Learn His Name?

The question may be, how does a puppy learn its name? but very often the answer is that it does not. In such cases, the pup's name must be shouted or repeated often in order to get its attention. Owners faced with this conundrum might equally well shout out a different word, like refrigerator. At least that name may be novel enough to attract the dog's attention and, if said in the right tone, could be positively beguiling.

For well-trained dogs though, the name does have a special connotation and can be quite useful and, as a communication, even endearing. But whether a pup's name will ever come to mean to it as a human name does to a person is doubtful. That is not to say that dogs don't have a sense of self ("I") but that they may not have a linguistic mechanism for such an association. Spoken language is a human phenomenon and we even have brain centers dedicated to speech. Dogs tend to be good at what they need to do in nature to survive. Calling each other by name was not one of those things. However, they undoubtedly knew who each other were, through sight and smell, most likely.

"I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together" – The Walrus (song). Lennon-McCartney.        

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