What’s in a Name?

Dogs probably have no concept of “name” meaning the same thing as it does to humans – either as an identifier for an individual, or a cue to which they should respond. But, they certainly have the ability to learn to react to, and make associations with, the sound of the name.

Humans tend to overuse the dog’s name, and not train the dog what to do when he hears it. Overuse actually increases the likelihood the dog will ignore his name, especially if nothing good happens when he does pay attention. Each time you say the name without a pleasant consequence for the dog, an extinction trial occurs. Here’s how extinction is defined on Wikipedia: “When operant behavior that has been previously reinforced no longer produces reinforcing consequences the behavior gradually stops occurring.” The same is true In classical conditioning: “When a conditioned stimulus is presented alone, so that it no longer predicts the coming of the unconditioned stimulus, conditioned responding gradually stops.” So, if you call your dog “Darling” or “Hound Boy” (yup, one of my dogs is an 80 lb. dog for whom Darling might not exactly fit as an AKA) when you’re lounging on the couch, you won’t be contributing to the real name becoming just so much background noise.

I think our dogs should understand that when they hear us say their name they should look at us. Getting a dog’s attention quickly makes training him to do other things a lot easier, too. You want your dog to turn his head toward you automatically when you speak his name. Playing the name game is a crucial first step.

I heard my name! I'm watching to see what's next.
I heard my name! I’m watching to see what’s next.

Reinforcement should not be stingy!!! Dogs repeat behavior that earns them a good paycheck. For most dogs, that means food and lots of it – but, in the right order, AFTER the completion of a behavior. It’s important to understand the proper use of food in dog training. Some dogs prefer toys or a short game of tug, but most are foodies, and the number of dogs that truly prefer praise or a head pat over food is so miniscule as to be insignificant. Getting good stuff right after responding to his name will help insure that your dog always responds to his name.

Sadly, many dogs come to dislike their names, generally because they often hear it spoken harshly when a human is disappointed to see that they’ve committed some “crime” such as soiling the rug or tipping over the trash. One way to avoid poisoning the dog’s name in this way is to teach the dog a noise that will function as a positive interrupter. If you’ve adopted a shelter dog or a dog from a rescue group, and you don’t know the dog’s history, you can simply teach a new name, one that you can be sure won’y have any of those negative associations.

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