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What’s in a name?

By Scott Hunt – The Dog Grumbler

 

A READER asked me recently to elaborate on the importance of selecting a suitable name for a dog.

Let’s consider our motivations: some of us go for quirky, amusing names like “Deefer”; some, having shelled out lots of money for a pure-bred with a name a foot long will find some contraction of the dog’s aristocratic moniker to remind us of its expensive pedigree.

Some will choose a name that embodies our hopes for our new pet; perhaps “Zeus” or “Fang”, while others celebrate their love of a sporting hero, pop star or actor.

Choosing a name can be fun, but I like to add one or two more considerations.

Firstly, the dog’s hearing range outstrips ours by a factor of roughly two to one; mostly towards the high end. This means that while the pitch of human speech is in the range we humans hear best, it is below the sounds a dog hears well.

Dogs have virtually no capacity for grammar; they are good at sounds, especially up in the range of say, keys rattling, and can recognise many speech sounds, but words and language are very much a human province.

Consider too that they cannot make the vast majority of human speech sounds themselves. Dogs understand that we manipulate vowel sounds because they can do it themselves when they howl or yawn, and they understand and derive meaning instinctively from pitch variations, but most human speech is a dull drone to the canine ears and mind.

An individual name is a concept a dog has to learn, just as it must learn everything — through clarity, repetition and consistency. This is best achieved by using a sound that stands out from the rest of what we say.

Think of the names of famous dogs — Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Kenny, Scooby-Doo — sharp consonants, multiple vowel sounds. My advice is to test any spoken communication intended for your dog by saying it with your hand over your mouth — if it still stands out from other things spoken the same way, there’s a good chance your dog can pick it out.

I’m not suggesting that all those dogs out there with names like “Bob” or “Ned” or “Deefer” are doomed to a life of confusion, but as in all things we can make an effort to meet them halfway — to avoid confusion and give a dog the best chance of knowing when it has our attention or when we want its attention.

For dogs, communicating is more about body language — human vocal communication is mostly outside their frame of reference, but if we think outside the human box and start early they can develop a human-style sense of identity where a particular, distinctive sound identifies an individual.

Your dog will train itself as long as you make sense to it. Start by giving it a name it can really hear.