Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What's in a Name

For me, one of the highlights of acquiring, adopting, or fostering a dog is naming him, or her. A name is not meaningless, as some trainers state, but mirrors the owner’s personality and often reflects his purpose for having a dog; his expectations and the relationship he is aiming for.
The dog’s name gives me a hint if the owner might be needy or overprotective, soft and mellow, ego-driven and on a power trip, demands mindless obedience or has a sense of humor. Typically I am right on the mark: Rottweilers Ruger and Dillinger had somewhat shady owners; Angel, the sweet pit bull blossomed under the gentle care of her loving foster mother; Romeo, a standard poodle belonged to a perfectly done up and cosmetically enhanced single female; the intact German shepherd Butler to a type A law enforcement officer, and beagle Wontlisten’s tousled person couldn’t care less about obedience, just wanted the food resource guarding to stop.
To make it unequivocally clear, taking mental name notes doesn’t mean that I compromise how I treat someone, or the methods I apply. I never judge a person before I meet him, or afterwards for that matter, cause I neither walk in their shoes nor can I help a dog if I’m disparaging with her human. I treat the name as an important piece of information that helps me to angle the consultation a certain way, so that I am the best communicator I can be, so that the dog’s person is more likely than not following my advice. That’s all.

For the dog, a name isn’t meaningless either. True, the combination of letters is, but the sound should have relevance: it ought to be her cue to pay attention. It’s her instant on-switch. You say your dog’s name and she should flip around and look at you inquisitively, like the canine version of: “Heard ya! What do want me to do?”
Attention is the foundation for anything else you want to do with your dog. When you have it, behaviors can be learned in a flash, if you don’t, obedience training is lagging and a drag. In addition, while your dog is connected to you she can’t focus on another stimulus at the same time, and that can keep her out of trouble.
Instant name attention is crucial in day-to-day life. It serves both as a cue for your dog that what you are about to do involves her somehow, and as a signal to reconnect with you. In both cases, action always follows, and it has to be rewarding quality time.
If the dog associates her name with discomfort, she is less likely to respond consistently and readily. That doesn’t change even if you sometimes reward. Ambiguity creates apprehensive, not eager, performances.
Fun interaction as the consequence for instant response guarantees that the name is not just a conditioned default attention getter, but that your dog stays connected instead of checking out after a quick glimpse in your direction.
Action always follows for another reason: a dog whose name is called, but is then left in limbo because nothing happens, learns to ignore it – and by extension you.
There is nothing more annoying than someone saying your name again and again, interrupting you at whatever you are doing, just to ignore you as soon as you look up. Even if that person were to hand over a piece of chocolate each time, but without giving you further information, you’d likely be infuriated despite the treat. You can test that with your favorite person if you like. Trust me, your dog feels similarly and will tune you out if you are nothing more than irritating white noise.
If you have a young puppy, teaching name attention is easy. A pup, although not entirely a clean slate because behaviors are partly genetic, and partly imprinted by the environment she lived in before you got her, is needy and therefore naturally attaching herself to the mighty one who owns all assets. She also feels neutral about the name you have chosen for her; not yet ambiguous, worried or uninterested. To switch it from neutral to rewarding, say it often and reinforce with fun interaction. You’re on a roll if your dog, during a game of puppy piƱata, stops searching for the handful of treats you tossed out and instantly pays attention to you as soon as you call her by name.
If you are someone who rather gives an older dog a second chance, test how she feels about the name she came with. If she doesn’t respond to it, or if she averts her eyes or head, change it. For that matter, also test her with other common commands, for example the recall one “come”. If she does anything else but enthusiastically run to you, change that also.
Paying attention to her name should be the first thing you teach your puppy, or older new family member. Every considerably intelligent dog, regardless of age, can learn a new name in no time. Our Will was nameless for her first ten weeks or so of life, became Trisha after she was humanely trapped, then Sadie a couple of weeks later in her foster home, and was renamed Willkommen by us. Three different names in five months and she responded to the one we gave her within ½ hour.
You’d teach it the same way you teach the pup: make yourself interesting, possibly having the dog leashed when you practice so that she can’t walk away, say her new name and entice her to look at you, and the moment she does exaggerate your happiness and follow up with a big deal interaction, which you can name as well. Putting a word to the action will become commands you use to communicate to your dog what will happen next.

Saying a dog’s name is the best, kindest and most natural way to get her attention. We are humans with human habits. We don’t poke or electrically stimulate someone we want to connect with, but use his or her name, and that is what we should teach and apply with our dogs as well.

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