What’s in a Name?

Hey everybody, I hope you all had a great holiday season. Here at our house we were busy decking the halls and trimming the tree. The dogs got out their Christmas stockings and dreamed of meaty bone treats and turkey dinner. Our home was abuzz with holiday preparations. This was our dog Minnie’s first Christmas with us. Minnie? You say, who’s that? Did you get another dog? The answer is no, but one of our dogs did get a new name.

Now in order to make you understand this let me explain. In my twenty years of rescue work, I have always changed the names of the dogs that come through our home (that is if they had a name before they got here, some didn’t.) It is something I have always done in order to allow a rescued pet to have a completely fresh start.

minnieThis is Minnie the five pound Chihuahua we rescued approximately six months ago. You might recognize her as “Peanut” which is the name she came to me with. I didn’t change her name when I brought her into our home. It didn’t seem necessary, but I was wrong. Minnie did need a name change. Turns out changing her name was imperative to her full recovery.

Now I know that right now some of you are probably frowning at your computer screens thinking “what’s in a name?” I am about to explain it to you.

Dogs do not speak your language. They don’t speak English, or Spanish, or German, or any other language known to man. They speak dog. What makes them associate a word with a command or request is the syllabic sound of that word as it is spoken, no matter what language the speaker is using.

“But then why does my dog sit when I tell him to?” you may ask. Simple, he has associated the syllabic sound of the word “sit” with the action of his butt hitting the floor. He has absolutely no clue what the word “sit” means he just knows what response you require from him when the word “sit” is used. To him the sound of the word “sit” means plant your butt on the floor and look up at your owner expectantly, and you will be praised. Dogs learn that association quickly because there is usually a treat involved during training.

So, now we have established the fact that dogs don’t actually known the meaning of the words we use with them they associate the syllabic sounds with certain actions. Dogs don’t know their own names either, they associate the syllabic sound of the name you have given them with the fact that you want them to approach you. For most dogs with happy homes and loving owners the sound of their name brings thoughts of cuddles treats and special time with their human. They come when they are called by name not because they recognize the name but because they associate the sound of their name being called with positive experiences.

When we take in a rescue that has been abused, one of our first acts is always to change the name they came with.  We do this in order to avoid creating associations to abuse when calling the dog. Let me explain. For many abused animals, the syllabic sound of their name is a source of fear. When they hear that name called their mind automatically looks for the bad association that they have made with that syllabic sound. When you change their name it is the first step in creating a safe happy environment for them.

Now this may seem silly to some of you, after all what really is in a name right? Well for that dog there could be a lot behind that name that you simply do not know about.

19021_314760945311259_796742446_nWhen we took on Phoenix (who came to us as “Kent”) many people said he could not be helped. He was a fear biter, and a BIG dog capable of doing some serious damage if not rehabilitated. One of the first things we did was change his name, and as you can see Phoenix took to my husband and began to learn to trust humans. We have had him for three years now and he has never bitten anyone or showed signs of aggression. Guess the “experts” were wrong again! Or perhaps they just needed a lesson in handling frightened dogs.

Changing Phoenix’ name erased the past for him and gave him a fresh start. Since the sound of his name no longer inspired his fight or flight response we were able to work with him and he is one of the most disciplined well behaved dogs in our pack.

I really can not stress how important a simple name change can be to the recovery of an abused or abandoned dog. Most people don’t see a name as something to worry about, or they figure that since the dog came with a name changing that name will confuse the dog. This is untrue and the product of the way humans think. Humans form an attachment to their name, they can not conceive of changing it for any reason other than perhaps marriage. To a human their name is WHO they are. To a dog a name is just a sound that means “come here I want you.” Begin calling them by a different name and they simply accept that the new “sound” now means “come here I want you.” However there are no negative associations to this new name therefore they do not begin to expect abuse every time they hear the sound of their name. This creates a calmer dog and therefore helps that dog’s rehabilitation move along more quickly.

It is a very simple thing, but it could be the turning point in your rescued dogs road to recovery.

As always until next time remember,