Can Dogs Understand Names?

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Introduction

Us pet parents put a whole lot of effort into choosing the pawfect names for our furry friends, taking extra-special care to choose a moniker that suits each dog's unique personality and appearance down to a T. 

But have you ever wondered whether all this agonizing over choosing a name is worth it — do our four-legged family members even understand the names we give them?

We're happy to report that the answer is yes, dogs can and do understand their own names and can also associate names with particular people and objects. However, there are several important points and training tips to remember to ensure that your dog always responds to their name straight away, even in an environment that's full of distractions.

Signs Your Dog Knows Their Name

Does your dog come when called, even when there's a whole lot else going on around them? Do their ears perk up at the sound of their name?

Sometimes it's easy to tell when a dog understands their name. The telltale signs include ears and head raised at the sound of your voice, head and even body turned to face you, and eager eyes waiting in anticipation to hear what you have to say next. This is usually accompanied by a wagging tail and loose, relaxed body language, but a well-trained dog will be alert and listening closely to what is to follow.

Of course, some dogs seem to only recognize their names when it suits them. If it's dinner time or time to head out for a walk, your pooch will come running a split second after you mention their name. But then when you're trying to stop them from chasing the neighbor's cat, or trying to wrap up a visit to the dog park, they all of a sudden seem to lose all their name recognition abilities.

Body Language

Your dog's body language can contain plenty of obvious indicators that they recognize their name, including:
  • Alert
  • Head tilting
  • Wag tail
  • Raise ears
  • Head turning
  • Ears up

Other Signs

Other signs your dog knows their name include:
  • Focusing on You
  • Coming When Called
  • Responding to Their Name

The History of Dog Names

Dog names have changed a fair bit over the years. In medieval times, people gave a wide variety of creative names to their canine companions, such as Sturdy, Nosewise, Holdfast, and Amiable. Some pooches even got their names from the professions of their owners — for example, Little Hammer (Hemmerli) belonged to a blacksmith, while Little Spoke (Speichli), belonged to a wagoner.

In the 19th century, Fido was the most commonly used dog name and is still in popular use today. The name's popularity was in large part thanks to Abraham Lincoln's famous pooch, though a favorite children's book published in the 1840s also featured a dog of the same name.

In 1896, Hartsdale Pet Cemetery was established just outside New York City. In 2009, anthropologist Stanley Brandes published a study of pet name trends based on the names on gravestones in the cemetery. Interestingly, from 1896 to around the time of WWII, the names of pets were rarely human names. Instead, Brownie, Laddie, Hobo, Rags, and the like were all common choices, while some monuments only featured "Pets" or "My Pet" rather than any particular name. It was only in the period from the 1960s to the 1980s that human names started to pop up on more and more gravestones.

Today, of course, many of our furry friends are identified with human names. In 2017, the most popular names for male dogs were:

  • Max
  • Charlie
  • Cooper
  • Buddy/Jack

While the most popular monikers for female dogs were:

  • Bella
  • Lucy
  • Daisy
  • Luna
  • Lola

The Science of Dogs Understanding Names

When our children learn their own name, doing so implies that they have some level of understanding of themselves as distinct from other people. However, can we say the same for our dogs? Are they capable of forming the same concept of "self" as humans?

For example, if you always get your dog's attention by saying her name, "Bella" what does this mean to her? Does she soon come to think, "Yep, that's me. I'm a four-legged, furry creature named Bella"? Or does she come to realize that whenever she hears those same two syllables, "Bel-la", and your attention is focused on her, that something is about to happen? After all, dogs are quite adept at reading body language and understanding context, so it's possible that the names we give our pets don't have much meaning to them at all, and are used more as a cue than as personal identifiers.

The reality is that we don't know for sure. What we do know is that dogs can use deductive reasoning to understand different words. 

The most famous example of this is a South Carolina Border Collie named Chaser. Alliston Reid and John Pilley of Wofford College taught Chaser the names of an amazing 1,022 objects — more than 800 cloth animals, 116 balls, 26 Frisbees and 100 plastic items. That's a pretty incredible achievement and something that gives you a good idea of some of the remarkable things our pets are capable of.

Choosing the Right Name for Your Dog

Picking out a name for your new pet is a fun and exciting experience, but it can also be somewhat of a challenge. There are literally thousands of options to choose from, so remember the following tips to ensure that you end up with a name your pet is happy to call their own:
  • Keep it simple. Dogs respond best to one- or two-syllable names, so keep it short and to the point.
  • Say it out loud. You'll need to be able to get your dog's attention by calling their name in all manner of situations, for example, a crowded dog park or during a trip to the beach. With this in mind, make sure any name you choose is not only easy to call out but also one that you'll be happy announcing it at the top of your lungs no matter where you are.
  • Avoid any crossover. Try to stay away from any names that will sound too much like the basic commands you'll be trying to teach your dog, such as "sit", "stay", and "down".
  • The long and the short of it. Remember that any long name you choose will inevitably end up being shortened, so make sure any abbreviated version that may crop up is something you'll be happy with.

Last of all, have fun. Dog names can be creative, humorous, inventive, and just plain cute, so let your imagination run wild!

How to Teach a Dog Their Name

  • Use positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is the key to training success. By rewarding your dog for responding to their name or producing any desired behavior, you'll be getting them started on the right path.
  • Avoid punishment. Don't use your dog's name to punish or correct them. Instead, teach them to understand that the sound of their name means that something fantastic is on the way.
  • Aim for consistency. Try to call your pet by the same name at all times. If your dog's name is Max, stick to calling him "Max" and not "Maxie-poo", "Maximilian", or any other variations. Consistency is an important ingredient for success.