On changing a dog’s name

Rudy and Lola

Names hold great importance to most humans. Names don’t mean the same things to dogs. Theory of mind regarding dogs is changing quickly as people develop tests more appropriate for dogs, but… have you seen a dog pass gas and look back at their own butt, as if they don’t know what happened? Or seen a dog instinctively lick a wound, but then keep licking even though they are injuring themselves (and, one assumes, causing themselves pain)?
People often express concern to me about changing their dog’s name when they adopt them. I appreciate the concern — it demonstrates empathy for the dog’s situation, but a dog’s name has different meaning to them than our name does to us. Few dogs approach their learning potential. Few people have time to help them learn more than some basics cues and a few tricks. They could be learning dozens or hundreds. Learning a new name is really just learning a new trick.
Taking a new name has great meaning to us, as humans, who are constantly concerned with our selves: our weight, our clothes and shoes, how other people will perceive our intellect… and our names embody all those concepts. But dogs? Do they care about these things? And if they do not, then what does their name mean, other than to look toward the person saying it?
If you like the name your dog came with, then use it. If you don’t, I would change it. For the dogs I have adopted or fostered, I am about 50/50 — the main concern being my perceived associations the dog’s name may carry for them. An anecdotal example: My dog Rudy was treated very badly before being (I use this word here accurately and literally) rescued. When I adopted him his name was Rocky. We changed it, and not only did we never say his old name again, we spelled it in front of him for friends and family when we told them about it. I didn’t ever want him hearing that word again. One day a few months after he came to live with us, I was walking him when a dog ran down the block in front of us. Right behind ran a woman yelling harshly, “Rocky!! Rocky!! Come here!!” Rudy cowered and peed. Was it her tone, or his old name, or both? I don’t know, but I do know that his new name means, “pay attention because good things are about to happen!” and I am very glad I changed it!

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “On changing a dog’s name

  1. Thank you! I have been an inveterate name changer since my first preowned Dog. He had been passed through four owners before me named Smokey and was a hyper active sweetheart. I never spoke the word Smokey, named him Laszlo. Three years later, while cooking, I broke into song, singing “On Top of Old Smokey.” He was walking down the hallway, stopped, turned his head towards me and I swear gave me a huge smile(or for those who don’t believe dog’s smile,) look of recognition.

  2. This has always been my philosophy! I always tell people that are concerned about changing their newly-adopted dog’s name:

    1. You don’t know what connotations the dog has with the previous name.
    2. A dog learning a new name with positive reinforcement isn’t any different than them learning a nickname or a new command. They aren’t going to feel bad about being called “Fluffy” instead of “Buttercup” if “Fluffy” means praise and treats!

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