Teach your dog to know his or her name
By Honor Coulter | training, name
What’s in a name?
We humans tend to attach a complex sense of personal identification with our names, and these may have deep meaning for our parents who chose them for us, often before we were even born. We also have surnames that demonstrate our family connections.
When it comes to our dogs however, we often choose names that describe their appearance or personality, such as ‘Scruffy’ and ‘Spot’, or ‘Chaos’ and ‘Cheeky’! In our Dog School training classes we’ve met ‘Classy Boy’, ‘Mister Brown’ and ‘Rebel’…. Classy Boy is definitely a classy kind of chap, Mister Brown well, yes, he is fluffy and brown, and Rebel? turns out he’s not so much of a rebel after all! And as for ‘Crackers’…...we’ll leave you guessing there!
But what does a name mean to a dog? It’s actually much more simple to them! To our dogs, hearing their name should simply mean that ‘good things might happen to me right now if I look at my owner straight away’. It’s up to us owners to make that true!
Why should we teach our dog to know their name?
If our furry friends will respond to their names it means we can help to keep them safe when life becomes dangerous – a vehicle suddenly driving around a park for example, or a broken bottle. We can also help to keep other people safe – when they’re having a picnic for example and we need our dog to look at us instead of at the pork-pies on offer!
Being responsive to their name means our dogs can have greater freedom in life and helps them to develop a meaningful bond with us, as well as helping us dog-owners be socially responsible within our local communities.
Top Tips when teaching your dog to learn their name
Choose your dog’s name carefully, especially if you have young children who might not be able to pronounce certain sounds yet. Shorter names might be easier for children to say for example. Ensure that everyone in the household agrees with the choice and likes it. Remember this is the name you will be using in public, and at the vets!
Consistency is key – we often use nicknames or shorter versions of our dogs’ names, which can confuse them. While you’re teaching them, stick to their ‘official’ name and take care that this is what you will say to gain their attention and what they learn to respond to.
Take care not to use your dog’s name when you are unhappy with something he might have done. The danger of this is that if you use his name to scold him, for example “Benji, Benji, what have you done? You’re a bad dog!” he will associate his name with you being upset or angry. This may then affect your relationship and damage the bond you have with him. He may then not respond as quickly to you the next time you say his name, because he might now be worried about how you are going to talk to him. He might anticipate you appearing frustrated or stressed, even when you are not! He may even ignore you completely. For this reason, even though of course you might find his behaviour frustrating at times, it is always better to try to remain calm and not to scold, but to think about how you can prevent him from behaving this way in future and create opportunities to reward him for good behaviour.
Say your dog’s name during very positive moments in his life when he is visibly happy and relaxed, and avoid saying it during times when he appears to be worried or uncomfortable – during a vet examination if he is unwell for example.
SMILE when the training is going well! We want hearing their names to make our dogs feel good and we can connect with them emotionally through smiling and being happy ourselves – after all, we’re always going to be happy that our dogs choose to give us their attention despite everything else happening in the world right?
Remember this is not about teaching our dogs to ‘come’ to us when they hear their name but to give us their attention. For example, there might be broken glass on the ground between us and our dog that we need to ensure they don’t run onto… however if they’ve learned to run straight to us when they hear their name they’ll hurt their paws! We simply need to get their attention so we can keep them safe!
If at any point your dog does ignore you when you’ve said his name, don’t keep repeating it as he may then simply learn to ignore it…. instead take a break or stand up and move about to get his attention, then start practising again once you’ve reconnected with him
How to teach your dog to know their name
Our dogs need short, frequent training sessions with breaks in between so that their brains can process the learning and they’ll remember what they’ve learned – so do around 5 ‘name-calls’ in a session then take a break.
STEP 1 – introducing the name itself
- start in a location within your home that your dog is very used to, so there isn’t much around to distract him
- say his name then as soon as he looks at you say “yes” (or your marker word - see ‘introducing a marker for training your dog’) and then immediately give him a very tasty treat that he’ll really enjoy
- repeat this a few times then take a break
- repeat until you feel your dog has connected his name with looking at you then getting the treat
STEP 2 – slightly increase the difficulty by practising when your dog is looking away from you
- wait for your dog to be looking elsewhere, away from you, then say his name
- as soon as he looks at you say your marker word ( for example “yes”) then immediately give him a treat – you can throw this to him sometimes so he learns that he doesn’t always have to come right over to you in order to get his reward
- repeat this a few times then take a break
- repeat until you feel your dog is turning to you very quickly and as soon as he hears his name
STEP 3 – increasing the difficulty by practising in different rooms of the house
- move into a new location within the house and practice
- practise in every room in the house in turn
STEP 4 – adding further difficulty by adding in distraction
- now have someone else present in the room when you’re practising as this will be distracting for your dog
- as you’re increasing the difficulty for him now you need to increase the reward – you can use a different and even tastier treat, or you can give him a ‘jackpot’ of treats when he turns to look at you away from the distraction by giving him one treat after another until he’s had about four or five treats
- you can now be creative about the types of distraction you set up to practice with – how about someone dancing? playing a game with a toy?
- remember to increase the value of the reward for really good behaviour and effort – so if he is particularly quick to look at you, or he turns away from something potentially very distracting, then give him a ‘jackpot’ or an extra tasty treat
STEP 5 – keeping his attention for slightly longer
- continue to practice as before, using your marker (for example saying “yes”) as soon as he looks at you – but now waiting a few seconds before giving him or throwing him the treat reward
- this should encourage him to keep his attention on you while he waits to receive the treat
- remember to increase the value of the reward for really good behaviour and effort
STEP 6 – go outside to practice!
- practice this outside – but remember there will now be lots of potential distractions so start somewhere where there is less activity in general so he can concentrate
- you might need tastier treats because the environment has become much more difficult for him to concentrate in
- you might also want to use a toy to reward him or a fuss – as long as he enjoys this
Responding immediately to his name by turning to look at you is a behaviour you will want your dog to do throughout his entire life – so never stop practising and rewarding him for doing so.
We need to reward all the good choices our dogs make, because a behaviour that a dog finds rewarding is one he’ll keep on doing! Happy dogs, happy owners!