It doesn’t matter if I’m working with a dog to teach them basic manners or with a dog that has a serious behavioral issue. One of the most important things I make sure they know is how to recognize their name. I would argue that a dog’s name is the foundation for every conversation you’re ever going to have with them. A dog’s name essentially means, “Look at me, more information to come,” and if you are unable to gather your dog’s attention, then how would you ever teach them anything beyond that? Below are some easy to follow steps on how to teach your dog his new name (or his old name that he never actually learned to respond to), and more importantly some things you should know about using their name properly.
To teach your dog their name, have a food or toy reward ready in your hand. You may choose to hide it behind your back if they are fixated on you. Wait for a moment when they’re looking away and say your dog’s name in a happy, friendly tone just once. When they look at you, mark the active head turn towards you with a “Yes!”* and deliver your reward. If your dog does not look at you immediately, wait a few seconds without repeating their name. If necessary, prompt your dog by making interesting noises such as whistling. Again, when they turn to acknowledge you, say “Yes!” and deliver your reward. The idea here is that your dog will eventually make a positive association with hearing their name. They will also learn that turning to look at you is what earns them a big reward. With practice, your dog will be a pro at giving you their full attention. Many trainers like to call this “The Name Game”.
When playing “The Name Game”, there are some important points to keep in mind because the possibility is there for one to easily ruin their dog’s name recognition. Take note and avoid ever doing the following:
1) Associating your dog’s name with something negative is a surefire way to get them to look the other way instead. Just think about it. If two out of ten times someone said your name and you turned around only to get pinched real hard, you’ll develop at least some sort of hesitance to acknowledging that person when they say your name.
Also, please remember that “negative” is defined by your dog, not by you. You may consider steak to be the best thing on earth, but if your dog has some odd aversion to it and you try to reward them with a nice cut of beef when they respond to their name, you’re actually punishing them and their response to their name will actually decrease.
2) As the title of this article suggests, your dog’s name is precious. What that means is we don’t want to overuse it. When teaching your dog their name, it is crucial to resist saying it over and over again as a means of garnering their attention because your dog will eventually drown you out due to you turning their name into just noise. At that point, they’ll have learned that their name is inconsequential.
Another smart thing to do is to choose a nickname for your pup and use it when talking about your dog with the rest of your family. That way your dog doesn’t hear the equivalent of, “Fido blah blah blah Fido…” all day long as you tell your friends about all the funny (or perhaps not so funny) things your pup did that day.
3) As with teaching your dog anything, set them up to succeed by practicing in non-distracting areas at first, such as in every room of your house, in your hallway, and perhaps even on a quiet street. Resist the temptation to march down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan chanting your dog’s name. You’ll only get frustrated that you’re not getting the response that you want and your dog might learn that it’s okay to not look at you if there’s something more interesting to explore in their environment.
Once your dog knows their name, the possibility is there for teaching them just about anything else. You have their attention now!
* “Yes!” is a reward marker just like the sound of a clicker. You say “Yes!” the very moment your dog does the exact thing you want them to do and it is an indicator to your dog that they just did something correct. “Yes!” is a precursor to getting a reward and will have great meaning to your dog.