Naming Your Dog or Cat

The science and fun of choosing a name for your next pet.

Medically Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S on June 08, 2012
4 min read

Your pet's name isn't just about fun and creativity. It's also key to training, which affects your pet's safety and health.

Taught properly, pets’ names get their attention and alert them to act upon whatever comes next. Dog and cat names also lay the foundation for the human-animal bond, often with numerous, humorous nicknames sprouting up. Nelly-belly or Anna-banana, anyone?

“I almost always pick people names,” says Cathy Lester of Centennial, Colo. “I think it’s more dignified and adds a lot of personality. I like offbeat names, something I haven’t heard before.”

Lester trains her dog to compete in obedience, agility, tracking, and herding events and prefers shorter, distinct names - usually two syllables. She named her new border collie puppy Victor because of the movie Young Frankenstein, in which Victor pronounced “Wictor” cracked her up.

Beyond humor, check out the science behind choosing dog and cat names.

"Absolutely, dogs and cats can learn their names," says Christopher Pachel, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist in Portland, Ore.

Names, after all, are words. And a growing body of research is attempting to track the mental abilities of pets, and dogs in particular.

Chaser, a border collie trained by researchers at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., is the newest star of canine intelligence. She understands the names of 1,022 objects.

It's not yet clear if pets understand the abstract concept of a personal identifier -- that they hear their name and know that you mean them -- or if they simply hear it as word that means certain things may happen next, Pachel says.

Teaching (conditioning) a dog or cat to recognize its name takes time. Pets that have lived a solitary or low-interaction lifestyle first must learn that listening to your words pays off.

Whether it’s a few days or few weeks, the process of teaching a dog or cat its name is the same. Simply pair the chosen name with a positive experience.

That might mean a small, but high-value food reward such as real meat (chicken, beef, liver, fish) or perhaps an interactive game (fetch or tug with dogs, chasing toys for cats).

Keep it fun. Keep it light. Repetition and tone of voice matter. Use a happy tone of voice and say the name often. Immediately follow the name with a reward.

At first, a pet’s response to its name might be merely looking at you. You might need to add smooching noises or light clapping to encourage a response, but over time, the pet should learn to acknowledge its name alone.

Certain consonants (k, p, d) create broadband sounds with more energy across sound frequencies that get a pet’s attention. These sounds activate more audio receptors in the brain. Softer consonants and vowels trigger less of a brain response.

“We know that giving a short, choppy command in an up-tone of voice is something that encourages motor activity [movement], whereas long, slow, soothing tones generally do not,” Pachel says.

People taking part in competitive dog sports often prefer short, one-syllable names. Others lean toward two-syllable names, with the first syllable as an introduction to the second, giving pets more warning that you want their attention. Some find great glee in creating long, unusual pet names such as Ginko Cornelius (one of my dog's names) or Beauregard Thibodaux.

From a pet-training perspective, Pachel says that the longer the time interval between when the name sounds begin and the delivery of the reward (food, play), the more repetitions it will take a pet to recognize its name. “It doesn’t mean they cannot or won’t make the connection to longer names,” he says, “but they’ll have to learn the whole name as one command. Shorter is much more direct, much more precise.”

Alexandra Horowitz, PhD, author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, recommends picking names with some flexibility for both playful and serious uses, as the need arises. Often, two or more syllables provide for more vocal variations. She also suggests distinctive names that don’t sound like other words the pet often hears in daily life.

Pachel worries less about the complexity and length of a pet’s name and more about the possible undercurrents behind the name.

For example, it’s much harder for people to say a swear word or word/phrase intended in common usage as an insult in loving way.

Pachel also warns against giving names such as Killer to bigger breeds that other people might find intimidating.

You can change a pet’s name and in certain circumstances it makes sense to do so. Pachel says, “I’ve known dogs whose names have been used, not exclusively, but largely, in a punishment context, so the sound of their name immediately triggers a fearful or avoidant posture."

Ultimately, pet behavior and pet health experts want people to choose dog and cat names that they like and enjoy. After all, it’s a word you’ll be using a lot for many years to come.

“People assume I selected the name Victor for its winning properties, but that’s not it at all. It just made me smile,” Lester says. “What better way to select a name?”