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Naming Your Dog or Cat

The science and fun of choosing a name for your next pet.
By Roxanne Hawn
WebMD Pet Health Feature
Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S

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?

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“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.

Dog and Cat Vocabularies

"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.

How to Teach a Dog or Cat Its Name

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.

Dog and Cat Name Science

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.

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