Naming Your Dog or Cat
The science and fun of choosing a name for your next pet.
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.
“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.