The Science of Naming Your Dog and Tips for Apt Choices

The Science of Naming Your Dog and Tips for Apt Choices

The Science of Naming Your Dog and Tips for Apt ChoicesNaming your dog is a big decision, and for your pooch, this will be the most important command for the rest of his or her life. But did you ever stop to consider the science of naming your dog, and what names work best?

No matter how strongly we’d love to believe that our pets understand that a concept of “name” exists, a name to a dog is simply a type of “command” by which your pooch will be referred to throughout their entire life.

In order to find the most effective dog names, experts have done a lot of research with service dogs on the types of words and phrases that canines are able to easily recognize. Believe it or not, some names really are better than others. 

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Dog names to which your pooch will respond to best

First, let’s set the record straight: dogs don’t comprehend “the name” as their actual name. It’s simply a sound to them which, after certain type of “training,” will begin to carry meaning. Scientists have already studied how dogs understand commands and names aimed at them [1], and PetMD tried to explain well how this process of naming your puppy works.

Studies have shown that dogs can hear the ‘s’ sound much more intensely than humans, and that dogs respond best to words with two-syllables that include hard consonant sounds.

They’ve also discovered that hard consonants create sounds with more energy across sound frequencies and therefore attract the dog’s attention better. Harder sounds also activate more audio receptors in a canine’s brain than soft consonant sounds.

Dog behavior expert Laura Waddell explains the science of naming your dog based on her years of experience:

“They can distinguish frequency ranges that we cannot, particularly dogs with pricked ears, which work almost like parabolic microphones,” said Waddell to NYTimes. “The hard consonant is a relatively sharp sound that the dog can respond to quickly. I think sibilant sounds are more muddled for them.”

Names with these characteristics are more likely to be recognized and remembered by dogs, while dog names with three or more syllables are significantly more difficult for dogs to understand and memorize. Researchers believe that the reason is more individual sounds that can be easily misconstrued.

A different study was done with puppies where owners were trying to teach their young dogs a new name using a treat for responding to it. The results found that the more time it took between the beginning sound of the name and the food to be given, the longer it would take for the puppy to recognize its name over time.

Another thing to keep in mind if you’re concerned about the science of naming your dog is that some canine names sound similar to commands that you may give them, and thus confuse your pooch. For example, the name Oliver sounds similar to ‘roll over’ and your dog would likely get these two mixed up on occasion.

Once you pick the name, use it sparingly

Stanley Coren, an author of many dog books whom we love dearly on this site, has written about this on Psychology Today:

Any sound that is consistently used with a dog can come to be its name, at least for a while.

We already know how capable dogs are [2], but overuse of your dog’s name could cause them to disassociate with it, and they may end up just ignoring the name altogether. There’s a fine line between using a dog’s name enough times so they can learn it, and using it too much so they begin to disregard it.

Researchers who have studied training also found that using the name first before saying a command rather than the other way around seems to help the dog understand that you are directing the command at them. For example, instead of saying, “Sit, Sam,” you should say, “Sam, sit.” In the latter example, your dog is hearing their name first, so they know the comment following it will be directed at them.

“In effect, a dog’s name becomes a signal which tells him that the next sounds that come out of his master’s mouth are supposed to have some impact on the his life. Thus a dog’s name linguistically translates into something like ‘This next message is for you’,” Stanley Coren explains further.

Alexandra Horowitz, PhD, who’s been studying canine behavior and psychology for many years, quickly notes:

“I like names that I’m willing to say repeatedly,” says Horowitz in the same article from NYTimes by Jan Hoffman, “because you find yourself often conversing with your dog.”

The Science of Naming Your Dog and Best Naming Choices
“You named me what?” Photo by gullevek

Even if you don’t care much about the science of naming a dog and how it will affect the training and obedience, we’ve got a few tips ready for you when picking the best name for your pet, as per advice from dogs.about.

What you should do:

Pick a name that you and the other members of your family like. You’re the ones that will be using it over and over again, so it should be something you all think fits the dog.

Try out the name for a few days before you decide to stick with it. You may find that the name doesn’t fit your dog’s personality or that you just don’t like hearing it that often. Nobody says you have to stick with your very first choice.

Pick a name that will work long-term. You might dislike calling your dog ‘Puppy’ when they are 12 years old. Although some dog owners might find it quite amusing and refreshing.

Get some research done before choosing the name. If you pick something very common, it may create some confusion for your dog when you’re around other dogs in public places.

If you have more than one dog, consider choosing names that go well together, but also think how they will sound separately because your dogs may not always be together. Some people like naming their pets after famous duos like ‘Ernie and Bert,’ ‘Butch and Sundance’ or ‘Thelma and Louise.’

What you shouldn’t do:

Pick a name that will be offensive to others or embarrassing to say in public. Chances are that at the very least, your neighbors will hear you calling to your dog and you don’t want to cause any issues or be embarrassed to holler out your dog’s name whenever necessary.

If you adopt a dog that has already been named, don’t change it unless you absolutely have to. It can certainly be done, but it will be confusing to the dog for quite a while before they figure out the new name.

Picking a name that may intimidate or scare other people. Naming a large breed dog ‘Vicious’ or ‘Killer’ probably wouldn’t be the best idea if you plan on walking them around town or playing with them at the dog park.

Naming your dog after a family member or a close friend without mentioning it to them first. Some people may find this practice offensive. You might also want to consider how much time they will be spending around this person before you select that name. If you name your dog after someone in your household or a family friend that visits often, it may get very confusing for the dog to hear his or her name directed at someone else all the time.

Choosing a name is as simple as that, but giving it more thought and picking a meaningful one will make this relationship between you and your canine much more special. Think about the science of naming your dog while you are making this decision. Maybe you’ll be able to combine a good name with the best practice?



  1. Kaminski J, Schulz L, Tomasello M. How dogs know when communication is intended for them. Dev Sci. 2012 Mar;15(2):222-32. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2011.01120.x
  2. Kaminski J, Call J, Fischer J. Word learning in a domestic dog: Evidence for “Fast Mapping”. Science. 2004 Jun 11;304:1682–1683 [link]

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