What’s in a name? When it comes to canines, their names mean less to the dogs than they do to their humans.
In her enjoyable piece in The New York Times about the art of naming a dog, Jan Hoffman details her family’s struggle to find the right name for their new pup: “It was an art. A science. Serendipity. Intuition.”
Hoffman points out that there are factors to consider from your pet’s perspective when choosing a name. For example, while dogs are generally thought to be able to understand a vocabulary of 100-plus words, they tend to respond better to one- or two-syllable words and commands.
Because a dog’s name is often used to get its attention prior to issuing a command—which, if your dog is like any of mine, it will most likely ignore unless food is at stake—many dog trainers and behaviorists recommend short names with hard consonants. Some human companions follow this pragmatic line of thought.
A former coworker named his black Labrador Buddy (one of the most popular dog names as well as one that follows the phonetics rule above) because, “I figured that’s how I would be addressing him all the time anyway: ‘C’mon, Buddy; Buddy, get out of the trash; Buddy, goddamnit!’”
For dogs, a name is little more than a signal. For people, a name is deeply embedded in identity, a trait many project onto our pets (and one reason why the Monks of New Skete, who are famous for breeding German shepherds and authoring a series of dog training books, object to giving dogs human names).
Some people choose names based on their dogs’ personalities or physical traits, others select names that are reflections of their own characters or characteristics. Regardless of your naming method, Hoffman suggests, “Pick something enduring, that you and the dog can live with, one hopes, for a decade or more.”
A sense of humor is fine, but remember that you’ll be using your dog’s name repeatedly on a daily basis (are you willing to force yourself, your family and your friends to make a long-term commitment to Bark Simpson or David Pawster Wallace?). A friend of mine split the difference between practical and clever with his dog Scout, who is named not for the character in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, but for the cult off-road vehicle made by International Harvester in the 1960s and ’70s.
And lest you attach too much (or too little) importance to the name of a dog, consider the tale Hoffman relays of Mary Cody, who founded the New Jersey-based rescue Aunt Mary’s Doghouse. Cody adopted an Australian shepherd, whom she named Dumia; Dumia is attentive to Cody and follows her everywhere despite the fact that Dumia can’t even hear its given name, which also happens to violate the two-syllable guideline.
Dumia is Hebrew for “silent.” Dumia the dog is deaf.