Groomer to Groomer

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A Dog Named NO!

Behavior Clips

By Gary Wilkes

I was in the market the other day when I saw a little book of potential names for new babies. Inside were over 1,000 names and their meanings, with entries like “Peter, comes from a Greek word that means ‘rock’” and “Winifred, Old English for ‘washed ashore after a squall.’” While humans can obviously understand names that describe personal attributes or conditions, have you ever wondered what your animals might imagine their names mean?

Here’s a simple multiple choice question that can help you find out.

Your pet should think its name means...

A. absolutely nothing
B. come
C. NO!
D. stop, look, wait for the next command

The correct answer for this test is “D,” which is also the least likely to be true.

One reason for this paradox is that while humans think of a name in terms of identity, animals respond to names as signals associated with certain behaviors and consequences. A human names a Schnauzer “Blitz” to describe the Germanic heritage of his breed type, while Blitz thinks his name means “run away before the two-legged one whacks you with a newspaper.”

The reason for this discrepancy is simple: Blitz has inadvertently learned that his name actually means “No!” For instance, when Blitz moves to raid the trash, his owner is far more likely to yell “Blitz!” than a simple “No!” If his owner consistently uses his name and then scolds or punishes him, an association between the sound “Blitz” and scolding is inevitable. Soon the dog will flinch and run when he hears his name.

Some owners go even farther in teaching this association. The most common variation on this theme is to yell the dog’s name and then scream “NO!” (“Blitz, NO!”) Supposedly, this practice allows you to punish one dog while sparing another. The reasoning is that if Witchy the Wheaten Terrier is minding her own business, yelling “Blitz, no!” will affect him but not her. While this may be logical for humans, a closer look shows that it is confusing for dogs.

First, if Witchy knows her name correctly, she is not going to be listening when you call Blitz. The first thing she is going to hear is the word “NO!” screamed at her. Though she may be perfectly innocent of any offense, she will assume she is being punished for whatever she is doing when she hears the word “no!”

From Blitz’s view, the scene is equally confusing. Just as he picks up a bedroom slipper, he hears his master call his name. He drops the slipper and responds promptly by turning to face his master. That’s when he heard the word “NO!” Instead of thinking that picking up the slipper was the bad behavior, Blitz is now convinced that looking at his owner was the evil act. The dogs have each learned different lessons from this experience. From now on, Witchy may become generally leery of her owner, and Blitz will start purposely avoiding his name.

Another common misuse of a dog’s name is when it ultimately means “come” rather than “attention.” The easiest way to teach this is to yell the dog’s name when you want to discover your pet’s location. If Fido is out of sight, the easiest way to find him is to call the dog’s name. As he shows up to investigate your call, it is natural for you to praise him for coming. A few weeks of enthusiastic greetings and the dog has figured out that his name means “come and get it.”

While many owners do not see the harm in using an animal’s name in place of the word “come,” the practice hides a dangerous possibility. If Fido runs out the front door and across the street, you may have a serious problem. If there are cars whizzing by, you must have a way to warn Fido and tell him to stay at the same time. That is exactly what perfect name recognition is designed to do. The problem occurs when “Fido” thinks his name means “come.” In this scenario, you cannot get his attention without also triggering the command to “come,” which may cause a serious accident.

For those of you who answered “A,” you have astute powers of observation. Many animals do not react to their names at all. One reason for this is that a common practice is to constantly and inappropriately use the dog’s name. “Fifi, sit! Fifi, come! Fifi, this. Fifi, that. Fifi, Fifi, FIFI!” The owner simply tacks the name onto everything but never waits to see if the dog responded correctly. Soon the name has less and less meaning for the dog.

Of all the answers on our test, teaching an animal to stop and pay attention in response to his name is the correct one. It allows you to control your pet from a distance and ensure that he will focus on you in an emergency. Regardless of the fancy-sounding name you pick for your pet, make sure your pet knows what it really means: stop, look and listen! ✂