Some dog trainers say that you shouldn’t use your dog’s name as a cue. I’m not one of those trainers! I actually think it’s really useful to train dogs to respond to their name in some situations.

One reason often given for not training the name is that because we use it in different contexts, it’s hard for the dog to make a connection between the word and a behaviour we want.

But that is likely to happen with any word we use over and over again, without having put in the appropriate training steps. I so often hear the word ‘down’ being used to mean ‘lie down’, ‘stop stealing food from the counter’, ‘get off the sofa’ and ‘stop jumping up at the mother-in-law’ all in the same 5 minutes, and all aimed at the one dog. No wonder he’s not listening!

Yet no-one tells us not to use the word ‘down’.

The important thing is to be clear before you begin training, using any word, of the answer to this question:

‘What is the one thing I want to achieve, or want the dog to do, when I use this word?’

When using the name, my only aim is that the dog’s ears prick up, metaphorically at least! In my house, using the dog’s name means ‘Pay attention, I am about to say something and it is directed towards you’.

Another reason offered for not using the name as a cue is that humans talk about their dogs in conversation all the time. The theory goes that because they are listening in on our conversations, dogs hear their name so often it becomes ‘white noise’ and they start to ignore it.

In all honesty, dogs are smarter than we sometimes (usually) give them credit for. Science shows us that different factors in the immediate environment change the ‘picture’ for the dog in terms of learning behaviours and responses, so I’m pretty sure that the dog can tell the difference between his name all jumbled up in a long sentence spoken to someone else, and the word in isolation directed towards him.

Next is the argument that people also use the dog’s name when they are cross with them, so the name becomes ‘poisoned’ with unpleasant or inconsistent consequences.

If you are going to be cross at your dog, whatever word you use is going to be poisoned, but dogs certainly understand that different tones of voice have different meanings. Please don’t think I’m advocating shouting at dogs! If you find yourself having a lot of ‘cross’ words with your dog – you might want to seek some training support.

There are a couple of reasons I do like to train the dog’s name.

Firstly, I’m human and simple is best when it comes to humans. If I want to get the dog’s attention, yes of course I could train some fancy noise or word, but since the natural inclination is to say what we see – it might as well be the name.

Secondly, no matter how ‘pure’ I am with my training, other people are going to use the dog’s name, so it makes sense to me to create a positive association with it.

Thirdly, and probably the most important for me, is that I live with several dogs, and sometimes I want to ask a specific dog to do something, and for the other dogs to know it’s not relevant to them! For example, we go out the door one at a time to keep excitement slightly more under control, so the dogs know to wait until they hear their name, then the release cue (e.g. “Loki, OK”).

So how does the training work?

Bear one fact in mind. The dog (probably) does not really understand that the string of sounds coming out of your mouth is a special string of sounds that you use to refer to their whole being. i.e. They don’t actually know it’s their name. We just build an association between the word and a positive consequence, just like we do with his recall word. So that when he hears his name, he’s anticipating something good. The same would happen whatever the sound you used.

The training is as straightforward as:

"Say the dog's name, give him a biscuit” and repeat x 100.

Soon, you can say the name when the dog is not looking and he should turn round expectantly. The aim in the beginning is really just for him to ‘pay attention’.

Once you’ve got that, you can then be more specific in what you ask for e.g. Get his attention ‘Spot’ then recall ‘come’. In driving terms, think of it as the signal before the manoeuvre.

What about with multiple dogs?

In addition to the above name teaching exercise, I like to play the ‘name game’ with my dogs on a regular basis, and it’s something we start from day one with a newly introduced dog.

The name game looks something like this:

This looks fairly mundane now, but this is after a bit of practice! To being with, the presence of treats (it could be toys) can have dogs straining to get in on the action, but learning happens quickly!  

  • Start with the dogs stationed a reasonable distance apart. Competition and frustration can result in squabbles if too close to start with.
  • Hold a treat so the dogs know you have it.
  • Say the name of a dog. You can do this randomly, or in sequence. Pause for a second and then feed that dog. If one of the other dogs comes forward/moves to try and get the treat, make sure you withhold the treat from them and that the named dog is ceremoniously given the treat.

It really is that simple!

As a bonus, the dogs are not just learning their names in this activity.
Yes, each dog learns that the sound of their name will result in a treat – but more important learning is that when they hear a different name, there is no treat for them. Moving forward when it is not their name is not rewarded so they are also learning what doesn’t work. This game builds impulse control (aka patient turn-taking), which I then generalise to other daily life situations such as the example of going out the door or coming forward to have their harness put on or lead removed.

To be honest, using their names before the cues they all know is so much easier than training different attention or release cues for each dog, or having to remember those different words when I need them!

Maybe it makes me a rubbish trainer, but it works for me 😉

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