“A Name is Just a Name”…or is it?

“Oh, He knows his name, he’s just :                                                 …stubborn, spiteful, blowing me off, etc.!

I hear that one a lot.

People say their dog’s name all the time, in just about every context or situation.

BELLA– Get over here!                                                                                                                                                                                                    Stop that!                                                                                                                                                                                                           What’s in your mouth?                                                                                                                                                                                         What are you doing?!                                                                                                                                                                                          You can’t have that!                                                                                                                                                                                             What did I say?!                                                                                                                                                                                                  NO!!!

We tend to preface just about every bit of verbal communication with the dog’s name, just as we would with a child.  But there’s a big problem here…a “name” does not mean the same thing to a dog that it does to a human.  Sad, but true.

Think about it:  A baby hears its new name dozens, if not a hundred times a day.  Parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, medical professionals; EVERYONE calls the new baby by name.  I’m not a pediatric behavior expert, but I’ll bet kids know their names before they can actually pronounce the word themselves.  They’re learning through repetition–with some reinforcement mixed in.  I say some, because even small children get scolded: “Abby, don’t touch!” or “Tommy, NO!”  Why aren’t children afraid when they hear their names, if sometimes the sound predicts punishment or fear?

We are inherently programmed to be verbal creatures.  Whether you realize it or not, you’re a master of creating and interpreting what we call “language”.  The sounds, or words, we use signify a comprehensive number of concepts, from simple to highly complex.  For some reason (I’m not a anthropological linguist), we LOVE labels.  They’re enshrined in all languages, and we have our very own label: Our name.  Our name becomes a deeply-rooted, complicated concept that represents our identity and who we are to society.

So, when a parent–in response to a 6-year-old reaching for something on a store shelf–“Johnny, NO!  Don’t touch that!  What did I tell you?! Stop it! If you don’t, we’re not getting that toy I promised you!!”  Johnny will probably pause, at least.  He hears the anger, and the threat.  But does it make him cringe the next time he hears his name?  No.  Because he understands that the angry voice and facial expression of his parent reflects a temporary emotional state.  This moment will pass.  In all but the most dysfunctional families, he knows the parent still loves him.  Even if they want to smack him at that moment. (Let’s hope they don’t.)

The complicated Name / Identity / Individual / Label business is way beyond a dog’s ‘verbal capacity’.  He’s got great hearing, but his “software” is better suited to interpreting sounds other canines make.  The average dog can discriminate between dozens of human sounds.  However, the dog learns or is conditioned to respond to the noises (words) coming out of our mouths.  The dog’s name is no different than any other sound they hear from us. They learn a word’s significance through operant (consequence-based) or classical conditioning (involuntarily making an association between a stimulus and a response.)

“Bella” is in the same boat as “Sit”…with an additional bonus possible.

If I were to try to teach a puppy to sit, and 33% of the time I rewarded her, 33% of the time I punished her, and 33% of the time, not much happens,…do you think I’d get a fluent sit?  Unlikely.  Probably the dog would be very confused, if not stressed.

This is what happens to most dogs.  Often, they receive pressure or punishment after they hear their name.  When they don’t know what will happen when they hear it, then you create ambivalence in the dog.  That often looks like avoidance…or “the dog blowing you off /  ignoring you.”

A puppy has no reason to respond to her new name, unless something good happens after they hear it.  95% of the time.        That’s the operant part.

The bonus is that if good things happen all the time when the dog hears her name (snacks, play, walkies, relaxed smiles, calm touch, soft bed, etc.), then they also develop a positive C.E.R. (conditioned emotional response) to their name “sound”.

This is why I tell people to cultivate an array of nicknames for their puppies and dogs.  If you’re irritated with them, or want their attention to interrupt nuisance behavior, try to use an alternative sound to get the dog’s attention.  That way you don’t “poison” their name, by following it with punishment.  At the very least, if you use the dog’s full name constantly, they can get “ear blind”, or desensitized to it; because it has lost real meaning (to the dog.)

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