Whether we’ve got a rescue dog or not, we might consider changing our dog’s name. In fact, it’s a question many of my clients ask when they’ve just taken on a new rescue dog. Should you change their name or not?
Other people worry that they’ve “poisoned” their dog’s name by using it as a punishment, and now the dog won’t respond to anything they say.
I was watching an old video of my groenendael cross Heston playing with my gone-but-not-forgotten girl Flika the other day. Half way through the video, I note that I was being mugged off camera by a small cocker who was going through my pockets. At one point, the mugging had got too much and I stopped it with a kind of sharp ‘Tilly!’
I’m guessing it worked because I didn’t have to say it again.
Tilly, despite my using her name as a punishing interruptor, designed to stop her in her tracks, still came for her name. That was lucky. Not all dogs will respond when half the time, saying their name precedes something bad and other times, it precedes something good. In fact, I distinctly remember my ex saying that Tilly only responded to him if he said her name in a silly way. I’m absolutely sure she’d mastered the difference between a ‘Tilly!’ meant as an interruptor or punisher, and ‘Tilly!’ signalling something good was going to happen, like walks or dinner times.
Flika was a different case. Although that was her name, and had been since her microchip was implanted in 2004, 14 years later, she knew categorically that ‘Flika!’ meant humans were watching and to get on with robbing sandwiches or cake as fast as she could before someone got to her. She never once responded to her name, other than to speed up.
As you can imagine, that made it lots of fun to try and recall her. She was the mistress of evasion.
Some people worry that their shelter dogs will carry the stigma of their former names. It doesn’t need to have been an abusive experience to be a bad one. Flika had no doubt suffered no true abuse related to her name other than the ‘abuse’ of being stopped from eating birdseed, firecrackers, firelighters, barbecue coals, tissues or sandwiches from people’s bags.
In the shelter, we often change dogs’ names if they are pejorative. Killer became KiKi, Attila became Titi… lots of our macho dogs are given ridiculous status names that have negative associations, or are given silly names. No chihuahua needs the added difficulty of being called Killer. No American Staffordshire needs to fight against bias against their breed as well as being called after some ridiculous thug from years gone by. Names carry stigma and we may very well change a dog’s name to avoid that stigma.
Also, dogs may get a new name if they came from an abusive experience. Our Ullyse, named for his quest and his voyage, is a name to signal his voyage from his years in the wilderness to his return ‘home’.
Many dogs (and cats!) arrive unidentified, so whatever they were called is no longer known and they get a new name. My boy Amigo was like that.
So if you adopt a shelter dog, chances are that their name is either pretty new and meaningless, or possibly attached to some prior trauma. A change of name in those circumstances may well be a good thing.
Other times, their name is just who they are. Lidy’s name is her first name. In fact, I’m pretty sure her name was supposed to be Lydie (plenty of people write it that way, but her former guardian spelt it this way, and so do I … a scrambled, misspelt name says it all.
I did consider renaming her for a fresh start. I considered lots of things from a minor vowel change to Lady rather than Lidy, but she’s definitely no lady, no matter what I call her. I also considered a kind of consonant change to Ripley, since she’s very much one girl against the universe. But she’s not that either.
Plus, dogs’ names migrate, don’t they? Like TS Eliot’s cats, they have many names. Heston is Heckles, Heckley, H, Heston Crow, Mr Crow and Handsome. Tilly had that many names that migrated that by the end of her life, she was Pipsy. Tilly Popper became Popper became Pops became Tilly Pipper became Tilly Pee became Tilly Pips became Pippy became Pipsy. Lidy is Lidy Malou. Sometimes she’s Malou. Sometimes she’s just Lou. Sometimes she’s LouLou Beans. Sometimes she’s Beans. Sometimes she’s Beanie. Sometimes, she’s Little Bear.
That’s how dog’s names go. The name we want other people to know them by, like Killer and Attila. The name we call them ourselves, like Heckley and Meegy. The names they are when we’re being cute, like Beany and Knickers. The names they are only to themselves.
There is another time that names can make a difference, Jane McGonigal argues in her book SuperBetter. She argues that it does us good to come up with our superhero name especially if we’re working on new skills with our dogs.
It’s easy to focus on your dog’s weaknesses and difficulties when you’re working to change your dog’s behaviour. They’re predatory. They’re fearful. They’re aggressive. They’re a handful. They’re dominant (Yes, I’m sticking that old chestnut in!). They pull on lead. They don’t have any recall.
The flip side of this is that it leads naturally into a lot of negative self-talk. We’re unable to control them. We can’t master them. They’re too much of a challenge. We can’t change them. We can’t protect them. We’re failing them. They’d be better in a different home.
When we focus on our strengths, it rephrases the game. McGonigal explores ways we can identify our own signature character strengths to help us overcome challenges in our life. I think this would work perfectly for both us and our dogs.
For instance, I’m not a tired, old middle-aged woman who can’t manage her dogs. Identifying our signature strengths can help us consider our own ‘inner name’. I am wise, I am understanding. I’m empathic. I’m practical.
Lidy is not a hot pink mess of Malinois faults. She is brave. She is curious. She is courageous. She is lightning fast. She is loyal.
Yes, I’m anthropomorphising. If you don’t like it, get over it. Go read a little.
Once you’ve identified your own personal character strengths and those of your canine side-kick, these become your resources for a better future. They are your magical superpowers against the challenges you face. If you’re struggling to get your dog out of the door or you’re struggling to navigate a world of feisty pigeons and half-hidden cats, if your battleground is the vet’s surgery and the vet is your dog’s mortal enemy, identifying your signature character strengths is a great way to think about the resources you have available. As well as this, it stops you fixating on the things you think you’re not so hot at.
McGonigal suggests that after we’ve identified our signature character strengths, we then find ourselves a new name.
As a fan of Game Of Thrones (ok, to the last series… I think you all feel me on that!) I quite like Daeneyrs’ honorifics: “Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons”
Let’s just forget about the ending, shall we?
I’m no longer Emma The Tired, Fifty-seventh of Her Name, The Downtrodden, Permanently Exhausted Slightly Mad-Eyed Midnight Dog Walker, Wearer of Dog Hair.
I’m Emma the Wise, First of her Name. The Champion of Underdogs, Mistress of the Biscuit, Explorer of the Twilight Worlds and Mother of Malinois.
Lidy is no longer Lidy the Maline, First of her Name, Chaser of Cats, Killer Queen, Dynamite with a Laser Beam.
She is Lidy the Mercurial of Tribe Hamingja, First of the Vanguard, Shaper of Destinies. She can keep the Dynamite with a Laser Beam bit.
You obviously do not need thousands of honorifics. I’ll be answering to Emma the Wise from now on, and Lidy will still go by Lou.
McGonigal gives you hundreds of ideas about how you can use your new personas to overcome your daily battles and to remember to focus on your strengths not your weaknesses. For instance, one of those things involves finding yourself your theme song. You might already have a theme tune. If you’re wondering, mine is definitely Shirley Bassey’s I Am What I Am. But that’s not my Superhero song. Lidy’s is definitely Killer Queen. Gunpowder, gelatine, dynamite with a laser beam, guaranteed to blow your mind.
Lidy’s Superhero song is definitely Barbra Streisand singing Don’t Rain On My Parade. I think that definitely sums up her determination to champion everything and to defy expectations. Don’t tell her not to fly, she’s simply got to. That got me thinking about my Superhero song. I think, in keeping with Barbra telling people not to rain on her parade, I’ve got to go with Rihanna’s Umbrella. There are days when people do rain on our parade, and my job is to give her an umbrella. When the sun shines, we shine together. Told her I’d be here forever. Said I’d always be her friend. Took an oath, I’ll stick it out to the end. When it’s raining more than ever, know that we still have each other. She can stand under my umbrella. When the world has dealt its cards, if the hand is hard, together we’ll mend her heart. I love the movie Funny Girl and I don’t think it’s a bad thing that it’s a movie in which Streisand makes choices that don’t work out for her. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I call Lidy my Funny Girl either.
I can’t think of a more perfect mix for our Superhero duo.
In SuperBetter, McGonigal makes lots of other suggestions too, such as having a mantra. That can definitely come from your Superhero song. Another suggestion she makes is having a small something that represents your secret superhero identity. Whether that’s a Wonder Woman holder for your poo bags or a diamond studded treat pouch, having a little something small that reminds you of your inner strengths can stop us fixating on what we can’t do. I have a little Owl brooch from Winnie the Pooh clipped on my treat pouch. It reminds me that you might still spell your name WoL but to some people, you’ll always be wise even if you are a pompous know-it-all. On the serious side, it reminds me that we’ve got as far as we have because I’ve never stopped learning to help us on our journey. It also reminds me that sometimes, people may have no idea what I’m talking about when I’m Explaining How Things Work. It’s a reminder not to take myself so seriously and to lighten up. These little totemic items can stop us taking it all so seriously. It slams a door in the face of catastrophising and nips rumination about our faults in the bud. Whenever we’re doubting ourselves, it’s so easy to think of what we can’t do and what is holding us back. Seeing it as a game helps us understand that we need to practise, we need to start with the basics, that we learn to level up and we keep getting better.
McGonigal’s whole approach is a wonderful antidote to the pessimism we can feel if we’re facing challenges with our dogs. It’s a worthwhile purchase for anyone who’s looking to overcome obstacles and level up their game. I’m such a fan of making everything as easy a game as I can, and this fits right into my preferred mode of training. Definitely a book worth a read if you’re struggling to defeat in-built negativity and carve out a sensible plan to achieve your goals.
Names give us so much more than simply a recall. What we call our dogs says so much more about our attitudes, our values and how we see our canine companions. Even if you intend to stick with the names you’ve got, having a Superhero secret identity for you both might just give you a way to remember your inner strengths when the going gets tough.
If you’ve poisoned your dog’s name by using it as a punishment, if your dog has a traumatic past, if your dog’s name has migrated from something sensible into something silly… there’s a number of reasons our dogs might end up being called something different than the name on their papers. Even if your names are nothing more than a silly secret identity to help you triumph over your challenges, there’s so much more to names than just a jumble of letters to help us distinguish between our dogs. McGonigal’s book SuperBetter is available online and in bookstores.
If you’re a trainer or behaviour consultant working with clients who have dogs who need support, I highly recommend it as part of your training kit.
My book Client-Centred Dog Training: 30 Lessons for Dog Trainers to get Maximum Engagement from your Clients is available on Amazon.