As a trainer I get to see a lot of different uses of dog names. People sing their dog’s names, they shout them, they punctuate them, they whisper them and sometimes they just use them over and over again like a broken record. Fido sit. Fido down. Fido come. Fido stay. Fido mat. I have a picture in my mind of what it might be like for an office worker to be spoken to the way that many people talk to their dogs. Fred call Mary. Fred get coffee. Fred go to lunch. Fred come here. Fred water the plants. Fred answer the phone. How long would it be before “Fred” tuned out his own name? My bet is not long!
So how should you use your dog’s name? There are some simple rules, so let me start at the start, where I would begin with a new dog. If a dog is new to me, as either a puppy or an adult, I will use his name several dozen times a day, and follow it up with a treat. I want my dog to learn that his name means “listen up you, this is the word I will use to indicate that I mean you”. It is simple and fun; say the dog’s name, and pop a treat in his mouth. Hanging out with your new dog on your back porch after work, sharing a beer with your spouse and your new adult dog is with you? Say “Fido” and give him a great treat. Do this periodically as you hang out and pretty soon, Fido will begin to orient on you when you call out his name. I do this with all meals too; I say “Fido” and put down the pan of food. When I take my new puppy or dog out to relieve himself, I say “Fido” just as I put his leash on. I say “Fido” when I open the dog’s crate door. Your dog’s name should predict only good things, so I use it in play, at meal times, when I am going to start training, and when I take him out of his crate. I use the puppy or dog’s name over and over and over again until he is really perking up when he hears it.
When the dog is perking up on hearing his name, I start to add it into training. Usually when a new dog enters my home, I start clicker training within the first few hours so that I can capitalize on our lack of history. What I mean by this is simply that my new dog or puppy has no previous experience with me, and I want to lay out hundreds and hundreds of learning opportunities so that he or she will be successful over time with me. This makes me an interesting and valuable person to the new dog. This is the foundation of my relationship with my dog. I start with simple things like if the dog looks at me, I click and treat. When he is looking at me more often than looking at the rest of the room, I might choose a behaviour that he is offering frequently and click just for that. Working consistently allows me to build a repertoire of behaviours with my new companion really quickly, without a lot of errors. I don’t use his name much in this activity because when my new dog starts to offer a behaviour, I want him to start to associate that behaviour with a word. Let’s say that my new dog is offering a cute head tilt quite frequently. If every time he does this, I click and treat, he will tilt his head more frequently in order to get more clicks and treats. If I then associate the word “cute” with this behaviour, he will learn that when I say “cute” and he tilts his head, a click and a treat will happen. I don’t want to mix up “cute” with “Fido” at this point, and with limited experience this is what can happen.
After a dog has lived with me for several days, he usually has sit, down, touch, and orient to his name down pat. At that point I can start to use his name constructively. I have a few rules for this. My dog’s name, “here”, and “come” all universally mean come to me. I start playing a game where I mix these three words into a training session, all meaning the same thing. I take my dog out to a wide open space and I say his name, wait for him to orient on me, and then click and drop five or six treats. Then I run a short distance away and call out “here” and when he orients on me, I click, and put down another pile of treats. I repeat this again, using “Fido”, “here” and “come” randomly. As my dog gets the idea of the game, he will start to snatch the treats up, and run after me as I try and get as far from him as I can. At this point in the game, I will not click until the dog is within grabbing reach and then put down my treats. I keep playing this fun recall game until I am really sure that my dog understands that his name, “here” and “come” all mean the same thing. If I have a helper, I will get that person to play, and get the dog to come back and forth between us. I usually play this game for several weeks at least until I can call the dog using any of the three words to mean come close to me.
Once my dog understands that his name means come to me, it is a short leap to start using his name in other aspects of training. If he is not attending to me and I want to start a training session, I will call his name and when he gets to me, I will ask for a second behaviour; perhaps I might ask for a sit. Now, my dog is learning that when I use his name, he is to come to me, and then do something. Once he is with me though, I don’t keep repeating his name as we go through his repertoire of tricks. Just as it would be working with a person, once he is aware that I want to work with him, there is no more value in saying his name over and over again. Repeating a dogs name mechanically before each and every cue can end up annoying the dog just as it would a person. If you have ever been victim to a big ticket sales pitch, you probably recognize exactly how annoying this can be. When purchasing my last vehicle, the salesman punctuated almost every sentence to me with my name. It got very annoying to hear “Sue, as you can see, this vehicle comes with turbo boosting, Sue, so you can get where you are going faster. And Sue, if you buy today….” This practice decayed the sales process so completely that I contacted the sales manager and the fellow who set up the initial contact didn’t in the end sell me my vehicle. Teaching my dog to work with me is a bit like a sales pitch; if I annoy him, he won’t keep working with me.
Keep in mind that earlier I said that I have rules for using a dog’s name. The first rule is simply that if I call out his name he is to come in and attend to me. This rule informs some of how I use a dog’s name when working. If I think he might not come when called, I double up the cue and call his name and “here” or “come”, or if I am in the competitive obedience ring, I might use his name with his recall cue to ensure that my dog will come quickly and enthusiastically. I also use my dog’s name to start heeling; it is an extra prompt to pay attention and that we will be moving out. I don’t use it for things like the stay where I don’t want the dog to follow me; saying “Fido, Stay” is a little like saying “come, go” and that is very confusing. I can distill my rule down to if I am working on a moving behaviour, I will use my dog’s name. If I am working on a stationary behaviour, I won’t.
There is one more place where I use my dog’s name. When I am working with multiple dogs at once, I will use my dog’s name ahead of any cue, but this is really, really advanced work and I don’t teach this to my dogs until they have the foundations for the easier stuff. When working with multiple dogs, I teach them a prefix cue “Just”. “Just” means that the dog whose name comes after the “just” cue will get to do the work indicated. I might for instance have four dogs at the door; Fido, Frida, Frosty and Foolish. If I say “Just Foolish Outside” the other three dogs know they are not going through the door. How I teach that is worth another few thousand words though, so I will leave it for another day!