Originally published April 2013
Naming trends in pets are fascinating. I remember the year my friend got a puppy and spent four days trying to decide on a special and unique name for her dog. After choosing Bailey she was shocked to go to puppy class with two other Baileys and was further surprised when her daughter went to kindergarten later that year with two little girls named Bailey. Her efforts at a name that was really different were not successful, but offered an interesting opportunity to think about names and naming and what happens when we choose a particular name.
One of the local vets and I got to chatting one day and we both observed the same thing. When Sam or Ranger or Rosie comes in, we don’t worry a whole lot right off the bat about the dog’s behaviour. But when Satan, Danger, Mr. Ferocious, Ugly or Butts comes in we do. We also worry when Muffin, Sweetie, Cuddles, and Mrs. Love Bug is on the roster. The question is why do we worry about Dr. Evil and Fluffy?
When we name an animal, some of the names that we choose are associated with emotions. When you call your dog a name that is disrespectful, you give those who interact with your dog permission to be disrespectful of him. Imagine for a moment what it might be like to live your life with a name like “Ugly” or “Butthead”. Even if you didn’t know what Butthead meant, the way that people behaved towards you would tell you that you were not respected.
When an animal carries the name of a political figure who is associated with a time that was painful to many (I have met several dogs named Hitler or Stalin), we tell people something profound about how we feel about our pet and what our expectation might be of that animal’s life. What we name our pet is sometimes a reflection of our own intolerance, hatred, fear, bigotry or trauma. Naming a dog after someone who has done something evil, is not a sign of respect for your dog, and it isn’t cool either. If someone has named their dog after a political historical figure who is an enemy I believe it is not as difficult for them to then choose harsher methods of training and to treat their dogs in ways that are unkind.
At the other end of the spectrum, naming your dog something that downplays who he is or might be can backfire too. I was once pinned against someone’s refrigerator a hundred pounds of dog named Muffin had a long list of people he had bitten and he was employed as the resident guard dog in a junkyard. His owners only sought help for him after he bit one of their adult children. It was chilling how they introduced this dog. They wanted people to think he was harmless so that when burglars tried to break into the junkyard, they would not expect to be attacked by Muffin. They had taught this dog to be perfectly still when approached but to never tolerate anyone touching him and to chase anyone running away from him. This was a very frightening dog, and the owners thought it was funny to tell visitors to their business that they need not fear Muffin…unless they misbehaved. This twisted name and expectation lead to a number of really difficult issues, and amongst them was the owner’s perception of the dog as essentially harmless.
We have three dogs. D’fer is a silly name, and it is a play on Dee For Dog. D’fer Dawg. It is silly but not disrespectful. A bit like my husband’s nickname for me; Boo. It is silly and reflects a playful part of our relationship. When we first started to work together, he stopped calling me Boo for a while because he didn’t want our students to think less of me; he was sensitive to the issues that surround how people are perceived. D’fer’s registered name is Deifenbaker’s Pride of Oakhill, so his nick name fits too; we often call him Deef. Prime Minister Deifenbaker was a pretty serious dude, but no one would consider him to have been the center of a genocide, so even if we called him by his full name, we would be respectful of him.
Our second dog is named Eco. His registered name is Amicus Eco Von Narnia. Narnia is the name of the kennel he was born at and we used the latin Amicus because we wanted him to be friendly and Eco is the Greek for home. Eco is his call name, and again, it is a strong name that is not frightening or belittling.
Our third dog, Friday is named for a fictional character from a book by the same name. The character is a strong, sensitive and caring woman who can take care of herself. We were careful to choose a name that would be respectful of who we hoped she would turn out to be.
Dr. Marty Becker, the vet who is on Good Morning America for many years, says that asking the client why they chose the name for their pet is one of the first questions he asks in his initial consults. He feels it gives really good information about what expectations people have for their pets. I have found this to be very true. When I have a client who comes in with a dog named Doug, and ask, and they tell me that their kids have not turned the movie “UP” off in the past six months and they wanted a dog who was going to be a good friend, maybe a little scattered, who would do things with the family, then I know I am working with people who are on the right track with their goals and aspirations for their family pets. When I meet a family with a dog name Alpha from the same movie, I worry a little and ask more questions to find out if they have expectations that are in line with the dog they have and the life they want to live.
There are a few names that are neither belittling or disrespectful that I suggest people would avoid. Long ago I knew a family who had a beautiful Golden Retriever named Fire. Fire was well trained, and moved as fast as a lick of flame out in the field. Fire’s name wasn’t a problem until he got lost one night while the family was staying in at a relatives. It just isn’t a great idea to go running through a strange neighbourhood calling “Fire! Fire!”