(by Brianne Statz, CPDT-KA)
Does your pet have a nickname? Pseudonym? Alias? All of the Above? Most of us call our pets by a variety of different “pet names”. Here are mine:
· Payton, my Australian Shepherd is known by all of the following: Liam’s Sweetness Forever (registered name), Tony, Tony the P, PMan, Paytey, Jerkface, Steve Smith (by my brother who wanted me to name him that), and Turd Ferguson (from an SNL sketch – celebrity Jeopardy anyone?)
· Finley, my husky mix is known by these monikers: Fin, Finch, Finchface, FinBinley, and Findersox
· Joan the cat gets called all of these: Baby Joan, JoanBee, Miss Beazley, Little Miss and Snotface Joan
A pet name is a term of endearment and affection, and there is no harm in having them for our pets. Or is there? When it comes to training, they can actually be a problem. One of the first things we talk about in group classes is Name Recognition. We need our dogs to respond to their names so we can get their attention when necessary. We start out in our beginner and puppy classes by having each owner call their dog’s name and reinforce if the dog looks at the owner.
Through the rest of the classes, we work on adding distraction – bouncing balls, squeaking toys, etc., with the goal of our dog’s head immediately jerking around toward us when we call her name.
But when class is over, most of us don’t practice name recognition at home. And to add to that lack of practice once class is over, we frequently use nicknames. What is happening when I call my Aussie Tony, PMan, etc is that “Payton” may not be getting reinforced. So when I do call “Payton”, and don’t get the quick response I expect, I might get frustrated. I think to myself he knows his name – he should look at me when I say it!
Whenever your dog doesn’t respond to his name, take a second and think about the last time you actually rewarded (with a primary reinforcer like food – not with just a “good boy”) your dog for responding to his name. And the last time you rewarded a name recognition without any strings attached (i.e. without making him come inside or stay, or do anything other than simply look at you). All behaviors need to be reinforced every now and then to keep them alive.
Does this mean we shouldn’t have pet names for our pets? I know I couldn’t stop myself if I tried. It just means that we need one “go to name”. One name that we expect a quick response when we call it, and that we put the effort into training that quick response.