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What’s in a Name?

The Caninologist

Somebody found a dog wandering around lost on Potrero Hill the other day and put a notice on a neighborhood online message board.

“Is it a girl who answers to Lucky?” someone asked in response.

The “is it a girl” part seemed pretty straightforward to figure out. But can you really tell if a dog “answers” to its own name?

Nobody responded to the online post, the dog evidently showing little affinity for “Lucky” or any other name in particular. Even if she did know her name, she wasn’t telling.

You can find evidence of just about anything online. On the burning question of canine name recognition, you find vague references to “a national survey” which concluded that “only 30 percent of dogs actually knew their name, especially in houses with multiple dogs and children.”

That’s a shocker. Only 30 percent of dogs “actually” know their names. The rest must be faking it.

There are all kinds of videos documenting how dogs know their names. People say the names of dogs without looking at them, and the dog responds just the same. Or a trainer calls dogs by name, one by one, from a crowd of other dogs, each dog emerging only when its own name is called. Some dogs seem able to recognize their name in a jumble of other words. And you can be sure a well-trained dog named, let’s say, “Charlie,” won’t be fooled if you say something similar, like “Farley” or “barley.” As for “Chuck,” that study has yet to be done.

I’m not sure the videos prove much except to show, once again, that people love to teach dogs to do tricks. They also document the amazing way canines have evolved to recognize and respond to human signals of all kinds. But you can’t assume an animal knows its name the way people do.

At minimum, I’d want to see more detail on experimental methodology. And how about some outtakes from the videos. How many attempts did it take to get those dogs to line up by name, considering only 30 percent of them can be trusted anyway?
Name recognition is a small part of a larger body of research on canine communication, learning, and memory.

A few brainy border collies and German shepherds have been taught to recognize lots of words, suggesting an exceptional canine with good training might be capable of building up a fairly large vocabulary. One border collie, Chaser, was reported to have acquired a vocabulary of 1,022 words.

Dogs have been shown to recognize specific words used as part of a phrase and can use word knowledge in novel ways, suggesting a hint of some kind of reasoning capacity, if not the ability to write a novel.
But I’d like to see a careful study showing that even a dog like Chaser can understand the concept of self, and identify that self with the name “Chaser” in the same way a person does. A name, for us, is a lot more than a verbal cue to pay attention.
I’m not at all sure what a dog might be thinking when it hears its own name. Maybe they perk up their ears because those sounds often mean a walk or a treat is coming.

Our own dog used to be called “Daiquiri” when they introduced her at the shelter. She exhibited no sign of being aware of this. Nor did she indicate any opinion when we decided it probably wasn’t appropriate to give a dog the name of an alcoholic beverage.
We renamed her “Queen Beatrix,” after the long-serving Dutch monarch, and immediately started calling her “Trixie” for short. She has responded, sometimes, to that name for 15 years.

I am still not sure she gets it. She’s not Dutch, for one thing. And just now, thinking of the poor dog lost on Potrero Hill, I tried calling her “Lucky.” She came right over.

Carl T. Hall is a longtime union organizer in San Francisco who is now a co-owner of Word. A Café, a dog friendly coffee shop now open for business in the Bayview Neighborhood. Readers can pick up copies of Bay Woof there, too.

Main article photo by: Photo by Charles Clout/Flikr