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Should you Rename your Rescue?

Back in 2020, we published a blog titled, “Naming Your Dog”. The blog suggested lots of fun ideas for naming…

Back in 2020, we published a blog titled, “Naming Your Dog”. The blog suggested lots of fun ideas for naming a new puppy or rescue. In the blog, we briefly touched on renaming your rescue dog.

Until recently, I went many years without the pleasure of naming a dog. My dogs were rescues and I always kept their original names. I thought their names were cute and the dogs were comfortable with them.

Fortunately, the shelters where my dogs were adopted knew their given names (that is often not the case with a rescue), and the dogs always had a positive response to their name. Had they appeared to be frightened, or if they had a timid response to their name, it would have been best to rename them.

A frightened or timid response to a dog’s name, when called, means that they associate their name with something bad from their past. Renaming your rescue could be one of the most compassionate things you do for them if they associate the hearing of their name with an abusive, neglectful, or hostile past.

A Dog’s Response to Their Name is Important!

For the first time ever, I have a puppy. I named her Ashli. One of the first lessons a puppy learns in Training is to “come when called”. When Ashli was in Training, the Trainer emphasized that Ashli needed to learn that hearing her name called is a good thing. The Trainer even suggested we animate her name when calling her to make it happy and sing-songy. And then praise her lavishly when she obeys. Eight months later, Ashli still perks up with anticipation to hearing her name called.

Ashli knows that hearing her name called generally means that good things are coming. Through consistent, positive enforcement, she knows that when I call her, she is going to get some attention, a treat, or it’s mealtime or walk time. That doesn’t mean that she sometimes hears her name when she is misbehaving… she certainly does. But correction is never harsh, and she knows that she will not be harmed by responding to my call.

Dogs that cower or reluctantly respond to their name often have negative associations attached to their name. Something in their past has tainted the sweetness of hearing their name called. Maybe their name was only called in anger. Maybe they only heard their name when they had done something wrong. Or maybe it was not so much the name, but who called their name. It feels threatening to them.

It Should Feel Good to Hear Your Name Called!

Remember Dale Carnegie? Among other things, Dale Carnegie was a pioneer in interpersonal skills. Carnegie was certain that if you repeated someone’s name, a lot, they would invariably begin to like you; that a name said repeatedly was like a love spell. “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language,” he wrote. Sure, he was talking about us humans, but I think it would easily apply to dogs.

For humans, hearing our name literally releases “feel good” hormones like dopamine and serotonin in our brains. On an unconscious level, it makes us happy. Could the same thing be true for dogs as well?
When we praise a dog, we excite the reward center of their brain. The reward center of the brain is the region of the brain that produces feelings of pleasure. If a dog’s name has pleasurable, positive associations, hearing their name should also fire up that reward center, thus releasing “the pleasure hormone”, dopamine.

When it comes to positive emotions, we have learned that a dog’s brain is very similar to ours. In our blog titled “Do Dogs Love Their Owners?”, we discussed the well-known 2015 oxytocin studies that found dogs and their owners release the same “love hormones” as mothers and babies. More recent studies confirmed that positive emotions in the brain increased when a dog recognized their owner’s scent. Surely, these emotional connections with our furry friends would include hearing and responding to their names.

Why it’s Important That Your Dog Responds to its Name

If your rescue shies away from its adoptive name, it is a good possibility they will not come when called. In an emergency situation, your call could literally mean the difference between life and death for your dog. A professional dog trainer, like those in our Pack at Holiday Barn, will tell you that a good recall is the most important thing a dog will learn.

That said, a dog must believe that it’s worth it to them to come when called at any time and in any situation. As my dog’s trainer said, if dogs could have a motto, it would be “What’s in it for me?” Not only are you able to keep your dog safe with reliable recall, but your dog will be able to enjoy more in life as they can be trusted to be off leash when allowed. A recall rock star can enjoy fun off-leash activities like hiking, and beach trips without the hindrance of a leash.

Is it Difficult to Rename a Dog?

It’s not difficult to rename a rescue dog. Your dog doesn’t really care what their name is. Positive reinforcement will encourage your dog to respond to a word they recognize as meaningful. Once you have decided on a new name, never use the old name again, and make sure others don’t either.The key to teaching a dog a new name is to make the new name valuable to them. How do we do that?

To begin, take your dog somewhere with little distractions so that you can keep their attention. Say the new name to the dog. They will usually look at you simply because you spoke. If not, continue to use the new name in a happy tone of voice. The second they make eye contact with you after hearing their name, reward them. As the dog continues to respond to the name, continue to lavish them with their favorite treats. Praise them. They will soon realize that responding to “that word” (their new name) is valuable because it means good things for them.

If you say the new name to your dog and they do not respond in any way, avoid saying the name over and over. They will just tune you out. Try using the name with a sing-songy voice, make kissy or clicking noises, and talk baby talk. Use their name followed by saying, “Good boy, NewName!”. Lure them towards you with their favorite toys. If your dog comes towards you without making eye contact, that’s okay. That’s a response. Reward that, and then continue to work towards clear recognition and eye contact as you use your rescue’s new name.

Keep training sessions limited to no more than 10 – 15 minutes. Any longer and your dog will lose focus and start ignoring you. If you have success during your training sessions, try using their name while going about your normal daily life. A puppy will learn a new name quite quickly. Ashli seemed to know her name from the first time I used it. But an older dog or rescue accustomed to another name may take several days or even a couple of weeks to understand completely.

Haley, one of my prior rescues, had so many names. Haley-bear, boo-boo, baby bear, boo, baby girl, sweet-pea, little b, pooh-bear, etc., etc., etc.! To stay awake during a long car ride several years back, my husband and I made a list of all the names we called Haley. Between the two of us, she had over 30 nicknames that she responded to! Dogs are so smart. Somehow they just get it!

When is Renaming your Rescue Dog Not The Best for Them?

Sometimes it is better to keep a rescue’s original name, whether you like it or not.

Sadly, sometimes a senior dog ends up at a shelter after years of living in a good, loving home. Maybe their owner passed away, or perhaps they were surrendered because of some tragic event. It’s not that an older dog cannot learn a new name, but their name is familiar and may even be comforting to them as they transition into their new home.

Secondly, a dog that has specifically been trained to respond to its name, perhaps a service dog or other type of working dog, may get very confused if you try to change their name. That’s not to say it is impossible, but the confusion could interfere with the dog’s ongoing job responsibilities.

Lastly, an anxious dog may become even more stressed if you change their name. The whole process of the dog’s current situation and ending up in a shelter is overwhelming. Rehoming in itself is very stressful. At this point, changing the dog’s name would add more confusion and stress. If you are insistent on changing the dog’s name, wait a few weeks until the dog has settled comfortably in your home.

Last but not Least!

If you’re having a challenge transitioning your dog to its new name, please contact the Professional Dog Trainers at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts for help. They will be happy to make the adjustment process easier for both you and your pup. You can reach out by phone, as well – call Midlothian at (804) 794-5400. For our Glen Allen location, call (804) 672-2200.

Your dog now feels safe and secure in your home and with its new name! Don’t forget to pick up an ID tag for its collar. You may even want to consider microchipping. Let’s make sure your dog never ends up in a shelter again! And, by the way, thanks for adopting!

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