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What’s In A Name

My name is Brenda. I typically answer to that name. My name is also Mom and sometimes, Honey. I often answer to these although my husband and children may say I have “selective hearing” at times. My daughter often jokes that if she can’t get my attention by saying “mom” a loud “BRENDA” always does the trick. I’ve been known as “Red,” “Big Red,” and Chipmunk, too. I may or may not answer to these names depending on where I am or who I am with.
My mom used to use my first and middle names when she was at her wits end, as most of us parents do. I knew by her tone of voice that her use of my name wasn’t for something good, regardless of whether she used my middle name. My response to her at theses times may have been delayed or non-existent based on whether I knew what I’d done or why she was angry.
As a trainer I am often asked if the dog’s name should be used prior to giving a cue. Let’s look at our relationship with our dogs. It is really not that different than the relationship between a parent and a child. As parents we say our child’s name when we need their attention. Children, especially toddlers, repeat our names when we are not paying attention to them. The purpose for using our dog’s name should really be to get his attention. Do you ALWAYS need to use his name before a cue? The answer depends on whether or not you already HAVE his attention. And if you don’t have it, your tone of voice, and what your dog is doing, is going to dictate whether you need to use his name.
Good trainers don’t use a lot of words. We realize that dogs are watching body language and cues can be easily given using hand signals and body language. We don’t say the dog’s name prior to giving another cue if the dog is already engaged with us and attentive. When we DO use the dog’s name it is because the dog has disengaged and we need to return the attention to us. We say the name ONCE and are going to REWARD when the dog gives us the SLIGHTEST bit of attention. We realize selective hearing does occur, often between the dog and owner, because:
A) The owner has used the dog’s name repeatedly (nagging)
B) The owner has failed to reward when the dog responds to his name (especially when distracted)
C) The owner has used the dog’s name during “NO NO, BAD DOG” moments frequently
Here are 3 tips to improve your dog’s response to his name (and your relationship too!)
1) Play the “Name Game – Say your dog’s name then give him yummy treat! Repeat several times, then walk away. Use a happy, playful tone of voice (remember how you used to say his name when he was a puppy?) He doesn’t need to “DO” anything. You are simply pairing his name with something good, which is you and treats! Always reward your dog for responding to his name!
2) Don’t create “Selective Hearing” – Avoid using your dog’s name when he has done something you don’t like or when he won’t come to you. Failure to respond to their name is often the result of a dog who is worried you may be unhappy, just like when mom used our middle name. Your tone of voice and your body language speak volumes! Remember he isn’t deaf. You’ve likely created a pattern of absent rewards or association of name then something unpleasant. (see tip #1)
3) Focus First! – Attention is everything! If you say your dog’s name and don’t get the response you expected that doesn’t mean your dog DID NOT RESPOND. Did his ear twitch or turn in your direction? Was there a slight head shift? Change in momentum or direction? Tail wag? These are all responses that indicate your dog DID respond. He just didn’t turn and look at you. (See tip #1)
We’ve all been guilty of being so focused on one task that we don’t “hear” our child or spouse. That’s why my daughter changes my name from Mom to BRENDA, and why my husband sometimes claims I don’t know what he just said (GUILTY AS CHARGED.) If you say your dog’s name in a pleasant tone of voice and he really does not respond he’s either too focused on something else (just wait him out if you can then reward when he does turn his attention to you) or you need to make your presence known to break through his concentration. Simply moving into his peripheral vision often does the trick (don’t forget to reward when he remembers you are there!)
In today’s busy world we aren’t perfect at responding to our name. Why do we expect dogs to be any different?

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