A family friend agreed to watch my dog Shiloh while I was on vacation. When I returned, he informed me that the name Lulu seemed like a better fit, so that’s what he called her until the name stuck. I made a mental note to find reputable boarding facilities in my neighborhood, packed up Lulu’s things and left. Even though I was upset at the time, changing my dog’s name back to Shiloh never occurred to me. Perhaps that’s why I was slightly amused — and perhaps a little baffled — when NFL quarterback Tim Tebow celebrated his move to the New York Jets football team by changing his dog’s name from Bronco to Bronx. (That's Tebow at right with Bronx.)
Sports writers flooded Twitter with jokes about the move (check out the hashtag #rejectedTebowDogNames), while some pet owners complained about the name change. But do dogs really know the difference? Each year, millions of cats and dogs are adopted from animal shelters or rescue groups. More often than not, those pets get new names to go with those new homes.
“Dogs don’t have a concept of identity the way we do,” says certified New York dog trainer Renee Payne. “It might be confusing if you change [the name] regularly, but everyone I know calls their dogs several different nicknames. You can always add on; you just want to have some consistency. It has to be something you consistently call them.”
Certified dog trainer Amber Burckhalter adds that a name change can be good for pets, particularly if they were abused. Consistent use of a new name helps them adjust to a new and different life.
“It would be a good idea to change their name if they were rescued and were mistreated and that name is the name that was used,” says Burckhalter, owner of K-9 Coach dog training and boarding facility in Smyrna, Ga. “You don’t want them to have a negative association. It should be a new life, new owners, new name.”
Regardless of the situation, if you are planning a name change, here are a few tips to help you and your pet adjust.
Stay positive: Dogs respond to your actions, not your words. When making a change, Payne recommends saying the new name in a happy and excited tone, preferably when there are few distractions. “When he looks at you, say ‘Good boy!’” Payne says. “You just want him to associate that word with looking at you.”
Turn over a new leaf: Pairing recall training exercises, such as fetch, with a name change can help reinforce good behavior, says Burckhalter, whose pack includes three dogs, one cat, a human child and a husband. “If I took my dog to the dog park and yelled ‘Dutch, Dutch, Dutch’ and the dog ignored me, and this has gone on for several years, we may suggest you change the name to associate a new behavior,” she says.
Make it a gradual transition: To help pets adjust and make the connection, Burckhalter suggests using both names for about a week. “If you want to call her Tallulah and her name is Lilly, say ‘LillyTallulah, LillyTallulah’ for about a week, then drop the old name,” she says.
If it rhymes with ‘Bo,’ just say no: With all due respect to White House dog Bo Obama, avoid names that mimic the word No. That applies to names like Jojo as well. “Anything that sounds like a negative is something you want to avoid,” Burckhalter says. “I’m not a fan of names that sound like a correction.”
Need inspiration? Bella, Molly and Oliver rank high among the 485,000 pets insured by VPI insurance company. For the past two years, Bella has ranked No. 1 for dogs; Bailey, Max, Lucy and Molly round out the top five. For cats, the names Bella, Max, Chloe, Oliver and Lucy topped the list in 2011. Based on Tebow’s performance next season, Bronx just could make an appearance on the 2012 list.
“You don’t want to change a dog’s name on a whim,” says Burckhalter. “I don’t know that Tim changing his dog’s name is the best idea, but once is not bad.”
Perhaps it’s time for Lulu to drop a name that we both associate with less than stellar behavior. I can only hope that Shiloh does not enjoy eating my shoes.
— Morieka Johnson
Have you changed your pet’s name? Join the conversation by following Morieka and Lulu on Twitter @soulpup today.
Got a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or submit other questions to Mother Nature and one of our many experts will track down the answer. Plus: Visit our advice archives to see if your question has already been tackled.