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 in May 2012 by changing his dog's name from Bronco to Bronx.
Sports writers flooded Twitter with jokes about the move, 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, Georgia. "You don't want them to have a negative association. It should be a new life, new owners, new name."
Tips to make the new name stick
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."
Make it rewarding: Carry treats with you and randomly call out your dog's new name. When she responds, reward her with lots of pets, praise, a big smile ... and a treat, of course. Even if your dog doesn't turn to look at you at first, still act excited anyway and she'll learn that a reward is coming when that amazing new name is called.
Watch a dog trainer show you how to train and reward as you teach your pet his new name:
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.
However, sometimes a dog can have a negative association with his old name. Maybe he came from an abusive situation, for example, so nothing good came of responding to his name. In that instance, tacking on a new name to the old name might not be the best idea. So it's better to make a clean break, writes certified dog trainer and animal behavior consultant Liz Palika in The Honest Kitchen. "If you dislike his old name, or if he has bad feelings for his old name, it’s better to begin fresh with a new name," she suggests."
If it rhymes with ‘Bo,' just say no: With all due respect to former 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."
Stick with it: Once you change your pet's name, then commit to it, so you can both form a connection. "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."
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was published in May 2012.