What's in a name?

This morning, I found myself railing at the radio. Not so unusual these days, but this was at Thought for the Day, Radio 4’s innocuous, if sometimes patronising, motivational slot. The speaker began by mocking the fact that a vet receptionist had asked her for her chicken’s name. “Name?” shrieked the speaker. “Name?! She’s a chicken”, as if this fact was enough to make the idea of naming her beyond insane. “What difference does that make?” I yelled back, thinking of our girls, Maud and Millicent, Melissa and Mindy, and our cockerel Mork….

Every animal who lives here has a name. Not just the dogs, but the feral cats, the chickens and every one of our 34 sheep. Even the injured pigeon we nursed back to health came to be known as Pidge! Names give identity and personhood and, for us, this is important for every creature.

Apart from her slight on chickens, however, I grudgingly had to agree with most of the rest of what the speaker said. Essentially, that names make a difference to how we perceive and are perceived.

Much is being made of Doris, the storm that brought chaos, much damage and, tragically, death, yesterday in the UK, but which, it is suggested, was not taken seriously enough because the name was more suggestive of tea with your granny than a severe and potentially dangerous weather front.

And noone watching the excellent remake of Alex Haley’s Roots can be in any doubt of the significance of names, throughout history, both in sustaining identity and in subjugating and dehumanising people. The courageous determination of Kunte Kinte to keep his African name in the face of the brutal determination of the slavers that he would take theirs, illustrates powerfully how much names matter.

So what has this to do with our dogs and their reactivity? Just this. Think about what you call your dog. Not only their given name, but the actual names you use when you talk about them. Nicknames, shortenings, lengthenings. What message are those names giving to you and to the people you meet?

When we have a dog whose behaviour frustrates us, we tend to reflect that in the nicknames we use. We often do it jokingly. So our “naughty” dog is renamed the Monster or Devildog or Idiotdog or Stupid or even “Little s**t”. I am guilty of it myself. In the aftermath of the boat naming fiasco last year, Martha gained the nickname Barky McBarkface - and it has stuck.

We may feel that this is all just harmless fun. But we know that what we call things influences how we see them. So each time we call our dog Stupid or Devil we are telling our brain that this is what they are. What might be the impact of that over months and years? At the very least it is going to make it harder for us to see them as bright, willing, cooperative creatures. Martha’s nickname may be amusing and descriptive. But it has certainly not helped us change her habit of vocalising!

One of the aspects of the resilience-building game we are playing over on the Complete Canine Confidence membership is to adopt a secret identity and it has been wonderful to see the creative and positive “alter-egos” members have come up with for themselves and their dogs. Fantasy heroes. Super heroes. Crime fighters. Some with vulnerabilities but all powers for good. And even going through this process of naming lightens how we feel about our dogs’ issues.

So why not try giving your dog a nickname that reflects what you LOVE about them - or how you'd like them to be - rather than what frustrates you? You may find it changes more than just the name!

Photo: Roo, our Kangal pup, who will be a huge guardian dog but whose name is deliberately fun and gentle and about as far from the "big tough dog" image as possible!