Dogs don't have the same sense of identity that we do, especially in regards to our name.
We may look at our name with pride; perhaps we have our beloved grandmother's first name or our last name shows our ethnic heritage. Instead, dogs learn that reacting to that particular sound results in something concerning them. Hopefully, that association means something beneficial, such as petting, play time, a walk, a treat or dinner.
However, there can be problems with a dog's name. You may have adopted a dog who came into the shelter or rescue without a name. Maybe his name is known but you dislike the name. Worse yet, his name might be known but the dog has bad feelings associated with it. If his previous owners used his name when punishing him, he may feel like that sound means bad things are going to happen.
Thankfully, changing a dog's name isn't difficult and it can give him a fresh start in life. This is particularly wonderful for newly adopted dogs but can also work for puppies. My youngest dog was called Jack as a puppy and came to me as a 10-week-old puppy already responding to the name. However, that wasn't the name I wanted for him so right from the first day he joined my household I started to teach him the name Bones. It took just days for him to begin to respond well to his new name.
Choose a Good Name
Choose a name that you (and all your family members) will willingly use. Your young daughter may want to call the new puppy Pretty Pony, for example, and your teenage son has said he'll never call the dog by that name. That's easy to understand. Think of all the family members' likes and dislikes when choosing a name.
Then, the name you choose needs to be easy to say. A tongue twister name might be fun, but it can cause problems if you're calling your dog to come and can't quickly say his name. Before choosing a potential tongue twister, say it rapidly several times, as if calling your dog to come from a football field away. Does it work?
Think of what a potential name might mean to other people. A dog's name with negative connotations can be a problem in many ways. Perhaps most importantly, your dog shouldn't be the target of other peoples' anger because of the name you gave him.
Also, dogs often live up to their names. A Rottweiler, Doberman Pinscher, German Shepherd, or Akita named Killer or Monster might well live up to that name. Your dog could be a nice dog but if people avoid him, act afraid of him or pull away from him because of his name, he'll begin to worry about people and could develop bad behaviors.
Most dog behavior experts recommend you choose a name for your dog that makes you smile. A big, black and rust, muscular Rottweiler named Sweetie is going to make you smile every time you say it and look at your dog.
Introducing the New Name
To begin changing your dog's name, have a handful of good treats your dog really likes. This is the time to bring out the leftover cooked chicken, pieces of a sweet apple or bits of good commercial treats. The Honest Kitchen's Wonders are wonderful for this as they have a smell dogs love, and for dogs, smell is the most important sense.
With your dog on leash and close to you, let him sniff one of the treats and then as you hand it to him, say his new name, "Sweetie!" Use a happy tone of voice when saying his name. Repeat this five or six times and then stop. Unhook his leash and let him go play. Repeat this exercise several times a day.
It's important to use the leash even if your dog tends to remain close to you. It only takes one time for him to dash away from you while you're saying his new name for him to realize he can dash away and while running away, he can also ignore you. Use the leash to keep him close and to prevent him from learning the wrong lesson.
Continuing the Training
This first lesson teaches the dog that good treats come from you when you say his name and that it might have something to do with him. He may also think that sound means treats or that particular treat. Don't worry if that seems to be his understanding; it's okay.
After several days of repeating the first training step, when you see your dog perk up when you pick up those treats, then it's time to begin using his name in other situations too. Say his name when you feed him, "Sweetie, dinner!" After all, meals are a great positive reinforcement too.
Add his name to other times when you're both having fun. Tell him, "Good boy, Sweetie," when you're giving him a tummy rub. Praise him, "Good toy, Sweetie," when he brings you a toy to throw. Pair his name with many fun activities your both enjoy.
Add his name to his obedience training sessions too. Again, use his name in conjunction with directions and praise but never with punishment.
Make a Clean Break from the Old
Sometimes trainers recommend making a gradual change from the old name to the new. Perhaps you would say, "Killer Sweetie, sit." Then gradually put less emphasis on Killer and more on Sweetie. This can (and often does) work; however, if a dog has a negative association with his old name, this training technique can pollute his feelings for his new name.
So, 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.
A friend of mine is fostering a dog whose old name is known. However, when my friend took the dog home, he acted as if he'd never heard that name at all. He completely ignored it. So, thinking the name was a problem, she taught him a new name that could be said with a happy tone of voice and within a week, he's responding to it nicely with a vigorously wagging tail.