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Purebred and mixed-breed dogs can have complicated registered names. Dogs have their registered name, which is usually longer, and then their call name, which is what you’d call them in everyday situations, like having them sit or calling for them. You may have wondered, “Can you rename a dog?” As it turns out, you can teach your dog to respond to a new call name. With the right approach and training technique, your dog will be able to respond to a new name in no time.

Do Dogs Understand Their Names?

Our names are part of human identity, a way that we label ourselves. Although dogs may have a sense of self-awareness, they probably don’t think of their names as identifiers. Instead, your dog has learned that their name is a verbal cue. They understand that the next thing you do or say after making that sound will be relevant to them. For example, you might say their name, then put down the dog food bowl. You might say your dog’s name, then take away the slipper they were chewing.

Dogs associate the word you use as their name with consequences that concern them. If the consequences are positive, then a dog will learn to love their name. On the other hand, if the consequences are usually negative, a dog may come to dislike hearing the sound of their name. The dog might begin to ignore you or run the other way as soon as they hear it.

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Can You Rename a Dog?

If a dog’s name is all about associations, it’s absolutely possible to change a dog’s name simply by making new associations. Dogs are clever and adaptable. You just need to teach your dog that this new word relates to them. In fact, your dog probably responds to multiple names already — their call name, as well as nicknames.

The key to renaming a dog is teaching them that the new name means good things are about to arrive. That could be a dog treat, a new dog toy, or a game of tug-of-war: whatever reward they really enjoy. It’s important to keep your dog’s associations with the new name positive. But if you also use the new name when introducing things your dog dislikes, you might destroy your progress and create negative associations with that cue. Try to avoid using your dog’s new name before giving them a time-out or taking away a chew toy, for instance, until they’ve really learned it.

When Should You Rename a Dog?

There are many reasons why you might want to rename your dog. Perhaps you just brought home a puppy, and the name their breeder gave them reminds you of a childhood rival. You might be bringing a dog home from a shelter, and their current name doesn’t feel right for their personality. No problem, you can change that name. Dogs of any age can learn new names. The puppy was probably only just getting used to it anyway, and shelters often rename dogs that they bring in.

It’s also a good idea to change a dog’s name if they don’t respond to it or associate it with bad things. In that case, the name or cue is “poisoned. There are many reasons why a dog can have negative associations with one name. Perhaps an earlier owner mistreated them or used harsh training methods. In that case, changing the dog’s name can be an act of kindness. The dog can now turn to you at the sound of the new name and happily await what’s to come instead of hearing their name in fear.

The only time you might reconsider changing a dog’s name is if that dog has a long and positive history with the name. For example, a dog from a loving environment might have years of good memories associated with that name. Here, consistency can ease the transition in ownership. If you bring a working or service dog into your family, they might already associate their name with specific training cues. It might not be worth the extra effort to change the dog’s name.

Choosing a New Name for Your Dog

There are many popular boy dog names and popular girl dog names to choose from. However, you may want to consider how similar the new name sounds to your dog’s old name. Choosing a name with a similar sound or starting letter (such as changing David to Dash) may make the transition easier.

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Because most dogs don’t distinguish the details of human speech, they’ll often respond to similar-sounding words the same way. This is great if your dog has positive associations with the old name. But if there any are bad feelings attached to the old name, go for something that sounds completely different.

Teaching Your Dog Their New Name

You might be wondering exactly how to teach your dog their new name. First, ensure your dog’s new name is only associated with positive things. Second, realize the name only means “Pay attention to me. My next words or actions are for you.” It doesn’t mean “come” or “watch me.” So, teach your dog that meaning by pairing the new name with something they love. Soon they will be on alert for the name in anticipation of getting some good stuff.

If your dog has positive associations with their old name, you can use that to help build associations with the new one. Simply say your dog’s original name before the new one, leaving a short pause in between the two words. So if your dog’s call name is David, try calling them David Dash. After many repetitions, you can begin to drop the original name (David) and only use the new one (Dash). Pretty soon, Dash will cheerfully respond to their new name, and you can feel good about what you’re calling your dog.

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One of the best ways to teach your dog a new name is by playing a simple association game:

  1. With your dog on a leash and inside a quiet room, say their new name in an excited tone of voice. When they look at you, click a dog training clicker or mark that moment by using a marker word (such as “yes”). You can then give your dog a favorite treat. The important thing is your dog thinks this fabulous reward is a result of hearing the new name.
  2. If your dog doesn’t look at you right away, don’t repeat the name. Make other noises or pat your legs instead to get their attention. When they finally look toward you, click or use your marker word and present the treat.
  3. Once they are whipping their head around at the sound of the new name, begin to add distractions for your dog. Start with small and quiet distractions (like removing the leash if it’s safe to do so) before building up to larger ones (like the presence of other dogs or children).

With enough patience and practice, any dog, young or old, can learn a new name. There are cases where this might be easier than others, or make more sense. Decide if renaming your dog is right given the factors, and remember to be patient.