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How to Pick Your Dog’s Name

Names By Kelsey Snyder 11 min read January 18, 2021

how to name your dog

Most pup parents have a special story about how their dog got their name, and with good reason — it’s one of the biggest moments in you and your doggo’s relationship!

While it’s fun, the naming process can be an adventure of trial and error, and it’s important to remember that your dog’s name can have ramifications.

We’ll explain how and provide some name-picking pointers below. 

How to Pick Your Dog’s Name: Key Takeaways

  • Picking your dog’s name is fun, but it’s also something that requires a bit of thought and planning. You’re going to be using your pup’s new name for years, and some names can cause long-term problems you’ll wish you’d avoided. Some will also be easier for your dog to hear and recognize than others.
  • Dogs learn to recognize their name, but they probably don’t know that it is their “identity.” There is still a ton we don’t understand about how our dogs think, but they probably just think of their names as a “Come here” cue.
  • There are some common pieces of dog-naming advice you’ll want to follow when making a choice. This includes picking a name that begins with a consonant and ends with a vowel, and avoiding those that rhyme with commands.

Why Does Your Dog’s Name Matter?

Obviously, you can name your dog whatever you want, but some names work better than others

Think about your own name for a second. Imagine if it was something different, like “Hello.” Sure, it’d be cool for a while, but it might get a little confusing trying to figure out if someone’s merely greeting you or if they’re calling you over.

The same principle applies for your pup: His name should be instantly recognizable to him to avoid confusion with commands or common words. 

Names also carry weight, whether we like it or not, so you’ll want to consider the feelings they’ll invoke in other people.

Certain words you may use as a name are loaded with emotion. Like, for example, “Joy.” You’d imagine that Joy the dog is a friendly little guy. Conversely, a name like “Devil,” would likely evoke thoughts of a pup with an attitude problem. 

Choosing the wrong mutt moniker can impact everything from training to making vet appointments. On the flip side, the right name can be memorable, like the famous fur kids Lassie or Shiloh.

Do Dogs Understand Their Names?

It’s not clear whether or not dogs have a true sense of “self,” or if they understand that their name is associated with their identity.

It’s possible that they do, but dogs don’t pass the “mirror test” — a common experiment conducted by behaviorists to peer into the inner workings of an animal’s mind.

In a nutshell, the mirror test involves putting an ink smudge on the face of a participant, and then seeing if the animal touches the mark when looking in a mirror. An animal that does touch the ink splotch is thought to understand that the image he is seeing in the reflection is him.

In other words, passing the mirror test means that the animal recognizes himself and, therefore, has a sense of “self.”

Only a handful of animal species pass the mirror test. By and large, it’s the ones you’d expect: chimpanzees, orangutans, and dolphins usually do, and gorillas and elephants do in some cases, but not others.

Humans raised in Western cultures pass the test, but only once we’ve reached about 2 years of age (interestingly, children raised in Eastern cultures often fail to pass the mirror test).

As mentioned, dogs fail the test. Fido won’t understand that the mark on the face of the doggo in the reflection is actually on his head.

However, some researchers feel that the mirror test is unfair to animals who primarily learn about the world via their sense of smell, rather than visually.

But regardless of whether dogs have a sense of self, they learn to associate words with objects or actions through repetition and training. This includes things like sitting when you say “Sit” or recognizing that “Walk” means he’s going to strut his stuff around the block.

The same thing occurs with your dog’s name. 

Ultimately, your dog may not realize that he is Kevin, but he knows that when you say “Kevin,” it means that you want him for something (and it’ll usually be something involving scritches, playtime, or something tasty).

This is why you’re encouraged to repeat your puppy’s name often to get him acclimated quickly.

Name-Picking Pointers for Your Pooch: The Dos and Don’ts of Doggo Name Selection

Hitting a home run in the naming department doesn’t have to be a chore.

Picking your pup’s name should be fun, and finding the right one is easier when you stick to a few guidelines:

  • Love It: Pick something you love. You’re going to be saying this name for many years, so always go with something that fits your style.
  • Pick a Name That Starts with a Consonant: Some feel that a hard consonant at the start of a name is best, such as C or B. These sounds carry as you speak, whereas vowels can get muddled.
  • Pick a Name with a Vowel at the End: A consonant may be good for the beginning of your dog’s name, but a vowel will work best for the opposite end. Using a vowel at the end of a name helps the sound carry, such as occurs with names like Milo and Alabama. Names with an “-ie” sound at the end also tend to be popular and easy to say.
  • Syllable Selection: One or two-syllable names generally work best, as long names can leave you tongue-tied during training sessions. You can always have a formal name that you dress down as needed, like our editor Ben Team’s pup, Joan of Bark, who goes by J.B. 
  • Look for Longevity: For an evergreen name, seek something that can grow with your pooch. Sure, “Sprout” is fitting for a 8-week-old rascal, but he’ll eventually be a distinguished adult. Similarly, some breeds change colors as they age and their coats fill in. My Moxie was black when she came home, but today, she’s a deep chocolate brown. Good thing we didn’t go with the name Onyx.
  • Sibling Check: In multi-pet households, uniqueness goes a long way. If you already have a Maxwell at home, for example, you likely shouldn’t name your new friend Maxine to avoid confusion. Some pawrents like to choose different starting letters entirely to make it easier for the right pooch to respond to commands. 
  • Consider Customization: If you’re a fan of customized items for your pooch, remember that not every name will fit on your dog’s belongings. Corndog Cornelius may be a cute canine name, but you might have a hard time fitting the entire name on a personalized dog ID tag or bowl. 
  • Be Original: There’s a reason common canine names become common — lots of people like them. But if you want a name that won’t turn ten heads during training class, avoid anything super common, like Max or Jack. 
  • Doggo Duties: Your dog’s future role in the family can inspire his name, such as Camo for a hunting dog, or Chief for a watchdog looking out for squirrely intruders outback.
  • Look to Hobbies/Interests: Namespiration can come from anywhere, like science, pop culture, and videogames, with movies like Harry Potter and Disney being sources of excellent doggo names. 
  • Think Outside the Box: Trying something new might lead you to the perfect find. If you’re stumped, look outside of your bubble. Maybe a name meaning “friend”, like Amigo, for your best fur buddy, or a name from your pup’s heritage, like Jia, a Chinese name that’s right at home on a Pekingese.  
  • Test, Test, and Test Some More: You can always try a name out for a day or two to see if it’s the right fit. You might pick something and soon discover it’s not working, and that’s OK. It might sound a little ridiculous, but practice calling your pup with the name or imagine filling out forms at the vet’s office before you settle on the final selection. 
  • Use It: Once you find the perfect name, it’s time to put it to work. Use it every chance you get with your pooch to teach him to associate the sound with you wanting him. This is vital in teaching reliable recall and improves your training experience overall. Your dog should know that his name means something pleasant, like belly rubs or attention. 

While naming is usually lighthearted and fun, there are also some naming no-nos that you should keep an eye out for, including:

  • Rhyming Names Can Cause Headaches: Avoid names that rhyme with or sound like common commands. For instance, your dog might get mixed signals being told “no” if his name is Gnome.
  • Consider Future Embarrassment: Skip anything that you’d be uncomfortable calling out at the dog park. This isn’t always obvious, either. My cairn terrier’s name was Honey, which on the surface isn’t especially embarrassing, but my neighbors thought I was calling my husband inside instead of the dog for the longest time.
  • Keep It PC: This should be a given, but your dog’s name shouldn’t offend anyone. Just steer clear of anything vulgar or degrading. 
  • Avoid Negative Associations: It’s annoying, but names can have negative connotations that make people look at you and your pooch differently. Killer might be funny when your puppy first comes home, but such a loaded name can lead to problems, such as standing out in a bad way on your dog’s resume
  • Keep It Positive: Only use your dog’s name in positive interactions. He shouldn’t be scolded with his name. Associate “no” with corrections and keep his name in the realm of happiness so you don’t accidentally impact recall.
  • People Problems: Some feel that anthropomorphic names or “human names” aren’t ideal. It’s a personal preference, but a good rule of thumb is to avoid naming your pooch after anyone without asking, like Stanley after your boss or Bessie after your aunt. You should also skip any negative historical figures. 
Editor’s Note

I’ve always thought giving dogs human names is a bit weird. It can be quite off-putting to meet a dog with your very own name! However, I find that last names can work great as dog names. For example, my dog’s last name is “Finnegan,” which I’d consider a great dog name! – Meg Marrs

Conflicting Opinions for Dog Names

While most of the dog-naming advice discussed above enjoys broad support from trainers, behaviorists, and cynologists, there are a few things about which dog experts disagree.

One example is names that begin with a sibilant (the hissing sound made when pronouncing words like genre, ship, or zip).

Some authorities feel that dog names should start with a sibilant sound, whereas others suspect that these types of sounds are more difficult for dogs to understand.

As with any other aspect of dog care in which experts disagree, you’ll simply have to consider the issue and make the best decision you can.

Dog Name FAQs

With so many dog names to choose from, it can get overwhelming. You might still have some questions, but we’re here for you: 

Do dogs respond best to certain names?

Certain sounds can catch a dog’s attention more easily, such as hard consonants or vowel endings. If you browse the AKC’s list of the most popular dog names, you’ll spot these left and right. 

What is the best dog name? 

This is totally subjective. When it comes down to it, the best dog name is the one that makes you and your dog happy. As long as he responds, you’re good to go, whether he’s Larry or Lunchbox. 

If you’re stumped, look at your dog’s appearance for inspiration. Maybe he’s fluffy, chunky, or a big dog worthy of a big dog name.

How can I teach my dog his name?

Repetition is key, and it’s dog training that should involve the entire family. Always use the name in a friendly tone and start by associating the name with treats when your pup comes home. Wait until he’s not paying attention and call him over using the name only. When he comes, he gets a treat.

Build on this, giving him affection whenever his name is used, and he responds. Do not pair the name with corrections, however, such as “Spot, no!” This is counterproductive.

Do nicknames confuse dogs?

We’re all guilty of giving our dogs nicknames, but luckily, it isn’t totally harmful. Like his name, a frequently used nickname will eventually be associated with positive attention by your dog and he’ll respond to it.

When your dog is first learning his name, however, skip nicknames. You want him to respond to your chosen name first. Throwing too much at him at once can be overwhelming.

Should dog names end in a Y?

Some trainers recommend this, as the sound is inherently high-pitched and pleasant, like you’re praising the pup. This can be vital in setting up solid name recognition. 

Can you ever change your dog’s name?

You can, but it will lead to confusion if it’s a drastic change. Your dog associates his name with you wanting him, so changing it will take time and patience as he learns his way around his new title.  

Do you have to use the name a shelter gave your dog?

No, you can change your pup’s name if you’d like. In fact, your dog’s shelter name might have been given to him by shelter staff and not be his original name.

Try to stick to something that sounds similar to the name he responds to, like Cocoa becoming Kona or Max switching to Jax.

If he has no name, practice saying some to him and see if he responds to any. From there, you can experiment with similar-sounding ones for a solid fit.    

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What’s your doggo’s name? Have you ever had any dog name regrets? Did you switch things up or make it work? Share with us in the comments!

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Written by

Kelsey Snyder

Kelsey is a K9 of Mine contributor who has worked with dogs as a shift runner and office manager of a boarding kennel. When she’s not writing, she can be found throwing a ball or losing at tug of war. An animal lover to the max, she lives in South Jersey with her husband, her five dogs Boomer, Taj, Batman, Maya, and Moxie, some kitties, and two grumpy turtles.

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