Familiarity: very important factor to dogs

March 4, 2015

When we adopt a dog, we often want to give him/her a new name for a new life. But what matters to dogs the most is “familiarity.” That’s why they get so happy when they see someone they’ve met before, or return to a place where they had a good time in the past.

We placed Britta in her new home ten years ago. Her adopter brought her dog to one of our adoption events first, so that her dog could meet Britta as well. The two dogs hit it off right away, and the lady decided to adopt Britta. We had to schedule a Home Safety Check, but since we’re all volunteers with no paid staff, it took us about a week to bring Britta to her future home.

When we arrived at their home, her dog was so happy to see Britta that I thought he was melting to a puddle. He then brought all his toys and offered them to her one by one. I could almost hear him saying, “That’s the girl I met and liked last week! Wow, she’s here! I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it! I’m so happy, I’m so happy, I’m so happy!”

We rescued a dog named Duchess. She got adopted and renamed Emma. Many years later when she stopped by one of our adoption events, someone said to a fellow volunteer, away from the dog, “Oh, I remember Duchess.” Her comment was not addressed to the dog at all, yet the dog turned around recognizing her old name. It was a bittersweet moment because I knew how wonderful her current life was but also wondered what thought went through her mind when she slowly turned around and gazed at the volunteer who said her old name…

After that incident, I’ve tried keeping the dogs’ original names (unless it’s absolutely horrendous or the dog was a stray and didn’t have a name), especially if the dog grew up with the name. Imagine a dog being dumped in the pound, then saved by a rescue group. He doesn’t know if he’s coming or going. “Where am I? What happened to my family?” And if you start calling him by an unfamiliar name, the dog would completely lose his identity because his name was the only thing that he was familiar with.

Nonetheless, it’s inevitable that the majority of the adopters want to give their new dog a new name, so that they can feel that their dog is really theirs. I can appreciate the sentiment from the human point of view, but dogs are not like us; they don’t think that they are starting a new life with a new name. They have one life and one identity.

I try explaining this to people, and if they still want to change the name, I advise that they hyphenate the old and new names for a while, then eventually drop the first half. For example, if your dog’s name was Caydn and if you want to rename him to Rusty, you call him Caydn-Rusty, until the dog gets used to it, then you can drop “Caydn” here and there, and eventually, your dog will know that Rusty is also his name.

What I like the most is to keep the original name as an official name, then add nicknames. Many dogs have more than one name and they respond to all of them, as people call their dogs by nicknames in addition to the their real names. On a Yahoo site, a user posted, “My Lab’s name is Coco. She gets called lots of different names — Coconut, Snowcone, Coco-loco, Bubby, Sweetie, Doggums, Dog-face, Babycakes. Or just what ever pops into my head…But its mainly the first 3.” So why not keep the original name as one of them?

I did not particularly like the name one of my dogs came with, but I kept it because that was the name he grew up with for five years, which was a big part of his life. I’ve then grown to like it when I call him with his original name because it makes me feel like I’m sharing his past — the past before he knew me.

But if you have changed your dog’s name, don’t fret because dogs are resilient and live in the moment. If he’s happy now, he’s happy, and that’s all that matters in the end. You can try calling him by his old name and see if he remembers it. If he does, then you can add it to the collection of the nicknames you’ve given him, so that his past is now included in his new life, and he will associate any name you call him with happiness and love.

Marie Atake is Founder & President of Forte Animal Rescue and a former Commissioner on the Board of L.A. Animal Services.