"How Names and Labels Affect Your Dog’s Behavior."

Is it harmful to assign personality traits to your dog?

Originally published in slightly different form on July 20, 2012 at PsychologyToday.com.

A Rose by Any Other Name?

Dr. Stanley Coren has done a very interesting study showing that people who are told that a dog has a tough-sounding name, like Killer or Bruiser, are more likely to see dog’s behavior as aggressive than if the dog has a cozier name, like Buddy or Champ.

Dr. Coren enlisted 291 university students. Each volunteer was given a booklet which read: “We are interested in your ability to determine the personality and intentions of dogs by simply looking at their behavior. We will show you a brief video clip of a dog … interacting with a person. Watch the dog carefully because we will be asking you some questions about [its] behavior.” However the dog’s name was not the same in all of the test booklets. Half of the booklets gave the dog’s name as Ripper, Killer, Assassin, Butcher, Gangster and so forth. The other half gave more positive names like Champ, Teddy, Happy, Buddy, Lucky, etc.

The observers were then shown a short video clip, taken from a television series starring a German shepherd: A man walks into view, then from off screen we hear some barking. The dog appears on screen and runs up to the man. There’s a close up of the dog barking at the man. Then the dog jumps up and places its paws on the man’s shoulders. The man pushes the dog away and the dog runs out of the scene, barking.

Once the volunteers had seen the clip, they looked in their booklets and found a list of words like friendly, sociable, cordial or playful on the one hand, and aggressive, threatening, hostile, or dangerous on the other. When volunteers thought the dog had a tough name were three times more likely to describe the dog’s behavior as hostile or menacing than when they thought he had a more positive and less threatening name.

As Dr. Coren suggests, this tendency to read aggressive behavior into dogs with tough-sounding names probably wouldn’t have quite the same effect with a Yorkie or Pomeranian. But it shows that names can have a powerful effect on how people perceive a dog’s personality and behavior.

This brings up an interesting question. Can a dog’s name have an effect on how its owners perceive the dog’s behavior?

On the Street Where You Live

People sometimes ask me for advice on what to name their new puppy or rescue dog. I always tell them that it should be short, just one or two syllables, and that it should conjure up strong positive associations.

When I first inherited my Dalmatian Fred, I disliked the name. His original owner had gotten him at a pet store near where I lived on the Upper West Side, and Freddie had been given his name by the store’s manager, someone I had strong negative feelings about at the time. So while I was madly in love with Fred the dog, I had trouble calling him that name because of these negative associations.

I tried changing it, but “Fred” had stuck. It was the only name he’d respond to. Still, I knew that if I wanted to have a completely pleasurable relationship with Freddie I had to get rid of whatever negative feelings I had about his name. So I racked my brain to think of a Fred in history or literature whom I admired, or least felt good about.

I settled on a character in My Fair Lady named Freddy. There’s nothing particularly endearing about him; he’s good natured, but a bit of a twit. Still, he sings one of my favorite songs from that show, “On the Street Where You Live.” Once I was able to associate my dog Freddie with a song that I love, it was clear sailing.

Closing Pandora’s Box

A dog’s name can not only influence how you feel about your dog, I think it can influence the dog’s behavior as well. I’ve often come across dogs with behavioral problems that I thought might have been the result—if only partially—of giving the dog a name that carries negative connotations. I find this to be particularly true of names from ancient myth like “Faust,” “Pandora,” “Achilles,” and “Loki.”

When I was a kid, growing up in Southern California, our neighbors across the street got a new dog, a shepherd mix named Loki. A few months later our family got a beagle that my younger brother James named Roman.

Loki, like his namesake, was always causing mischief while Roman liked to escape and go roamin’ around the neighborhood. This could have just been a strange coincidence. But since much of the relationship we have with our dogs takes place on an unconscious emotional level—where Freud and Jung say we also relate to mythical archetypes—I think it’s best to stick to names that don’t conjure up negative feelings for us, however unconscious they might be.

I’ve tried on numerous occasions to convince an owner to change their dog’s name from something like Pandora to something that sounds similar yet has only neutral or positive connotations, like Andora or just Pandy, but I’ve rarely been successful.

It might be interesting to do a study like Dr. Coren’s, where instead of telling total strangers that a dog is named “Killer,” etc., we would find people who’ve given their dogs not-so-nice names, do a behavioral analysis of the dog, convince the owners to change the dog’s name, just for the purpose of the study, and see if some of the dog’s bad behaviors start to disappear after the new name has been used for a few months.

The results might show some behavioral improvements if not a complete change in personality, based just on changing the dog’s name.

You’re the Most Irresponsible Dog I’ve Ever Known!

In my experience, when a dog owner assigns certain character traits to his or her dog, this can also have an adverse effect on the dog’s behavior.

Years ago I knew a young woman with a Weimeraner named Flash. She was an actress and dancer, and was the daughter of a brilliant and very famous show business figure, someone who was equally well-known for being rather careless and immature.

I liked Flash. He seemed like an ordinary dog, happy and playful. But his owner was always scolding him for being “irresponsible.” If he wandered off too far or did anything that made her nervous, she would grab his collar and say, “Do you know how irresponsible you are? You are the most irresponsible dog I have ever known!”

This seemed very odd to me, until she told me that she’d named the dog Flash because that was one of her father’s nicknames. It was her father she was upset with. Her dog had nothing to do with it!

A few weeks ago I was having a sidewalk conversation with a very nice older lady who walks dogs not far from where I live. She was out with her own dog, a miniature schnauzer named Muffin. I was finishing up a training session with another schnauzer named Odysseus.

At one point the woman asked Muffin to sit, but the dog ignored her. The woman got frustrated and said, “She’s hard-headed.”

“Really? Maybe she’s just not motivated.”

“No, that’s the way she is. Hard-headed.”

Something in the way she said it reminded me of Flash and his owner. It also felt like that she’d learned the phrase hard-headed from her mother.

“The thing is, if you say she’s hard-headed, then that’s the end of it. You don’t have anything to work with. You’ve closed the door on poor Muffin. But if you talk in terms of how she might be feeling at a given moment, rather than in terms of character traits that are set in stone, then you can work on getting the kinds of behaviors you want out of her.”

Luckily, my saying this made the woman smile at her dog. “So you’re not hard-headed after all, huh Muffin? You’re just not motivated?”

It’s not always easy, but once I can get people to see that their dog might be feeling anxious, or nervous or stressed, only then can they see the possibility for changing the dog’s behaviors. As long as that personality label is attached, the possibility for changing the dog’s behavior, let alone his or her emotional problems, doesn’t exist.

So the next time you tell someone about your dog’s personality traits, ask yourself if assigning such labels is helping or hurting your dog.


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