What’s in a Name?

I love naming dogs. There’s a lot that goes into a name, and it’s often one of the first things we do when we bring a dog into our family.

I’ve named my fair share of dogs. Working in shelters and rescue for years, it became a regular task. Litters of puppies were oftentimes the most fun, because we would work from a theme. It could be music (Adagio, Forte, Pianissimo, Solo) or chocolates (Godiva, Ghirardelli, Hershey, Cadbury), but every puppy got their own name. Whether it was Link and Zelda, the Shar Pei pups, or Emily Dickenson, the sweet Pit Bull, the name was often one of the first connections that potential adopters made with their dog.

Photo by bivoir on flickr.

Photo by bivoir on flickr.

Naming a homeless dog and naming your own dog are two very different things. I learned early on in my rescue career that unique names were important for shelter dogs. There may be twenty black Lab mixes named Buddy on Petfinder, but there was probably only one named Baloo, and Magpie would stick out in a crowd of Maggies. Choosing a name that would invite questions, laughter, or interest was one of the best things we could do to help our homeless dogs find their forever home faster.

When I started fostering my dog Trout, she was known as Lucy Lu. It was a cute name, but she got much more attention as Trout, the homeless puppy who was abandoned on a trout farm. She also got a forever home with me, and I quickly renamed her Mischief.

Names have a habit of sticking, though, and I should’ve known that this would happen with her. After all, it had already happened with Layla. When I adopted Layla, I wanted quite badly to change her name. She already knew Layla, though, and would wriggle when she heard it. She’d had so much upheaval in her short little life that I couldn’t bring myself to change one more thing, so her name stuck.

Trout’s name stuck too, as much as I wanted to change it to Mischief. All of my friends and my boyfriend (whom she had decided was her forever person, regardless of what the adoption papers might say) already knew her as Trout, and they continued to call her by that name. I was one of a handful of people who called her Mischief.

Surprisingly, this worked out in our favor. Trout became her everyday name, her around-the-house name, and she responded well to it. Mischief, however, became her attention cue. Since she only heard that name when she and I were training, it worked as a homing beacon to bring her lasering in on whatever was coming next.

There’s a lot that goes into naming your dog. The first considerations are practical. Is the name easy to say and spell? Naming your dog Maquoketa after the town where his breeder was located insures that no one else will have the same name, but also pretty much guarantees that you’ll spend his whole life saying “it’s pronounced mah-koh-kah-da.” The length is also a bit clumsy. Four syllables is a mouthful when you’re trying to belt out a quick recall cue as your dog races towards a busy road.

Another important consideration is the uniqueness of the name you choose. Does it sound like anyone else’s name in your close circle of family and friends? One friend was surprised to figure out that her dog Kayla had a difficult time distinguishing her own name from the neighbor’s Bloodhound, Beulah. The “la” sounds at the end of the name were too close, and caused a lot of confusion. You should also decide whether you’re okay using a more popular dog name or whether you want your dog to be more unique. There are hordes of tiny, fluffy dogs name Gizmo or Gidget, but Grizzle or Gretel are less common. I used to groom Gwenivere and Galahad, and always got excited to see their names on my schedule. I was happy to see Sophie the Cocker Spaniel on my grooming schedule too, but always wondered which of the handful of Sophies was on the books until the actual dog showed up.

Think about the personality of your dog’s name and the impression it may make on others. It’s a cruel irony that I’ve met more one-eyed, three-legged dogs named Lucky than any other name, and have had several Angels come to me for help with severe aggression issues. Cujo may be a funny name for your well-trained Maltese, but naming your Pit Bull Lucifer just serves to reinforce an already unjust and unfair bias against the breed in people who don’t know how awesome they can be. Words have power, so choose a name for your dog that won’t cause others to subconsciously dislike your dog before they even meet him or her.

Finally, choose a name that actually fits your dog. Every dog is an individual with his or her own unique personality, and I’m strongly in favor of getting to know your dog as an individual for a few days or a week before settling on a name. Corndog was a fine name for a sweet, silly hound puppy whom I fostered, but would have been downright insulting for the dignified old Chihuahua dame who came after that. Apple, Mowgli, and Kip were a series of Rat Terrier fosters who each spent at least 24 hours in my care before receiving names, although I knew right away that Paddington Bear was the right moniker for the gentle giant of a senior Lab who came into my care after his stray hold was up.

Ultimately, your dog’s name is going to be one of his first and last connections to you. It will be one of the first things he learns, so choose a name that you can say gently and kindly. Choose a name that will make his eyes sparkle and his tail wave gently when he hears it, and then say it frequently and with great love. Say it for years and years, and when the time is right, whisper it to your dog as he leaves his old and worn body behind for whatever comes next. Make it an incantation, imbued with the life and the love and the memories that have transformed it from a shiny new thing to a powerful invocation of your time together.

How did you choose your dog’s name? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

31 responses to “What’s in a Name?

  1. We used to have a dog that was given to us. Her name was Sandy. I wanted to change her name as well, but didnt because that was the name given. No sense in confusing her. When she passed away, we bout a 3 month old and named him Buddy because he loves everybody…and it was easy to remember. So we either call him Buddy, Buddy boy, or Buds.

  2. In France, all purebred pets must have a name that begins with a letter that changes every year. 2013 was the year of the “I” and when I found my little aussie, he was named Iron. It was a really common name, and I already knew three or four dogs named “Iron.” I still remember that I wrote a list with a lot of names… Iota, Iode, Ibiscus, Inquest… But with the puppy in front of me, I couldn’t choose those names, they just didn’t fit. I nicknamed him “Diez” that doesn’t mean anything in French but the hashtag symbol -> #
    He’s now 8 months old and it’s an adorable little bear full of energy, and I couldn’t named him better !

  3. My girl recently had a litter of eight puppies, and I have tried to give them names (not permanent, I know) that give an inkling of personality. My two adventurers are Magellan and Amelia. Magellan, even before his eyes opened, was off exploring the far edges of the whelping box, sometimes getting lost under a layer of quilt, and Amelia, after everyone else was sleeping, would go off on solo flights.

  4. When we were breeding, we found the puppies would let us know their individual names as they began to have personalities. That system worked well for us.
    Now that we are no longer breeding, I use the same method for my fosters and rescues.

  5. I named my dog Joey because he would hop on his back legs like a little kangaroo. He also is a similar color. Emma got her name because she has such a sweet little face and Emma is a sweet name in my opinion.

  6. I agree with you! I think unique names are so important, especially for dogs looking for new homes. We were always very conscientious in our name choices for our dogs and our foster dogs.

    Our dogs are Pyrrha and Eden. Pyrrha is from Greek mythology (mentioned in Ovid) and Italo Calvino’s novel “Invisible Cities.” Eden, naturally, is from the Garden of Eden, because we wanted the dogs’ names to be related to one another (e.g., they are both origin stories).

  7. Our foster failure is a very dark colored pit bull. I got a call that animal control had picked her up when the sheriff serving eviction papers had found her severely injured and tied to a front porch. She had jumped or fallen from a moving vehicle, presumably as the family was moving, and had lost most of the skin and fur off of her left hind leg and had been “degloved” which sounds nicer than it was. She had several broken toes and no skin or pads on her paws anymore. Instead of getting her vet help, they tied her to the porch and left, we don’t know how long she was there. I went and got her because she was too injured to stay in the shelter, and was on the way home to get her settled in. Her way of saying “thank you” was to poop all over the back seat of my car. About two blocks from home was a car wash and detailer, so I pulled in, carried her into the lobby (she was heavily bandaged for the trip) and sat there while they worked us in. I had known her about 30 minutes by this point.

    A little girl of about 5 came up and asked if she could pet her. I had no idea whether the dog was okay with kids, but her body language seemed relaxed and yet eager to meet the girl. Her mom was terrified of pit bulls but allowed it. She asked what the dog’s name was, and I explained that I didn’t know, we just met and I was taking her home until she got better, then she would be adopted by someone. I asked her what she would name her if it were her dog, and she tilted her head, thought about it for about 30 seconds, then straightened up and announced confidently “Olivia.” It was a shockingly appropriate name and I can’t explain why. We tossed other ideas around for about a week because normally I like shorter names for dogs, but nothing was as fitting as that name.

    That’s how Olivia, Lady O, or Livvy Liv came to get her name. I would love to know what her original name was, but once she got to our house she never left. She does know why it’s inappropriate to poop in the Subaru now, though.

  8. Our beagle is named Boomer (I thought it was original but not so much). But we tend to call him Beagle which he responds better to. Our lab came with the name Rocky which we left (not my favorite). And my son named our pit bull Leroy ( I have no idea why.)

  9. Though shalt not mock, Tighearnach! :)

  10. Our rescue, Jarly, was my husband’s first dog ever, so, of course, he got naming rights! (He was being held at the shelter as a stray – a 6-month old “lab mix” (which I’m convinced is code for “black dog”) – as he’s grown, he’s looked more and more like a shepherd of some sort, with just a smidge of lab and a bit more of something bully – possibly mastiff.) I’ve traditionally named my pets from literature, so my husband wanted to call him Jarlaxle, for a character in a series of fantasy novels he enjoyed – a “black elf” with a moral code. Jarlaxle is a bit of a mouthful, so it was immediately shortened to Jarly, which, we find, is very easily mixed up with “Charlie.” Most of the time, we don’t bother to correct people.

  11. I fostered, then adopted a pretty Beagle girl named Cora. Her first mom had a stroke; after it became clear she would not be able to care for her dogs again, I kept Cora but didn’t like her name. I kept saying she was cute as a button. We had a routine at meal times. She would be at the far end of the breezeway where all the dogs ate in crates. I’d get to her crate and say “Come on down!” in my best Bob Barker imitation. Cora would try to zoom down but took a bit getting traction; she’d then swerve into her crate, turn around, and recieve her meal. I just started calling her Button. She recognized it as I paired it with our routine.

    Two years ago, I took in a young Beagle mix family from a horrible situation – 5 of the 7 puppies had died of starvation and dehydration before the ACO was alerted and could save them. She sent them to me. The girl puppy was the biggest and pushiest – I named her “Diva” and she’s lived up to her name ever since. Her brother, whom they almost lost, seemed more contemplative and a thinker; I called him “Ralph Waldo.” He still is a thinker. They were adopted together and retained their names. Their mother is adopted, too. Hooray!

  12. Tori is short for Victoria and her registered name is CH Kaiser’s Queen Victoria. It was a requirement from the breeder that the name Kaiser be part of the registered name. Quint is short for Kaiser’s Quintessential GSP (he’s still working on the champion part). I did not want a common name for my dogs and I prefer human names vs. names that are usually thought of as dogs names. I also think it’s easier to name girls than boys.

  13. Jetta has always been Jetta to us. She’s a jet-black dog, so the name fits. She was in foster care for a while before we found her, and her foster family had done a wonderful job training her. She knew her name. It didn’t make sense for us to change it. We don’t know if Jetta was given to her at the shelter who took her in or the rescue who pulled her, but it’s a name that rolls off the tongue. We often joke that we would have likely named her Shadow, for the little nose print on the back of each of our knees as we move from room to room, with Jetta following right behind us. We call her all sorts of endearments, and sometimes she chooses to ignore us calling her name, but you’d better believe she knows that Jetta is her name. We never would have chosen Jetta for her, but that she is Jetta is the best thing. When she’s outside, and my husband calls out “Jetta!” in his big, booming voice, and I see that happy dog running toward us from the far side of the yard, it is simply a perfect moment. She’s my first dog, so I haven’t named a dog yet, but this blog post is definitely one I will read, at some far future point, when it’s time to name the newest member of our family. Still, because she is my first dog, for the rest of my life, there will be an almost imperceptble pause before I say that dog’s name, because my mind will instantly want to say Jetta’s name, out of habit.

  14. Laura & Amadeus

    Amadeus had a name before I had a puppy. I saw a puppy at the Humane Society and thought it was fantastic, but couldn’t have a dog at that time in my life. Four years later, when I was looking for a puppy, I was pretty sure he’d be an Amadeus. When I found his giant puppy butt I was positive.
    I’m the only one who uses his full name consistently – like Trout, Ami has a daily name and an “oh, Mom wants my attention” name.
    My family has also had a thing for nicknames. Amadeus is called “Thunderpaws”, “Ralph”, and “Elmer” regularly enough to answer to them. He’s kind-of a dopey pup, so his full name reminds me that there is classy, dignified, smart potential in there.

  15. Cori. Short for the Spanish Corazone, meaning heart. She was born with a white heart-shaped blaze on her forehead. And she is an absolute sweetheart. So Cori is my heart…

  16. “Tristan,” my little companion, was named after James Harriott’s loyal veterinary assistant in the “All Creatures” books.

  17. I’m a firm believer in people names for pets. Maybe it’s because I don’t really plan on having any human children in my life and yet I’m still compelled to make lists of names I like. My first dog was Carter at the shelter, and he became Elliott. It suited him well. In the car ride back from the shelter I tried names out on him until one fit. I took the same approach with my second dog; she was called Nikki at the shelter and became Carys (Welsh, rhymes with Paris). I had considered a few names before meeting her, and that was the one that fit best. For my third dog, I had been fairly set on the name Seren (another Welsh name) while I was looking for a new dog. With her, I fostered her for a few weeks before deciding to adopt, so I was using her rescue name (Cookie, ugh) for a while before it became clear that she was staying for good. Seren didn’t seem to fit her, and I tried Sulian (again, Welsh, like Cillian), but finally got off the Welsh kick and she became Aster. I love that there aren’t any other Caryses or Asters out there, and I’ve only met one other dog-Elliott.

  18. Sandy Atkinson

    My first dog was Ted E. Bear. When I got him, he looked like a little baby teddy bear, but I wanted him to have a people name.

  19. Long before I ever got a dog, I thought the name Tesla (after the electrical engineer) would be a great name for a dog. A few years later, I was bringing home a skinny brindle pitbull named Pearl by the shelter staff. I knew Pearl didn’t fit, but I wasn’t sure Tesla did either. We spent almost a week calling her “girl,” until deciding that Tesla (often shortened to Tess) fit her sweet disposition just fine. It was serendipity that we found a (matching) brindle pitbull whose big blockhead fit the name Edison (Ed) perfectly.

  20. As someone already said earlier, in France, purebred puppies must have a name starting by a given letter. My puppy was born in 2013, the letter was I, and people hadn’t any originality : there were TONS of Iron, Iago and Indy. His breeder first named my puppy “Instinct Basic”, which was awful in my opinion. I thought about Ion (from Greek mythology) or Iericho (alternate spelling for Jericho), but one of his brothers was named Iago, and it reminded me of Shakespeare’s work. I thought then “What about Yorick? I can spell it Iorick for his pedigree, and use the spelling Yorick in other situations” (in French, “Io” and “Yo” is pronounced exactly the same).
    So my puppy is Iorick for the administration and Yorick in everday life. A jester name for a funny puppy, it fits him well.
    For my old dog, Prosper was the name given to him in his shelter. I didn’t really like it at first, but I didn’t feel to change his name, since he responded well to it. So he is still Prosper, and it fits him really well too.

    I’ve never met another dog named Prosper or Yorick, so I guess it’s also original names. Actually, Yorick is so uncommon that many peoples mistake “Yorick” for “Youri” u_u

    I love naming pets after mythologies and litterature. Some names I’d like to give to future dogs are Sirius (the brightest star of the Canis Major constellation) and Argos (Odysseus’ dog).

  21. We bought two puppies at the same time – we wanted to name one of them Ailsa after the Scottish island, as our last dog, Isla was also named after an island. Also, our old dog Isla’s mother was called Ailsa, AND my mum had known two sisters at school called Ailsa and Isla. But what to name our other puppy? Well, after looking at other Scottish island names, we eventually decided on Molly! – not an island at all, and not significant other than my sister thought it was a pretty name. We had both names picked out before we even met our pups, but they completely suit both their personalities!

  22. My guy is named Zipper. He’s from a little of pups where Mum was unfortunately hit by a car 2 days after birth. When I brought him home I was sort of calling him “Sib, Sib” for all his Siblings but it quickly became Zipper as he loved to just zoom around. He has had a few nick names since we’ve had him, but when he hears “Zipper” he knows it’s time to get to “work”!

  23. I inherited a very lame young lab from my ex-husband, who was moving out of state and would not be taking this dog with him. They had retained his shelter name of Oliver Twist, after his poor lame hind legs. We began with Ollie, which morphed into Wally, then to Lee or Lee-Lee. He had a very unique reserved personality. My current dog had been a Coco but by the time I got her home, her name was Cookie Lou. She is a total extrovert who responds to all the silly nicknames I give her..

  24. My name is Twiglet, like the tasty snacks you can get in the UK (anywhere else? – made with Marmite, which is like Vegemite, I’m told). People love Twiglets or hate them – there’s no inbetween.
    I *was* going to have a nice gentle-sounding Scottish Gaelic name (“Riach”, pronounced ree-ach, where the “ch” is soft like in German). But within 5 minutes of picking me up, my new best friend quickly realised that a soft, gentle name was not going to suit my feisty terrier nature, and I got a new name! :-)

  25. My dog came with the name Jack. I wanted to rename him Zee after a favorite book character. My boyfriend said we should probably keep the “k” sound in Jack so that he would learn his name quicker. My sister suggested Zeke & we kept that!

  26. I was 9 when we rescued a 2 year old Alaskan Malamute. I named him Dakota for the sole purpose of nicknaming him “coco”… I never once called him Coco. He was Koda, DK, or Kodan for short. I’m 22 now, and last week he passed away. When I was 15, my mom adopted an Australian Shepard/Golden retriever puppy whom she promptly named Rusty, due to his color. I always disliked that name, and I started calling him Puppyface, or Puppy. Funnily enough, he still responds to me calling him Puppy after 7 years ;)

  27. we named our jack russel Jingle because she was born during xmas time in Singapore. And that name stuck and she loves it.

  28. We have named our dogs with an automotive theme. My beloved Chocolate Lab was Chassis (Chassey) Lou but ended up just being called Lou or Louie. Our current Yellow Lab is named Malibu and is frequently called Bu. We recently rescued a Maltese-Shi-Zhu mix who’s name was Murray. In keeping with our theme we are morphing his name into Mercury. Shortening that to Merky, he doesn’t seem to notice the extra consonant at all.

  29. Lilu
    Naming her was very important, we found the perfect name before knowing her. she was supposed to be the perfect dog, (for us) . though carefully about her name, it had to be spanish sounding do to my background, (our bird is Pedro), but it had to be perfect, like she would be for us. she was supposed to be a female JRT, rescued from death row, with a “personality”. most JRT have some reddish brown in her. so it had to be Lilu, the perfect girl, red hair from The Fifth Element. I watch it a lot. So when we flew to Florida to pick her up and train with her (she is a trained bedbug dog), it just fit her perfectly. she love it right away.
    Many recognize it right away, from the movie. Some confuse it with the many variations that could come up from it. But still the best name we could have picked up.

  30. Being in rescue, I have named hundreds of dogs and cats! Some of my favorites: Xena (warrior princess) – a momma cat I fostered that hated and would attack my dogs, Tisha (short for Morticia) because she was found with her owner a week after he had died, Diesel (a foster failure) is a dog I found at a gas station in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. I could go on and on. As the article mentioned, I am superstitious when it comes to the name “Lucky”, it is like tempting fate! Great article!

  31. I chose Honey for my lil red nose because she is honey colored, sweet as can be and because “naming your Pit Bull Lucifer just serves to reinforce an already unjust and unfair bias against the breed in people who don’t know how awesome they can be.”

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