What’s in a Name? (maybe not much)

Does your dog ignore you?

Does your dog ignore you?

©2016 Chris Redenbach CDBC, CBCC-KA

We all do it. And depending upon how much we do it, we get the same results. Wondering what I’m talking about? Is it because I haven’t told you yet? Are you starting not to care what I might be trying to communicate because you’re busy and I haven’t given you any information yet?   Well that’s how your dog feels (and maybe your significant other or child as well) when you just say their name and then give no information.

Let’s say you have a dog named Barry. You are walking with Barry and Barry sees a cat. The cat sees Barry too. Barry gets that intense look, scarcely believing his luck that a cat is right there just out of reach. The cat sees Barry’s predatory stare and starts to run away, tail high. Barry’s little predator brain is consumed with the fire of the hunt. He lunges towards the cat. In rapid fire sequence you see all this happening in front of your eyes. As soon as you see the intense focus and Barry’s body gather itself, you absolutely know that the next thing coming will be that sudden, strong lunge. So what do you do? You say, “Barry!” You get a sideways glance from Barry as his name registers somewhere in his awareness below the level of the urgency of the CATTT! Getting no reaction you can use, you say it louder, “BARRY!” and this time no reaction at all as Barry rearranges your shoulders with his powerful leap forward. And you again yell, “BARRY!!!!” and Barry is now towing you across the street in pursuit of the cat.

After you’ve braced yourself and somehow regained control you take an emotional, irritated moment to think, “Barry is the most stubborn dog.” He never pays attention when he’s got his mind on something he wants to do. “I took the blasted dog to the puppy class at the local store and he still doesn’t listen to me. Maybe he’s just not too bright.”

But let’s take a moment to see things from Barry’s point of view. He heard you. He has heard you do this before. You said his name. He listened. But what are the words you taught him in obedience class? “Come”, “Sit”, “Leave it” “Watch” He listened but he didn’t hear any of these words, so he went back to what was more urgent. The cat. The cat gave him plenty of sensory information that he instinctively could use. You gave him no information that he could use to determine what you wanted from him. Maybe you thought he hadn’t seen the cat and you were telling him, “Hey Barry, look at that cat!” or maybe you wanted something else but you never said.

We all do this. Experienced trainers don’t do it as often, but we do it. We use the dog’s name as a space keeper in much the same way we use the word, “Aaah!” when we can’t think precisely what we want to say next.” There used to be many jokes based on this idea on TV sitcoms. One spouse would say, “Honey!” while the other is busy with their mind on something else. The spouse answers, “Yes, dear?” and the response is “Honey! I called you.” In turn the spouse says, “I heard you but you didn’t say what you wanted.”

If you want to improve your dog’s attentiveness to you, give the dog information s/he can use in the moment. Always follow the name with something the dog can use. “Barry, come” or “Barry, leave it!” or even, “Barry, look at that!” Some trainers condition their dog to look at them when they say their name, but then the dog’s attention is reinforced with some treat or game with a toy so that the name actually does start to convey some useful information. But we are very verbal creatures and dogs are not so verbal except by association with us. So we often fall into the old trap of saying the name and following it with nothing, as though you think the dog can read your mind. But not really, because if you had a clear picture in your mind of what you wanted the dog to do in that moment, you would probably tell the dog. The big issue then is that you talk to the dog without having any information to give and little by little your dog comes to realize this and stops attending to his name.

A solution to this is to create a mental habit for your own self chatter. Train yourself to mentally say, “What do you want?” each time you say your dog’s name, or your child’s or your spouse’s. It sounds like this in your mental chatter: “Barry!” and in your mind you visualize Barry looking at you and you hear Barry say, “What do you want?” and you realize that you need an answer otherwise you are wasting Barry’s time and attention.