Recently I was talking with a long time boarding client of mine about his newly adopted dog, a year old Jack Russell Terrier named… you guessed it… Jack. Jack has been pulling on the leash, not coming when called and barking at strange dogs to name just a few of his tricks. Since arriving in his new home two months ago, Jack had been neutered, gained weight,developed friendships with the two resident dogs and had chosen the wife as his person. All in all he has adjusted well and they adored him. There were just a few things that needed tweaking. While we were talking I was trying to come up with a common denominator to help defuse his behaviors. What did the dog need to learn that might help with several of his problems? What was the one thing that would help mold some of his problem behaviors into more acceptable ones?
The first thing that came to mind was to get him out of that body harness and into a real collar. But, that’s another topic. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Jack didn’t know his name. Why is that so important? Because if he has a solid, reliable response to his name, then he could be retrieved from those things that grab his attention. If he could give his attention to his owners, then they could redirect him and praise for the proper behavior. I know that being able to focus attention on the owner is the key that opens many doors for a dog. Without being able to focus attention, a puppy or dog is simply working without guidance. That lack of guidance handicaps them to a large extent.
I am an obedience instructor. One of the major problems I see with my students is that their puppy/dog truly doesn’t know its own name. My own dogs are expected to turn to me for guidance when they hear their name.
Once they turn to me, I can tell them what I want them to do. Without a reliable response to the sound of their name most dogs are in a vulnerable position when presented with distractions. Distractions can be anything that draws them away from you. A visitor at the door, a dog/cat/rabbit/bird/squirrel in the yard, food dropped on the floor, a child running or meeting someone on a walk are all distractions that can pull your puppy/dog’s attention away from you. If you aren’t capable of getting their attention, how can you stop them from doing something you don’t want or directing them in what you do want? How can you protect them if you can’t get their attention?
A lot of people will think I’ve lost my mind, of course their dog knows its name. Test the reliability. You’ll have to discover the right test for your dog. If your dog is barking at the front door when someone knocks can you call his name (once, without screaming or being harsh) and have him turn and look at you? If your dog is dragging you down the street after who knows what, can you call his name (once, without screaming, being harsh or jerking the leash) and have him respond by coming back or taking the tension off the leash? If you can, great. If not, then you probably need a little work. And I did say you, not the dog. The dog is just being a dog and doing it remarkably well. If your dog thinks that his name means — bark, get that other dog, protect the yard, etc. then pick another word to use. We often teach our dogs amazing things that we never meant to teach them and don’t even realize that we have. Watch the dog, he’ll tell you what you’ve taught. Name overuse and abuse is often one of those things.
The easiest way I have found to teach name recognition is through pairing the name with something the dog values highly. You have to decide what your dog would die for. Most will sell their souls for a special treat. If yours would then you’ve got it made. Toys, play or going outside may be rewarding to you dog. Find what works.
It doesn’t matter what age your puppy or dog is, start today with teaching them their name or a word that means “hey you, remember me, I hold the key to all that is important in your life.” Once they learn that the sound of their name brings great rewards then most of the battle is won.
The way I would teach name recognition would be to say the dog’s name and give a treat. A couple of things to remember: When you first start, do it in a quiet environment when the dog isn’t wound tight and use some very special tasty treats. Say the dog’s name and give it a treat. Of course to do this the dog may need to be on a leash with nothing distracting them. Say the name once and don’t force the treat into the dog. The dog doesn’t have to do anything except take the treat. If he isn’t ready to gobble up the treat then use a different treat. Some dogs will respond excitedly for their regular dog food. Most dogs
will require bits of hot dog, chicken, cheese, etc. You want the dog excited by the reinforcement (treat) not bored. Find what works. You aren’t asking anything of the dog. No sits or downs. All I want is for the dog to associate his name with something good. What you’re doing is training his brain to the pairing of his name with something rewarding. As the dog gets better and better, you can reduce the attractiveness of the treat. Don’t decrease the value of the treat too soon. Give it at least a month, if not longer. Be sure to add some loving as part of the reward. Remember, he didn’t just invent electricity because he looked at you. Gauge your enthusiasm to where it’s rewarding but not distracting. One day, all you will have with you is your voice. Learn how to use it. Repeat the name/treat a dozen times. Do it several times a day for a few days. Don’t use his name at any other time at this point unless it’s followed with a treat for responding. If the dog responds instantly to the name after several days then increase the distractions. By increasing
the distractions I mean moving to another room — not going to the park. Go slowly. Make sure you have a solid response before moving to greater distractions. At this point, if you use his name during your normal day, be sure to praise any eye contact or attention. Move to another room where there are more distractions. Remember, each time you up the distractions you have to raise the treat value up again as well.
With practice, you will find that in those situations where your dog’s mind has left his body you will be able to call it back with his name. Residing somewhere in the dark recesses of his brain will be a safety line. That safety line will be a connection to you and all that is good. That connection will allow you to begin his training. With training, he will have a long, pleasant, loving life as your very special friend