Posted 2 months ago ago
By Leila Marshall
When we rescue a dog it’s a fresh start to their lives and ours, too. If we change their name, surely we’re helping them to forget their sometimes-abusive past, and giving them a new future of love? But some rescue centres are sceptical about changes of name.
Owners change their rescue dog’s name for many reasons, but Cambridgeshire resident Vanessa Holburn’s reason did make us chuckle. She said: “My rescue lurcher Ziggy was originally called Dave. Since my brother-in-law is called Dave, there was no way my dog was going to be!”
Six-month-old Ziggy was recovered by the RSPCA in Cambridge, where he was originally found at a rubbish tip with his equally human-named brother Chas. Ziggy had a horrendous skin condition and injured legs as he hadn’t had any nutrition. Ziggy spent a lot longer in the rescue than his brother as he was so desperately ill.
Ziggy with new owner Vanessa (image: Vanessa Holburn)
Vanessa said: “The cat in reception at the centre was also called Dave, so it must be a name rescues use a lot. I just couldn’t picture myself standing on the edge of a field screaming out ‘Dave!’ It would be even weirder as it’s my brother-in-law’s name. I can’t imagine saying it out loud in a family setting and my bro-in-law and dog both looking up.”
So why do the rescue centres favour these human names? Maybe it’s because they don’t have much time to think of one when they first rescue the poor pups, or the fact that it is easy for the dog to remember its name short-term.
Vanessa said: “We decided on the name Ziggy before we adopted him. I think if a dog comes from a bad situation and they’re older they might help them to leave it in the past. So there’s no emotional baggage if you like.
“I taught Ziggy his name like I would with any other word. I think he suits his new name – it really suits a lurcher, and I don’t think he really suits Dave.”
We spoke with clinical animal behaviourist Rachel Rodgers, who works closely with rescue dogs, about name changes. She said: “I think you can change a rescue dog’s name. Some of them have been given that name in a short period of time. So, it depends on the circumstances of how and why they’ve ended up there.
“If they’ve come in as a street dog with no prior home like my dog, he’d have no reason to know his name. His name was Nobby when I adopted him, now Rico, but he only had it eight weeks. He hadn’t been trained to learn that name – so he didn’t respond to it anyway. So, if they don’t respond to it, there’s no reason why you can’t change your dog’s name.”
Rachel said: “Whether it’s a puppy or an older dog, they don’t understand the English language. They just learn an association between two things, for instance, in the same way when you pick your lead up, the dog gets excited because they associate it with going out on a walk. We need to do the same thing with their name.
You should use the reward method to help your dog learn its new name (image: Getty)
“The best way for them to learn it is in a distraction free environment. I did mine with Rico in the garden by saying his old name, followed by his new name, and they’ll look at you as you’re using a high-pitched voice, and as soon as they do, I then use the reward method.
“You say yes, then give them a treat. The more you repeat it, the more the dog starts to realise ‘when I listen to that word, I should pay attention’ as it’s usually followed up by a treat.”
Rachel, from Nantwich in Cheshire, believes that if you change the dog’s name to a similar sounding one it can make the switch easier. She said: “We say that names with a double syllable work better. So, the name Maisie would be better than Fred. The pitch change helps the dog hear it and identify it. It also distinguishes it from the cues for command words like ‘sit’ or ‘down’”.
Rachel added: “Over time you can call their names followed by others. I don’t know about you but my other dog Maisie gets ‘Maisie Moo’, ‘Maisie Poo’ and she responds to all of them, so over time as it’s followed with something nice, they’ll respond to all of them.
“I actually spoke with a client the other day who said her rescue centre didn’t like the fact they’d change their dog’s name – it turned out she had just taken it personally that we didn’t like her name choice!
“On the other side of the spectrum, sometimes we change their names because of the reason why the dog came to the rescue in the first place. If the previous owner was abusive to the dog, sometimes charities will move the dog across the country and change its name to prevent them being adopted by the same person.”