What’s in a name?

“This name is not often bestowed seriously but rather in jest. Perfect for the dog who leads burglars to the family silver and runs from the neighbourhood cat”.

The above description, taken from a ‘Choosing Dog Names’ book, is for the name ‘Killer’. The recent tragedy involving a pit bull type of this name demonstrates that there are dog owners out there incapable of understanding that the name is best used ironically. Far from running, ‘Killer’ had reportedly attacked the neighbourhood cat in 2012. Full details of the incident, in which 11 month old Ava-Jayne Corless died as a result of her injuries inflicted by the dog, are as yet unknown, however it appears that the dog was one of at least two kept at the property and had also previously intimidated neighbours. Clearly the dog should not have been housed with small children, let alone allowed to enter a room with a baby on its own. It is another case of how the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 does not protect the public, since when an attack does happen it is too late – both for the child and the dog – while hundreds of dogs with wonderful temperaments are needlessly euthanised.

Back to the name itself. Whilst ‘Killer’ would be an amusing name for a Chihuahua, the larger the dog is the more important it becomes to choose a name without any negative connotations. Bully breeds are already viewed with enough (usually unfounded) suspicion without a tough nickname added to the mix. Of course, owners of dogs such as Killer already know this, which is exactly why they give such a title to their dog. ‘Killer’ was probably never intended to be a family pet and was instead made into an aggressive status dog. But how much influence does a dog’s name really have on its behaviour?

An experiment devised by Professor Stanley Coren aimed to answer this question. 291 university students were given a brief description of a dog, along with its name, and were shown a short video clip of various scenes involving a German Shepherd barking and jumping up at a person before being pushed away. The students were then asked to select adjectives from a list which best described the dog’s behaviour from what they had seen; both positive and negative attributes were listed. The important part of the experiment, of which the students were unaware, was that the name of the dog within the descriptions differed. Half of the group had been informed that the dog’s name was tough sounding, such as Killer, Ripper, Butcher or even Assassin, while the other half thought that the dog’s name was a popular pet name such as Buddy or Lucky. Interestingly, the results showed that the students who were under the impression that the dog had a violent name were three times more likely to view the dog as aggressive than the students who had received a positive sounding name on their description. The students were also asked to describe the video clip in their own words, and descriptions from the group with tough names went along the lines of “The dog saw a man and didn’t like him. The dog barked at him and tried to jump on him to make him go away, but the man pushed him off before he could be bitten”. In contrast, the positive name group thought that the dog was barking to greet the man and that the jumping up was playful rather than intimidating.

If a name can have such an impact on our perception of a dog, then reactions to the dog will also be influenced by it. If the students in the experiment were interacting with the German Shepherd rather than watching a video, it is likely that their actions would correspond with their words; those who thought ‘Assassin’ was about to bite their arm off would probably run a mile. The way that people react to dogs plays a significant role in their behaviour since dogs communicate mostly via body language. ‘Assassin’ may be the friendliest dog in the world, yet when faced with a terrified, screaming student with waving arms he could become stressed and may bark or even lunge if he felt threatened and unable to escape. Or, if the student did indeed run away, the dog may have given chase, reinforcing the student’s view that the dog was dangerous.

The name that you choose for your dog not only reflects yourself but also creates an impression of your dog, which could result in harmless behaviours being misinterpreted– potentially leading to behavioural issues around people.

By the way, this is my new puppy. His name? Dave.

See Dr Coren’s original article on the name experiment here.

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