Pet Science

The Ideal Dog Name, According to Science, Is Certainly Not What You Think

Your dog can learn the name Leia, or pretty much anything else.

12 weeks old german shepherd sitting in front of window sill.
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Pet Science

A friend of mine recently adopted her first dog. A Star Wars fan, she picked the name Leia. When she told others about her new princess, she was surprised to receive some pushback on the name. Is that true? Are there names that animals respond to best? In other words, is there an ideal name for a pet?

There’s some conventional wisdom floating around the internet regarding naming practices. The Kennel Club, for example, recommends two-syllable names that end in a vowel. Rover also recommends keeping things short. One veterinary behaviorist told the site that dogs respond more quickly to “short, choppy” sounds rather than “long, slow, soothing” ones, offering that the name Huck trumps Huckleberry Finn.

But Vanessa Woods, an evolutionary anthropology research scientist at Duke University and director of the Duke Puppy Kindergarten, tells Inverse that naming a pet should be far less complicated than that. There isn’t much research on pet names, she says, and in her experience, she hasn’t found much truth in one name being better than another. Some puppy names at the Kindergarten, for instance, include Polar, Nutmeg, and Ying.

If you’re teaching your dog tricks, she says, keeping words distinct could help them learn faster without getting mixed up. “Don’t name your dog something that sounds too similar to a command you’d like them to learn,” Woods says.

She also debunks the notion of one- and two-syllable supremacy. “We say little phrases to our dogs all the time,” she says, like ‘Do you wanna go for a walk?’ and ‘Is it dinnertime?’

In fact, dogs can learn up to 1,000 different words, Woods says, so learning a name, or even multiple names, shouldn’t be an issue. She highlights one famous border collie named Chaser who could retrieve over 1,000 toys by name. Another border collie, Rico, learned the names of over 200 objects. You don’t need to train your dog as rigorously as Chaser or Rico for it to learn whatever name you bequeath.

As American writer William Safire wrote about dog names for The New York Times Magazine in 1985, these names tend to come down to, what might be described in contemporary parlance, vibes. Historically, dogs had regal, dignified vibes, hence names like Rex, Duke, and Prince. Today, we tend to regard our pets more as silly little guys, so their names lean more toward the profane and even ridiculous. But we choose these monikers out of love.

“Dogs are smarter than we give them credit for,” Woods says. “They can learn a lot, especially from people they love.”

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