Teaching your dog to respond to his or her name is an essential part of establishing clear lines of communication between the two of you. Whether you have a new puppy, or have just adopted an adult dog and would like to use a name of your choosing, you can begin at the same place in training and your dog can come to respond reliably to anything you would like to call her. Your goal in teaching name recognition is to have a dog who looks to you when she hears her name and waits for the next cue, or command, that you might give (for example, “Come!”) Here are some steps for teaching name recognition.
First, choose a name! Be creative and have fun – choosing a name is one of the perks of new dog ownership! In the first weeks of your dog’s arrival, say her name in a clear, upbeat voice. As soon as she glances in your direction, for even a moment, praise with a short happy “Yes!” or “Good!” and toss her a treat. If your dog does not glance in your direction, try saying her name and crouching down at the same time. As soon as she glances in your direction, praise and treat. Practice this several times a day inside the house and in different rooms. When she is reliably looking at you in response to her name inside the house (e.g., 9 out of 10 times), practice outside in a fenced-in area or on leash. Over time, practice calling her name in more distracting and diverse situations (e.g., when visitors are over, in the presence of other dogs, while you are sitting down). Always praise happily as soon as she looks at you and extend your hand so that she knows you have a treat for her for this behavior over the first few months.
Once your dog reliably looks at you when you say her name, feel free to add the Come command (e.g., “Fluffy, Come!”) In this case, she should look at you when she hears “Fluffy!” and begin moving toward you as soon as she hears “Come!” Have a treat in your outstretched hand to prompt her in your direction, praise with “Good!” or “Yes!” as soon as she starts to move toward you, and deliver the treat when she gets to you. After your dog is reliably looking to you in response to her name, you can begin to reduce your treat schedule of reinforcement. To do this, you should continue to praise each time she looks to you (or call her to you and praise as soon as she gets to you), but begin offering a treat only about 80% of the time. After a couple of weeks of daily practice and when she continues to reliably respond to her name, reduce the treat schedule to 60% of the time, then 40%, etc. Always provide other positive consequences when she responds to her name, even if you are no longer treating it each time. Provide a game, some petting or praise, or an invitation to a walk, for example, whenever you call your dog’s name thereafter.
You should not call your dog’s name to yell at her or to do something she does not like. If you call her name and she looks at you, and then you reprimand her for having gotten into the garbage, for example, you are actually punishing her for looking at you when you say her name. This is the last behavior that occurs before your reprimand, and thus looking at you (instead of garbage stealing) gets punished. Similarly, you should not use her name when you say “No”. Although this comes very naturally for most owners, it is important to use “No” as a reprimand or a “cease and desist” command without pairing it with her name. Remember that to maintain reliable attention to you when you call her, your dog’s name should always mean to her, “When I hear my owner call my name, I should look at my owner to see what wonderful thing he or she has in store for me!”
Dr. Megan E. Maxwell, CAAB