• Laura Sylvester

What's in a Name?

Ever wonder how service dogs get their names?  At Good Dog! Autism Companions the child and family always get to decide their pup's forever name. This is how child and dog take one of their first steps in bonding.

We are often asked "Isn’t it hard for the dog to get used to a new name?"  Good Dogs are given training names (aka 'nicknames') to be used while they’re learning how to be the best possible companion for a boy or girl with autism. Their nickname is nothing more than a term the trainer uses to get the dog's attention. It’s not difficult nor frustrating for a dog to become accustomed to a new title. Canine expert Cesar Milan explains:

"Whether you call your dog Fido, Sam, Fiona, or simply “dog,” they do not know the difference, nor need to. Name is a human creation that we condition the dog to learn. We project personality on the dogs, but what “personality” is to a human doesn’t exist in dog psychology.” - Cesar Milan

The naming ritual is very important for the child and his or her family. While families await their dog they engage in a variety of exercises to arrive at the most fitting name and, depending on the abilities and interests of the child, the process can go from simple to elaborate.

Sometimes children with autism are nonverbal and others have limited vocabularies. With few words at their disposal it might seem doubly difficult to find just the right one. Not so for Brendan, when asked what he wanted to name his dog, he said “Cake”. “Cake” it is. How wonderful that Brendan can call his dog by name!

Sabrina differs from Brendan in that she has an extensive vocabulary, so her naming process developed differently. Sabrina thought about it for weeks and then decided on the name “Romeo Chase Taylor”. She explains it this way, Romeo is for the love he will bring and receive and because he is the “love of her life”; Chase because he’s “on the case” helping her along the way; and Taylor because he’s now part of the Taylor family.

Good Dog! Autism Companions can suggest a number of games to help the child choose that special name for their dog. For example, if a child is interested in geography, the family can research the areas where different breeds originate. They may end up with a name associated with that geographic location. If the child is into Disney movies and characters the family might choose characters with characteristics they hope their dog will have. These games and imaginings do more than point the way to a well-chosen name, they also help the child identify what it is they’re hoping to gain from the dog. It enables them to anticipate how their life might change once they actually have the dog at home. It’s said that when you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve seen just one child with autism because Autism Spectrum Disorder is such an incredibly broad spectrum. Basically it is characterized as a mental condition, present from early childhood, characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts. A Good Dog! doesn’t need to know where their partner is on the spectrum, they just need to hear their name called by the most important person in their world!

Is there a step-by-step process for teaching a dog their new name?. We'll let our Lead Trainer, Samantha answer that one ...

Changing a dog’s name is easy and fun! First, there are a few things that are important to remember about a dog’s name:


  1. It should be used as a command for getting the dog’s attention - your dog should be taught to look to you when they hear their name.

  2. Do not say their name unless you are using it to get their attention.

  3. You should never use your dog’s name in an unpleasant way.

  4. Your dog’s name should not sound like another command, as that can cause confusion.


Teaching your dog their new name is simple:

  1. With a handful of yummy treats, say your dog’s new name one time. Wait for them to look up at your face. Once they look at you, immediately mark with a Yes or Click, then give a high value treat. If they do not look at you, wait at least 6 full seconds before repeating the name - you don’t want the dog to get used to having to hear their name multiple times before responding. 

  2. Repeat step one many times throughout the day, making sure to only mark and treat when they look at you. 

  3. Make sure that you aren’t saying their name unless you have a treat ready and are expecting them to look at you. 

  4. Get excited when they look to you! Make their name change fun! 

  5. After at least a week of step 1 through 4, and your dog is successfully looking to you almost every time you say their new name, you can replace a treat with a fun game of fetch/tug or a belly rub. Make sure to do this intermittently and still mostly use treats. Slowly you can phase the treats out, just as you would with any other command.

  6. Remember that when you have phased out treats, your dog should still get an intermittent reward for responding to their name, as with any command. 

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