Behavioral experts weigh in on how to help Kitty or Fido get accustomed to their new identity.

By Roxanna Coldiron
June 25, 2020
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Part of the joy in adopting a pet comes with naming them and, in turn, giving them a brand-new identity. But choosing a name is not easy. That's why it's not uncommon for people to give their pets several different names at first or to call them by nicknames. "Choosing a name is more for the person [the caregivers] than for the pet," says Dr. Andrea Y. Tu, DVM, medical director and American College of Veterinary Behaviorists resident at Behavior Vets in New York City. "Your pet could have an official long name that you use for their medical records, but they know to come to you when you call them by their nickname or a shortened form of their name."

Of course, we have plenty of flexibility in choosing our pet's name, but there are a few guidelines that we should keep in mind. The same thoughtfulness that we have in choosing the names for our children should go into choosing the monikers our pets will go by. And, of course, we want it to be recognizable enough that our pet will know to come to us when we call for them by name. Here, our expert outlines the best rules to abide by.

Do be creative.

Calling for Fido in your backyard is easier than, say, calling out for your pet amid five different Fidos at the dog park. "You don't want to name your pet a word that you use all the time, and whichever name you use, it should sound different enough to catch her attention. You should have a special, unique way of calling them so that they know when you are speaking to them." Consider the most popular pet names of the moment when thinking of a name for your own pet.

Don't choose one that sounds like a trained cue. 

In training, most people refer to cues as commands. This cue is a verbal or physical signal that tells the pet to perform some action. Dr. Tu explains that you don't name your pet after a cue like "stay," "sit," or "stop" as this is confusing to the animal. "You will have to train your pet to know that the name means something," she explains. "Their name is a special cue. You can toss a treat to them when they give you their attention when you call their name." You also don't want your pet to confuse the word "no" with his or her name. That will make it more difficult to train your pup, so make sure to say the name out loud to know it doesn't sound too similar or rhyme with the sound.

Do keep it short.

While your cat can have a full name like Empress Cleopawtra the Beautiful, odds are that she is likely only going to understand that her name as Cleo. Pick a name that is no more than two syllables so that your animal can easily learn their name and you don't have a mouthful to say every time you call for them.

Don't give your pet the same name as another pet.

So, how does Rufus I distinguish from being called Rufus II in the same household? "It's fine to use the same name for your pets as long as they are not in the same household at the same time. If you had several dogs all named Hector, it could be confusing for their medical records." Sometimes, people will lose a pet that passes away and when they get a new one, they give it the same name as the previous pet. In this case, that is okay because neither dog nor medical records would get confused as to which one is being referenced. Otherwise, give them different names to make it easier for them to identify who you are calling.

Do consider personality.

A cheerful dog that loves to play could be named Happy. And that sweet little kitten that can't get enough of kisses or riding around on your shoulders may be a Lovebug. If their personality reminds you of a famous person or a favorite character from a book or movie, it might work to make your pet their namesake.

Don't change their name too much. 

It happens. Sometimes, we adopt a pet with a name already. Other times, we simply think of a nickname later on. "When you first have your pet, you do want to be consistent with their name," Dr. Tu explains. "The nickname can evolve over time, but you may need to train them to recognize that you are calling for them when you call a new nickname." It might be okay to start calling your animal by a new name within the first two months of them living with you, but you will need to stick with one of those soon after.

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