Some of us are more alert than others to the psychological complications that name changes can entail. American women, for instance, generally have more occasion than men to wonder whether the ink of a new signature will seep below the skin, whether a second name will more or less truly name us. I used to swear when I was a teenager that I’d marry a Smith or a Jones if I married at all, but when I did eventually marry a Stevens, I ended up hanging on to Icenogle - I’d been lugging that lumpy mess of consonants around long enough to know that I would miss its weight. It also helps people track me down, which has (so far) been a good thing.
Names become loaded for dogs, too, but they don’t seem to inspire the same depth of attachment. Not verbal names, anyway. When dogs abstract their identities into signatures, they write them in urine and other excretions. Dogs have the same interest in names that taggers do: they want the means to say “I was here!” and to know who else was (and when, and in what state of mind).
Our girl Barley (Latin name Canis familiaris contraricus, vulgarly a Golden Hussy) is Da Bunk, Bunky, Bunkin, Her Royal (or Radical) Bunkness, Bumpy, Bunkarumpus, Bunkass, Nuzzle Rumpus, Wild Rumpus, Barleycorn, Barleyfart, Boodlebutt… I could go on.
Ed Yong, who writes the invaluable blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, posted back in February about ongoing research into dolphin “names”: the sounds that bottlenoses and possibly other cetacean species use to identify themselves when encountering unknown others in the open ocean. It appears that each of these sonic signatures is unique - you won’t find three Peters in a pod - but also that a single signature may be used as social shorthand to identify one group to another: “Hey, no worries, it’s Jane and her peeps. We’ve always gotten on well with them.”
Dolphins’ names seem to resemble dogs’ marks in a couple of respects: their primary function is declarative (“It’s me again!”), and they communicate vital secondary information about the mood and health of the “speaker.”
In our lives with dogs, we use names very differently. We rarely need to say a word to announce our presence to each other, though the sound of the car pulling into the driveway makes an effective “I’m home!” And when we use names to communicate our moods, we use our dogs’ names rather than our own.
At one end of the emotional spectrum, affection breeds silliness. (You can often tell how well a dog is loved by how many nicknames have bloomed around her.) At the anger end of the spectrum, dogs’ names sometimes serve as our correction of first resort: “BARLEY! NO!” This becomes seriously problematic if we then hope to use a name as a cue. If I want the word “Barley” to mean “come over here” or even “give me your attention,” I’d be smart to load it with as many positive associations as possible, and to avoid loading it with lousy ones.
Maybe dogs need middle names, to be used only when we scold: “Barley Elizabeth Icenogle, get your nose out of that horse turd now!”
Like all human words, names function for dogs less as symbols (“I am Barley, hear me roar!”) than as vessels to hold accumulated experience. The “loss” of a name doesn’t cause a dog grief or confusion. On the contrary, if a name has a dark or tangled history, the dog will be well rid of it.
In sum, a name change is in most cases a bigger deal for you than for your dog (both practically & emotionally). So when should you give your dog a new name?
- When you're giving your dog a new life. Many people who rescue a full-grown dog worry that a new name will exacerbate the disorientation the dog is bound to feel as she transitions into her new home. Certainly, if your newly adopted dog responds enthusiastically to the name she already has, you should strongly consider keeping it. If not, you have a golden opportunity to start anew and give your dog a name whose meanings/associations are entirely up to you.
- When your dog can't stand his old name. If your dog looks away (or flees!) at the sound of his name, you can bet that it's been poisoned with strong negative associations. The bad news is that a poisoned name (like any poisoned word or cue) has few antidotes. The good news is that you can simply stop administering it by dropping it from your vocabulary and introducing a "fresh" name in its place.
- When you can't stand your dog's old name. Kili was eighteen months old when she came to us with the name Poppy. I can't tell you why this name bugged Pete & me so much - it's no more ludicrous than most - but we knew right away that we couldn't call "Poppy!" across an open field. Sadly, we quickly went on to poison the name we gave her (when frustrated by her obsessive-compulsive consumption of paper), and my more recent attempts at rehabilitating "Kili" have been only partially successful. (Thus my interest in this question.)
- When your dog is named Shithead. This may only happen in Steve Martin movies...
- When your dog is named Killer. Unless she's the sweetest thing on four legs.
I'm not ready to go back to "Poppy," but I do wonder whether it could be a good idea generally to give a dog a silly name, one that's difficult to say in anger. Many of Kili's nicknames are inspired by her wild & wooly coat (Fluffy, Fluffer Wumpus, Fluffer Nut), so I've been experimenting with "Shaggy." It might help if I were a better mimic of Scooby Doo, but we'll see how it goes.
p.s. I recently visited Iceland, where first names remain first identifiers throughout one’s life, and patrynomic surnames - Jónsson or Jónsdottir - follow like wispy contrails. You can find the stylish lesbian prime minister in the phone book among a host of less celebrated Jóhannas. There’s no telling whether the Icelandic naming system is a cause or symptom of the Icelanders’ strongly democratic turn of mind, but I did enjoy the brief holiday from “Mrs.” and “Ms.” I liked addressing total strangers (and being addressed by total strangers) like friends - especially when these strangers were cavorting naked in underground hot springs. Maybe this kind of deep semantic informality works best in a hard country with far-flung people; it collapses space and generates a stolen bit of geothermal warmth that could be redundant - not to say stifling - in close, southern climes. When spoken by an Italian man, “signorina” already sounds like pillow talk...