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What’s in a name? Everything. It is a cue that says “I’m talking to YOU, please pay attention to what I have to say.” Unfortunately when we use our dog’s name we often “dilute” it. Diluting a cue happens when it’s used to often, in too m any ways, and the meaning becomes too vague for the dog to understand.
This happens often if we repeat it too many times or use one word for different uses. An easy example is the cue “down”. It may be used to ask the dog to lay down or it may be used to get the dog down from jumping or on furniture. The dog starts to ignore the cue because he isn’t sure what it means.
A dog’s name often gets diluted. We may mean “stop that” when they are doing something they shouldn’t, “leave it” when they are trying to get something they shouldn’t have, “come” when wanting them to come to you. The dog knows you are talking to him but he doesn’t know what you want him to do. So he starts to ignore it unless he has a second cue, such as plastic wrap crinkling or food hitting the dish, which tells him that something good may happen.
When you use a person’s name you engage with them. It means “I would like your attention, please”. Dogs should have that same meaning attached to their name. We start almost all new clients with this exercise. It sets the foundation for all future communication with your dog. It teaches your dog that when you say his name he should pay attention because you have something to tell him.
Start in a quiet room with few distractions by saying your dog’s name. Then wait 15 seconds for him to turn toward you. He doesn’t have to make eye contact, just acknowledge that he heard you. When he does say “yes” and offer him a small, soft treat. If he hasn’t responded after 15 seconds repeat his name but adjust your pitch to help get his interest. You want that 15 second delay before repeating the name so that it doesn’t blend together in the dog’s brain.
Repeat this several times until he’s staring at you and waiting for the next treat. Once that happens follow the name with a cue he knows, such as “Fido, sit”. Or take this moment where you have his attention and teach him a new behavior.
Gradually increase the distractions and change the environment, such as outside in the yard. Randomly say Fido’s name and ask for a behavior, offer a toy or say “lets play” and engage in a game of tug. Make sure you don’t use his name only to end his fun or he will start to ignore it. You want to engage him once you’ve said his name. Engaging with your dog will keep him focused on you when you need him to be.