How Do Dogs Know Their Name? (+ What Age They Learn It)

How do dogs know their name

Dogs are incredible animals. Obviously, I am completely biased having been a dog lover for as long as I can remember but I invite you to think about just how clever your dog really is… for example, how dogs can know their name.

You might have just bought a puppy home and are wondering how long it takes until your new dog knows his name. Well, if you read below, I will explain how this works, with a short version of the answer first followed by the science.

How do dogs know their name? Dogs quickly learn to know their name through conditioning. They quickly learn that the sound, inclination, and tone you make when you say their name, means you are addressing them, possibly with the promise of a treat, or some fun. Research suggests dogs can recognize up to 200 words.

How do dogs know their names?

Studies show that dogs can perceive your emotions (view source) and even recognize the words of up to 200 things at once. A different study from 2004 found that:

“We provide evidence that a border collie, Rico, is able to fast map. Rico knew the labels of over 200 different items. He inferred the names of novel items by exclusion learning and correctly retrieved those items right away as well as 4 weeks after the initial exposure.”

In simple terms, Rico the dog knew the names of 200 things. Based on that, it’s no surprise that dogs know their own name. Other studies even suggest that dogs are able to understand the names of different human family members.

Handy Hint: Some dogs won’t answer to their name due to their background or a lack of training. Here’s what you can do to rectify a lack of name answering.

The fact they can even understand their own name is pretty amazing. I was in awe when my puppy started to distinguish her name from our other dogs.

To recognize certain words, your dog is essentially processing language very similarly to us. They use a combination of speech recognition, vowel recognition, and context to understand what you are trying to say at any given time.

Below I will break down what I know about how dogs actually learn their names, how you can teach your puppy their name, how long it should take, and if you can rename an old dog. So, grab a coffee – class is in session!

How do dogs know their names
Dogs can learn to know their names with the promise of a snack.

How exactly do dogs know their names?

So, what are the mechanisms behind how dogs know their names? Well, the first thing to say is that we don’t fully know how even humans learn language.

I have a degree in Linguistics, so I know better than most! Language learning is complex. However, there are three main components.

1. Voice recognition

This is the ability to figure out who is speaking. A dog can decipher who is addressing them by recognizing the intonation and tones of your voice.

That sounds like an obvious point but it’s crucial to learning their name. It’s the ability to know that you are speaking to them and are expecting something from them when they hear you say this familiar word.

2. Vowel recognition

Most scientists are mixed on this, but the consensus is that your dog doesn’t fully understand that their name is their name. It’s more that they connect certain sounds to a response that you are expecting from them.

This is a little esoteric so let me explain.

When my dog is making noise at nighttime, I ask her to “go to bed”.

She doesn’t really know what a “bed” is, but she has associated the sound “bed” with sitting or lying on a specific spongey mat in the living room.

This is why it is good practice to name your dog something short, easy to say, and with differing main sounds to the commands, you are going to use often.

“Sit” is one of the most common words you will use in training, so don’t name your dog “Dit”. Super confusing for them!

By doing so, your dogs will learn to know their name a lot easier.

3. Context

How are you saying the dog’s name? Where are you and where are they?

If you call your dog from far away, they can infer from context that you want them to come to you. They’ll start to associate their name as the “come here” signal since this is the most common time you’ll use it.

how can dogs know their name
How can dogs know their name without you using it all the time… like asking him to get out of the car please!

In close proximity, you may use their name to get their attention. Context and non-verbal cues definitely speak to your dog in a way that may surprise you.

Your dog loves to please you so when you reward them for coming to you when called, they repeat that behavior. Over time, they recall their name as a positive thing. This is known as classical conditioning.

How can you teach a dog its name?

Now you understand the techniques your dog is using to understand the words you say, you can effectively train your dog to recognize any word at all.

With regards to their name, it is rare that you have to do any formal training because you are going to naturally use their name so often. Formal training is not always needed.

If you do want to train your dog to recognize their name, these steps should help:

  1. Be in an enclosed room or garden area.
  2. Call your dog by their name, encouraging them to come to you. Just use their name. Don’t also say “come” as this is not the aim of your session. You’ll probably confuse your dog.
  3. Once your dog comes to you, give them a treat.
  4. Repeat this a few times. Also, repeat this at random points of the day in the house. When your dog is distracted around the house or chilling in their bed or crate, call them by their name and see if they come to you. If they do, reward them! If they don’t, keep calling. They will pick up intuitively that you clearly want something. They might as well go and investigate, and they may get treats for it!

How long does it take for a dog to learn his name

How long it takes before dogs know their name will depend on your dog and your relationship with each other. Often puppies can learn their names within days or at least understand that the word you use for their name is aimed in their direction.

That association is then strengthened over time with the above mechanisms of language learning. Nerdy stuff I know but pretty fascinating!

If you have an older dog that you are renaming, this can take much longer but I will dive into that next.

If you find that your puppy or dog is taking longer than a week to learn their name, don’t lose faith. Simply keep reinforcing their name as you do your training. Use their name as often as possible and they’ll soon understand.

Can you rename a dog?

Say you have adopted an adult dog called Mister Snufllywufflypants.

As wonderful as “Mister Snufllywufflypants” may sound to you, it’s a pain to say and you may want to rename them.

Trouble is Mister Snufllywufflypants is used to his name. Maybe he is a much older dog and has been known as Mister Snufllywufflypants his entire life. What do you do?

The good news is that you can rename a dog! Using the steps above and by generally using their name often in day-to-day life, your dog will soon adopt their new name.

There are a few exceptions to this rule though:

  1. Your dog is deaf or hard of hearing: If your dog is deaf or losing their hearing (here’s how to tell), it’s not worth changing their name. The small fragments that they may be able to hear the need to be extremely familiar to them so they can still understand you.
  2. Your dog is elderly and/or has canine dementia: Just like deafness, a dog that has started to lose their faculties need as much consistency as possible. Attempting to rename them will just cause confusion and anxiety. You’ll probably have to leave old Mister Snufllywufflypants with his given name I’m afraid!

Conclusion

And that’s how dogs know their names. If you’ve enjoyed this article, please do comment on our social media channels, including what you think about dogs knowing their names with your personal experiences.

Disclaimer: I am not a dog behaviorist. I am a mere dog enthusiast with years of experience with dogs and a keen eye for research. Wherever possible I have backed up my knowledge with studies or accompanying articles.

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Image in header licensed from Storyblocks.com.

Marc Aaron

I write about the things I've learned about owning a dog, the adventures we have, and any advice and tips I've picked up along the way.

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