It is actually very easy for a dog to learn a new name, which is good news if you need to rename a dog! Rescued dogs, adopted dogs, and dogs that are placed, such as retired greyhounds, often learn new names when starting out in their new lives. In cases of mistreated dogs, it might even be “therapeutic” to rename it, as the old name will likely be associated with abuse.
Some people suggest that the new name should rhyme with or sound similar to the old name to make it easier for the dog, but this is unnecessary. When you rename a dog, the dog remembers the new name because of positive associations – interactions associated with the name. The name itself is meaningless, making it just as easy for a dog to learn the name “Jack” as “Sir Lancelot.” Feel free to rename your dog whatever you like.
If you know the dog’s old name, the best way to rename a dog is to follow the old name with the new one for a week or so. For example, if the dog’s old name is “Barker” and the new name is “Theo,” call the dog by saying, “Barker Theo,” stressing the last name. As you praise and pet the dog, use the new name repeatedly and exclusively. Use phrases like, Theo’s a good boy! and Does Theo want a treat? If the dog looks away, call his familiar name, and when you have his attention, repeat the question using his new name. Many dogs will learn to respond to the new name in just a few days.
You might be forced to rename a dog because the original name is unknown. In this case, associate the new name with positive attention as above, and repeat the name often while having direct eye-to-eye interaction. The dog will learn to pay attention quickly if his or her new name comes with attention, praise, petting, playing, treats, and meals. To get the dog’s attention, you may have to whistle or clap. Once the dog is looking at you, use his or her new name lavishly and enthusiastically.
Dogs are intelligent animals with a wide emotional array. They are loyal and protective, and they can become jealous, excited, nervous, happy, and depressed. Just like people, every dog has a different personality. When you rename a dog, be patient if your animal companion takes a little longer to come around. Dogs that have been abused or displaced or those that are high strung by nature might require more time to make the associations. Persevere with positive reinforcement, and your pooch will catch on!