What’s In a Name? Teaching Your Dog a Reliable Name Response

In orientation sessions in my classroom, I usually ask the new students what behaviors their dog already knows.Many say, "sit," a few say "down," and...


In orientation sessions in my classroom, I usually ask the new students what behaviors their dog already knows.Many say, “sit,” a few say “down,” and many say “come” (shortly before naming a reliable recall as one of their training goals). Nobody ever says, “Well, my dog knows her name really well.” In fact, I find very few people actually know how to go about teaching this critical life skill.

Essentially, a dog’s name should be a cue for eye contact. You don’t need to teach a “watch me” or “focus” cue, you need to teach your dog her name.You can even get away without teaching a separate “leave it” before if you have done your homework training a reliable name response.The end product is, hopefully, a rapid and reliable name response in any environment.

Once you have taught name recognition, it becomes an incredibly useful barometer for all future training sessions in new environments. If your dog won’t respond to her name in a new training situation, chances are good she also won’t sit, down, or recall when you ask her either.More on name response as a behavioral barometer later.

We’ll review two different techniques for teaching your dog a reliable name response.The first technique is classical conditioning, and the second is an operant method of conditioning based on capturing and reinforcing eye contact. These techniques are not intended to be mutually exclusive, and pet owners are encouraged to use a combination of both methods in short, separate training sessions for best results.

For both exercises, you will need the following:

* Wxceptionally delicious treats! This is literally a life-saving behavior, so be sure to bring your reinforcement “A game.”

* Safe, low distraction to start your training in

* One hungry dog

For the second exercise, we will be charging and using a clicker (or other marker) to train the behavior.


  • 1. Feed your dog 2 – 5 yummy treats in rapid succession, so she knows you are using “the good stuff.”
  • 2. Say your dog’s name, and immediately place a treat in her mouth.
  • 3. As soon as she swallows her treat, immediately repeat step 2.
  • 4. Practice in multiple, short (15-45 second) sessions throughout the day. Always leave your dog wanting more.
  • 5. Practice in increasingly distracting environments.
  • 6. Repeat all steps saying your dog’s name in every conceivable tone of voice – whispering, singing, in sad or happy tones, and how you would say your dog’s name if she were running toward a busy street. Have all family members practice with the dog.


For this exercise you will need a clicker or other appropriate marker, delicious treats, and a safe, low distraction environment to work in.

A. Charge the clicker

  • 1. Count out five treats.Toss one treat, allow your dog to eat the treat.When the dog looks back at you, throw another treat.
  • 2. Count out ten more treats. Toss one treat, and as your dog is moving toward the treat, right before she eats it, click.
  • 3. Repeat with all ten treats.
  • 4. Practice clicking as your dog moves toward a tossed treat in a few short training sessions a day. Consider spending a day or two doing this with your dog’s kibble at home.

B. Get the behavior

  • 1. Toss a treat, allow your dog to eat it. Wait for eye contact.
  • 2. The instant your dog looks at you, click, and toss another treat.
  • 3. Begin throwing your treat at varying distances.
  • 4. Once your dog eats his treat and immediately makes eye contact with you four out of five times, it’s time to add a cue.

C. Add a cue

  • 1. Toss a treat, allow your dog to eat it. As soon as your dog eats her treat, immediately…
  • 2. Say her name ONE TIME.
  • 3. Click when she looks at you, toss another treat.
  • 4. Repeat.
  • 5. Practice in as many different types of voice as possible.Have all family members practice with the dog.
  • 6. Practice in multiple short sessions daily.

D. Proof for latency

  • 1. Get a notebook and a pen. Make a column numbered one through ten.
  • 2. Count out eleven treats.
  • 3. Toss the first treat away from you, allow your dog to eat the treat.
  • 4. As soon as she swallows, immediately say her name. Begin mentally counting at a steady pace. Click when she looks at you, and write the number you counted to on your notebook next to number one.
  • 5. Repeat until all treats are gone.
  • 6. Average the response time data you collected.This is your baseline response time.
  • 7. Do another training session, only clicking those responses which come in at or before the average.
  • 8. Periodically reassess your baseline response time, working until you get a reliable, immediate response.

A note about latency: Baseline will vary according to the distraction level of the environment, at least in the early stages of training. Do not be surprised (or disappointed in your dog) if your baseline is much lower in your living room than it is in the dog park. You can do a quick, five trial baseline assessment in a new environment, generally in less than a minute’s time.

E. Other relevant aspects of fluency:

  • 1. Add new, low level distractions slowly, always setting your dog up for success
  • 2. Once your dog can respond to her name around many different distractions and in many new environments, begin withholding your click, waiting for a little more duration. Vary the amount of time for each trial, imagining a dice roll for each trial to determine the appropriate duration. Once your dog can do 1 – 6 easily, imagine two dice, or a 20-sided dice! Sometimes you need prolonged eye contact.
  • 3. Distance – Practice at varying distances, so that your dog will respond to her name no matter how far away she is from you.

Note about all relevant aspects of fluency – it is important to only work on one aspect of fluency per training session, at least in the early stages of training. When you begin combining multiple aspects of fluency in a single training session, it is important to temporarily reduce your criteria for both critical aspects.

Using both classical and operant conditioning training techniques to teach your dog her name will result in reliable, rapid name responses in a variety of environments. When you enter a new environment with your dog, the first cue response you should test is name recognition. If she can’t respond to her name, she likely can’t respond to other cues for known behaviors in that environment and efforts should be made to reduce the distraction level, criteria for performance, or increase the rate and quality of reinforcement to set the dog up for success.

To ruin a reliable name response, do any of the following:

* Use your dog’s name as a punishment (yelling at her when she is in trouble).

* Use your dog’s name to call her to something she doesn’t like (a bath, for instance).

* Say your dog’s name over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over again in environments that surpass your level of training while she ignores you.

Dogs should think responding to their name is absolutely the best thing in the world. I want my dogs’ faces to light up when they hear their names as if they were toddlers being offered a free trip to Disneyland. If we can manufacture that type of enthusiastic response to a name cue, why on earth wouldn’t our dogs respond?

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