What's In a Name?

Recently it occurred to me that since adopting my husband’s last name, no one has tried to call me Katrina.  And it’s awesome.  I was rather curious if when my last name no longer began with ‘A’ this would occur.  I was right.  My name is still butchered about 6 ways to Sunday, but Katrina seems to be 1 way gone by the wayside.

It’s not that I have a problem with the name Katrina.  Any more than I have with any of the other “Kat-rin” or “Katerine” or “Katie” or “Kathy” or “Karen.”  Which is to say, yes ok I do have a problem with those in reference to myself, since those are not my name, but not in the greater scheme of things.  (1)

And I do acknowledge that my name, though both the Germanic and Gaelic forms of Katherine, is rather uncommon in this country. (2)  And the way mine is pronounced is a bit atypical from even that (3).  But Katrina seemed to be the name so many folks defaulted to when my last name started with ‘A’.(4)

So, a nice bonus to a last name starting with ‘H’.  No one tries to call me Katrinh.

And the bigger point for this post is, I as a human care about what someone verbally calls me.  A large part of my identity is tied into my name, Katrin.  As it appears to be for most humans I have had chance to cross paths with.  We all care, to some degree, about our names.  Our identity, on some level, is tied to such.

But, what about dogs?

I used to play a silly trick on clients.  They would come to me complaining their dog didn’t know his name.  Or didn’t come when called.

I’d ask, “So what does your dog’s name mean?”

I’d usually get the silence and look that said, “What are you, an idiot Katrin?  What does my dog’s name mean?  It’s his name! Duh!”  Occasionally I’d get the, “Well he’s named Stanley after the Stanley cup in hockey.” or some other name explanation.

Smiling, “Yes, but what does his name mean.  To him?

More blank stares.

Because we has humans assume name tied to identity.  No question about it.  But that’s not the same for dogs.  For dogs verbal name if linked to anything is linked to a learned conditioned behavior.  For dogs scent is tied to identity.

I recall years ago reading about a study done in the 1960s or 70s about this very thing.  (5) Researchers took 2 groups of dogs.  And allowed them to interact for a length of time, form social bonds, gain relationships among their group.  Then in the experimental group, they took 1 dog and changed his scent by putting the pelt of another animal on him.  In the control group, they didn’t change the scent of any of the dogs.

Dog in sheep’s clothing costume.  Image from buzz.ibex.com

The scent changed experimental dog who had previously been accepted in the group, had built social bonds and ties, was suddenly shunned and treated as a foreigner to the group.  These dogs that had previously known him, suddenly no longer did.  With a new, foreign scent to this dog, his social group could no longer identify him.  And he could no longer identify himself either.

Whereas, I’ve known countless number of dogs adopted into a new home after years of having 1 name.  The new owners change the name for any number of excellent reasons (6), and the dog couldn’t really care less.  If you tried to do that to a child, yikes, identity crisis.

So, if you find yourself wondering if your dog knows his name.  Consider instead what you want the name to mean to you.  And how you would like your dog to respond when you say that special word.(7)  Then set up a training plan to teach him that desired response.  Since to your dog, he probably doesn’t care if today you called him Joe and tomorrow Sparkie.


  1.  And I expect at this point in my life.  It just goes with the territory of having an atypical name.  It generally doesn’t annoy me, except when someone gets dismissive when I correct them.  Like the guy who called me “Kathy” and I said, “My name is Katrin.”  And the response was, “I don’t care.  I can remember Kathy so I’ll call you that.”  Um, no.
  2. To the point that once when I emailed a company about one of their products, my email was forwarded to someone in a completely unrelated department to answer simply because she and I had the same name.  And it was the 1st time anyone in their company had gotten correspondence from anyone sharing her name.  And it was the 1st time she had even heard of anyone having her same name.  My 1st inclination was to double check she wasn’t related to me, as I have a 3rd cousin whose parents liked my name so much they named their daughter the same.  Nope, this woman wasn’t related.
  3. Pronounced with a long ‘a’ sound.  So more Kay-trin.  I had a doctor years ago who had such a difficult time remembering how to pronounce my name, he simply called me ‘Miss’ for years.
  4. Once when I used an accountant to do my taxes, my name was mistyped as Katrina on 1 page of the form.  That caused all sorts of great problems.
  5. Which I presently cannot find reference to on the net.  More searching is in order.
  6. everything to the dog was a stray and no one knew his original name, to the new home didn’t like the original name, to the dog’s original name was paired with many unwanted behaviors so changing the dog’s name helped the dog pair new, more appropriate behaviors in the new home
  7. I teach my dogs that their name means come to me or look at me.  And it becomes a trained recall word and response.

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