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How to Teach Your Dog Human Names

Your pup is part of the family, but do they know your name?

by Karen B. London, PhD
July 22, 2014
Family dog on the couch
Rob and Julia Campbell / Stocksy

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Believe it or not, many dogs know the names of the humans they live with. It’s only natural that they notice that certain words go with certain people.  When you think about it, we humans use each other’s names a lot, saying hello, getting each other’s attention, and calling out into the void to see if someone is around. We also tend to announce someone’s arrival, as in, “Rich is home!”

So, it’s possible your dog already knows your name (and the names of your family members). But if not, here’s an easy way to teach your dog human names.

How to Teach Your Dog Human Names

One of the easiest ways to teach a dog the names of everyone in the family is with a game called Family Circle. One person says, “Where’s Karen?” and then I call the dog to come. If they come to me, they get a treat or other reinforcement, but if they go to someone else by mistake, they will be ignored.

Then, it’s my turn to cue the dog about where to go, and I might say, “Where’s Rich?” Rich will call them, and if the dog goes to Rich, they get reinforced. This game works best with at least three people. With only two people, the dog may learn that the correct response is to go to the person who did NOT just say “Where’s . . .?” without necessarily learning names.

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In the early stages of training your dog to play Family Circle, they should always be told the name of the person they must go find and hear that person call them to come. The person should also be within sight of your dog.

Later as your dog becomes more competent, the cue “Come” can be dropped, and later still, the game can be played when the person they must find is out of sight.

Why You Should Teach Your Dog Human Names

There are many practical applications, including in the event of a lost person, or even when someone has just gone out of sight or earshot briefly. It also teaches dogs to find the person in response to the cue and gives them great practice with their recall.

Among the other benefits are that the dog can get physical exercise without the people having to move, and it can help keep a dog occupied mentally when you’re too busy to engage in more active play. Now that’s what we call a win-win.

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karen london

Karen B. London, PhD

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.