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One of the best parts about getting a new dog is figuring out a cool and unique name that suits their personality. We love sharing the names of our beloved pets with other dog-loving humans, and it’s no surprise that many people often wonder if our dogs refer to their playmates by their given names, too.
But do dogs know other dogs’ names?
Dogs can be taught the name of another dog, but they do not refer to each other by name, instead, they use scent to identify each other. Dogs can learn the name of another dog through association, similar to how they learn the word “Sit” or “Treat”.
In the article below, we’ll discuss why dogs may know each other’s names in the sense that they’ve made an association between a word (a name) and an object (another dog), but that it’s unlikely that they actually refer to other dogs by the names given to them by their humans.
We’ll look at how dogs actually identify themselves to other dogs, and how they use classical conditioning to “name” things. We’ll also discuss how you could teach a dog another dog’s name, and why it’s generally unnecessary to do in most situations.
Do Dogs Know Each Other’s Names?
While we humans primarily refer to each other by name, dogs may only associate with each other by name in the sense that they’ve attributed a particular word (the other dog’s name) to the other dog.
It is unlikely that your dog actually refers to the other dog by that name, as the names we give our dogs are from human language and not dog language and dogs don’t really have the same understanding of human language as we do.
To them, human words are merely a sound that has been associated with something else (usually an object, action, or emotion).
Instead, dogs primarily use scent to identify each other. Each of our dogs has a unique smell (at least to another dog!), and they use this smell to identify each other rather than by using the name given by their owners.
Dogs can also use this unique smell (along with other behaviors and physical attributes) to identify the age, gender, health, and mood of another dog.
This video demonstrates how dogs see with their noses!
How Dogs Use Smell To Identify Each Other
A dog’s sense of smell is up to 100,000 times stronger than a person’s sense of smell, so it’s no surprise that this is their primary way of “seeing” the world around them. When we humans introduce ourselves to another human, we usually shake hands, say “hello”, and offer up our names as a way of introduction.
Dogs, on the other hand, have already begun their introductions before they’ve even gotten close to each other.
Our dogs communicate using very subtle body language when first approaching another dog, and oftentimes dogs will have already decided on several potential outcomes of a greeting the moment they’ve noticed each other on a walk.
If allowed to meet, instead of shaking hands as people would do, they instead go for a butt or genital sniff (this is also something dogs do when greeting a person and can be their way of gathering information about us including our gender, health status, or even our mood!).
While this might seem odd to us humans, it’s a dog’s way of identifying who the other dog is. They are giving each other their “names”!
In the video below, you can see some examples of how dogs greet each other and how they use their noses to identify each other.
How Dogs Use Classical Conditioning To “Name” Things
While dogs are unlikely to refer to each other by the names given to them by their humans and instead rely more on their own way of identifying by smell, it is still highly likely that they can associate a particular dog with a name or word.
Just as how a dog can learn to associate the word “treat” with the act of receiving a tasty tidbit of food, or the word “walk” with the act of you grabbing their leash and going to the door, a dog can absolutely learn to associate the word “Tipsy” with your friend’s feisty Weimaraner that you go for doggy playdates with.
Your dog may not understand that the word “Tipsy” is the name of your friend’s Weimaraner, but they do understand that the word “Tipsy” is related to that the dog and often means that they are going to go see and play with that dog, which is exciting to them.
Dogs also use this method of learning by association when figuring out the role their owners play in their lives, and it’s how they identify their owner as a “parental” figure.
What Is Classical Conditioning?
The act of learning through association is called Classical Conditioning and is something that most species do in some capacity. This is one of the primary ways in which dogs learn (the other way being Operant Conditioning, which is frequently used in dog training and purposefully teaches them an object’s name) and was discovered by Russian physiologist Pavlov through his research with dogs.
When something in the dog’s environment occurs over and over, the dog will naturally create an association with that particular thing, and learn that it always predicts something else.
So, every time you grab your dog’s leash, say the word “Walkies?”, and take your dog for a walk, your dog will come to associate the word “Walkies” with the act of going for a walk. If you ever say the word “Walkies” and then do something else, your dog will become entirely confused and perhaps even upset if they do not get their walk!
If your dog repeatedly hears another dog’s name before interacting with that dog, they will use classical conditioning to form an association between that word (the dog’s name) and the other dog.
Again, your dog likely doesn’t refer to their playmate by the name their owner gave them, but they probably do associate the name with the act of going to play with their friend, especially if you are referring to the other dog by its name just prior to the two dogs interacting.
Watch the video below to see how classical conditioning works, and how dogs (and others!) use it to learn through association:
Can I Teach My Dog Another Dog’s Name?
The primary method used to train dogs is operant conditioning, where dogs learn that something they do either gets them a reward or a consequence.
This method of learning is different from classical conditioning in that it does matter what the dog is doing because their action (or inaction) directly leads to the outcome, whereas with classical conditioning it doesn’t really matter what the dog is doing because the association is made regardless.
Because of this, you could potentially teach a dog another dog’s name, but it’s more likely that your dog would only associate the other dog’s name with the act of going to see them and less likely that they’d actually refer to the other dog by that name.
For example, you could make sure to say, “Let’s play with Riley!” just before walking your dog into the room where their best friend is, and over time your dog will associate those words with seeing Riley. Through that association they will come to know that “Riley” is the yellow Lab that they get to play with every week.
In other situations, such as in multi-dog households, you could teach your dog the other dog’s name by rewarding your first dog whenever they showed interest in the second dog, then saying the second dog’s name just before your first dog interacted with the second dog, thus essentially changing the second dog’s name into a verbal cue similar to “Sit” or “Down”.
In the end, it’s probably entirely unnecessary (and a bit confusing for both the dogs and the owner) to try and teach a dog another dog’s name, as most dogs will just pick them up through association anyways, even within the same household.
It’s more important that the dog understands and responds to their OWN name, rather than another dog’s name!
If you do have multiple dogs in a household, making sure their names are unique in sound and syllables will help them differentiate between each other when you are working with them, and this may also speed up their association process when they are learning who is who.
Watch this fun video below for some tips on how to teach your puppy their name:
While it may be strange to us humans to not refer to each other by names, to a dog a name is just a word that is associated with something else, and is not how they identify their other four-legged companions.
It’s not impossible to teach a dog another dog’s name or even your own name, but it’s usually an unnecessary process in most cases as most dogs can easily associate another dog with a name if they are around them frequently enough.