How old is too old to change a dog’s name?

Sandy came into my life as a 6-year-old beagle. The name suited her, and we liked it. We ultimately decided to keep her name, and it’s a choice we haven’t regretted. Then, we got Lil Bit. 

Lil bit wasn’t her original name. A year later, I can’t even remember what her original name was. It took a lil bit (see what I did there) of time, but Lil bit quickly learned to respond to her new name. She was still a puppy when we got her, at 6 months old. 

I couldn’t help but wonder if changing her name would have been problematic if she had been older. Would Sandy have responded to a new name as well as Lil Bit? 

How old is too old to change a dog’s name?

You’ve probably heard, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. Today’s science says this isn’t true, and that dogs can learn new behaviors at any age. Does this apply to a dog’s name as well? 

No matter how old your dog is, you can change their name. This is easiest to do when they are puppies, but it can be done at any age. You’ll simply need to follow the right process to change their name. 

Can you change an old dog’s name?

Yes, you can change an old dog’s name. Your dog can learn a new name at any age. Before we get into how to change their name, we’ll look at how to choose a new name for your pooch. 

Keep it Similar

The first step is choosing their new name. It can be helpful to choose a new name that sounds similar to their old name. The simplest way to do this is to keep either the beginning or ending sound of their name the same. 

Keep it Simple

You’ll want to keep it simple as well. Sure, you can name your dog George Edward the Third. This is fine for their official name. However, you don’t want to be calling George Edward at the dog park. 

Shorter names are also easier for your pooch to remember. You can make their official name as fancy as you want, and keep their everyday name to one or two syllables. 

Make It Unique

You should avoid names that sound like commands. Ray and stay are very similar, as are Bo and no. Consider the names of family members and other pets as well. If you have a Cassie in the home, Sassy probably isn’t the best choice. 

Lastly, try out their new name. Say it out loud and see if you still like it. Is it easy to say? Do you like the way it sounds? Then, try it out on your dog. Don’t expect them to respond as they would to their name just yet. Instead, see how they feel about the name. Does their tail wag? Do their ears perk up? This is a sign the name is a good choice for them. 

Can Dogs Understand Nicknames? 

Traditional wisdom holds that a dog can only have one name at a time. You shouldn’t use nicknames, because they will only confuse the dog. However, it turns out this isn’t the case. 

You may call your dog by different nicknames without even thinking about it. Odds are, your dog responds to this just as they do their name. 

Again, similarity helps. If your dog’s name is Posie, you may call her poopsy, or even Posie poo. She would easily recognize all of these as her name. A male named Max may be called Maxy, Max Max, Mad Max, or even Maximillion. 

Even if the nickname is something different from their name, they will still probably recognize it. For example, if you call Max Stinker instead, he will likely respond as long as he’s been trained to do so. 

Most experts say that you should stick to two or three names total for your dog, including nicknames, especially if they aren’t very similar. 

Don’t use nicknames when changing your dog’s name, however. Wait until they are familiar with their new name before adding new ones. 

Will an old dog learn their new name?

Yes! The key is to train them to recognize their new name. In fact, this is how they learned their first name. You may not have realized it, but if you’ve named a dog, you’ve trained them to respond to it as well. 

Similarity or Adding the Name

One method for teaching a new name is to choose a name that’s similar. You can also add their old name and their new one temporarily. Let’s say you want to change Rosie’s name to Daisy. You begin by saying Daisy Rose or Rose Daisy. 

They should easily respond to this, because they hear their old name. After a few days to two weeks, try dropping the old name some of the time. Instead of Rose Daisy, call them with only Daisy. 

If they don’t respond, go back to using both names for another few days. Then try again. Once they begin to respond to the new name, start using it alone more often. 

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is the key to teaching your dog their new name. You’ll need to keep treats on hand at all times for a few days.

Begin by saying the name. As soon as your dog looks at you, give them a treat. Do this throughout the day. Each time you say their new name, give them a treat the moment you have their attention. 

Your dog may not recognize the name at first. They may simply be responding to your voice. This is ok. They will soon begin to associate the name with treats, and will learn to look to you expectantly when they hear it. 

It’s best to do this in a quiet area with no distractions. Saying their name before you say any other words will make it more likely to get their attention, particularly if things are quiet. 

Once they begin to know their name, up the difficulty. Say their name in a sentence and watch their reaction. If they notice, give them a treat. Say their name when they are playing or otherwise distracted, and give them a treat for responding then as well. 

Once your dog is responding to their name in any situation, you can slow down the treat train. Begin giving them a treat once every 2 or 3 times their name is called. Eventually, you can stop giving treats, and just say their name. 

Keep it Positive

I still remember being a child and hearing my full name called. My stomach would tighten. I knew I was in trouble. This can also happen to your dog, and it’s detrimental to teaching them their name. 

Don’t use their name when scolding them. If you must scold them, use another word, like dog. Treats help your dog associate their name with positive experiences. Using it during negative experiences will dilute that, if not override it entirely. 

The last thing you want is a dog that hides from their name instead of coming to you!

You should also use excitement when saying their name. Dogs love enthusiasm. If they hear excitement in your voice, they will be excited as well. They are anticipating what’s going to happen next. This helps them remember their name. 

Try calling their name excitedly. When they come to you, just give them some affection. “whose a good dog? (Your dog’s new name) is a good dog” is a simple way to interact with your pooch and help them remember their name. 

Should I change my old dog’s name?

Generally, what you name, or rename, your dog is completely up to you. Generally, it’s preferable, or just easier, to keep your dog’s name. However, there are some situations when changing their name is recommended. 

Adopting A Shelter Dog

If you’ve adopted a shelter dog, you may want to change their name. If the dog was found and picked up by the shelter, without an id tag, they will be given a name at the shelter. 

In this case, they may not even know their name, because it’s not their original name. There’s unlikely to be anyone taking the time to teach them their new name at the shelter either. They have more pressing concerns. 

If the dog was an owner surrender, the name has came with them from their former family. In this case, you may want to keep their name. It can provide a sense of stability while they are adjusting to their new environment. 

Of course, if you want to change their name, that’s ok as well. Instead of changing their name immediately, you may want to give them some time to settle into your home first. You can change their name after a few weeks, or even a few years. 

It’ll be easier to teach them their new name when they are settled in and relaxed. 

From an Abusive Home

Dogs have a very strong associative memory. This means they remember things associated with each other. This includes emotions and specific occurrences. For example, when you grab their leash, they know they can expect a walk. When the food bag rattles, they feel happy because they know something good is going to happen. 

When a dog comes from an abusive home, their name has many bad memories associated with it. They likely heard their name right before being punished or abused. At the very least, their name will remind them of their former home. 

In this situation, you should change your dog’s name immediately. You may also want to choose a name completely different from their former name, to avoid any associations. Of course, this will mean it takes longer to teach them their new name. However, it’s well worth it for your pooch’s peace of mind. 

They Ignore Their Name

I have to change the alarm on my phone about once a month. I have a tendency to hit the snooze button. Over time, I learn to ignore the sound, and I’ll sleep right through it. The snooze button, and the few minutes of indulgent sleep that follow, train my brain to ignore the noise. I change the sound of the alarm, and the problem is solved. At least temporarily. 

A similar issue can occur with your dog’s name. Perhaps you didn’t train them well when you got them. Perhaps things have just become lax over the years. In any case, your dog has a habit of ignoring you when you call their name. 

They’ve learned to ignore it. Because their brain is trained to ignore the sound of their name, you’ll need to change their name to get them to respond consistently. Be sure to pair this with training them to respond to their name, so you don’t have the same issue with their new name.