The Name Game
The name game is a powerful foundational skill. It is appropriate for any dog, and is often one of the first cues taught to puppies. The name game is good for bonding, as well as providing a base skill to build recall, call out, or emergency uturn.
The name game is so easy you will wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself!
You will probably try to complicate it. Don’t. The name game means one thing and one thing only for your dog: “My name means wonderful magical lovely things are going to happen!” That is it.
- A puppy (or dog of any age)
- Some fun treats
- A quiet, familiar, location
Your pup should be a food lover, or be slightly hungry. Your best option is to do this just before meal time.
The treat should be about pea sized (for medium-sized dogs, adjust size for smaller or larger dogs) and super yummy. If he doesn’t like the treat, or isn’t a little bit hungry, this won’t work. Super yummy usually means real meat or cheese, but dogs, like people, have preferences. Experiment!
The kitchen is my favorite room to start this exercise, but pick any room that the pup is very comfortable in (not a strange room), and where there is very little traffic or disturbance. Create some private space if needed to prevent kids and other dogs from interrupting you in the beginning.
Set the pup up for success. Pick a quiet spot in the house and stand about 2 feet away from your pup. It’s OK if he wanders, looks away or does whatever, but your goal is to be able to reach him quickly and keep his attention on you. This may mean standing in the kitchen doorway, with him in the kitchen—it’s a natural setup for him to face you!
- Say pup’s name and feed him a treat.
- Do this approximately 7 to 15 times in a row, as fast as you can.
- Take a break for 5 to 15 minutes—no treats during the break. Let the pup wander, break eye contact and go do your own thing for a few minutes. (you can show your pup your “jazz hands” to say “all done” if you want).
- After the break, repeat the process. Do this 2 or 3 times a day until the pup is consistently wagging his tail and looking at you when you say his name.
This is Tiger, my Father’s Pibble doing the name game for the first time. This is an awesome level of excitement. See if you can get this level of excitement and enthusiasm in your pup!
Once you are getting a good response from your pup, give these variations a try!
- Try delivering the treats to different places—left or right of center, or up or down to add a little pizzazz!
- Vary your tempo—slow, fast and mix it up!
- Change your tone of voice—fast, slow, high pitched and low pitched. You can even try out just a touch grumpy— but don’t do more than one or two of those!
- Try this game in different parts of your house.
- Try tossing the treats away from you.
- Try running away from your pup!
- Do this with multiple dogs at the same time—Billy, Bobby, Henry and Loki can all have fun!
- Try this when you have visitors—this may be hard for your pup so don’t do too many repetitions.
- Try this in new locations. A quiet spot on the front porch will be a lot easier than Friday night at the local pub—work up slowly!
Uh oh! What went wrong? Your pup isn’t interested, he walks away from you. What could be wrong?
- Treats aren’t yummy enough. Lots of dogs will eat crackers out of boredom, but they are hardly their favorite. Dogs typically like real meat or cheese. Experiment with different yummy things and see what makes your pup’s eyes light up!
- Pup isn’t hungry—did he eat a whole chicken? Had too much breakfast? Picky eater? Try feeding only half-rations for breakfast next time.
- Pup doesn’t feel well—yep, it happens. See your vet if needed.
- Pup’s name has been “poisoned”. If you frequently use your pup’s name when you are mad at him, he may think he’s in trouble. Try using your favorite nickname for the pup instead.
- Treats are too large—when treats are large, the pup gets full quickly and it spoils the fun! Try making them slightly bigger than a pea for a 45-75 lb dog, smaller for a toy dog.
- You aren’t playing the game fast enough! Try to have those treats coming every second or two—you should be ready to say his name by the time he’s finished chewing, or slightly faster!
- You are too predictable! If you play the game like a metronome, the pup won’t be excited to hear his name—he’ll be waiting for the right amount of time to pass.
- Wrong order! If you reach for the treat pouch before saying his name and giving a treat—he’ll be watching for your hand to treat pouch, not listening to his name!
Yay! You did it! You now have an awesome attention getting cue—your pup’s name! Use it only when you are going to do something wonderful, never before punishment. If you MUST punish your pup, don’t use his name. This cue can be practiced periodically throughout your pup’s life and it never gets old—have fun!