Unless you’re adopting a very young puppy, your new dog will have a name when you adopt them. But what if you love the dog you adopted, but just aren’t wild about the moniker they came with? Can you change a dog’s name?
Most city shelters have a list of dog names that they rotate for each dog who comes into the door. I know this little publicized fact because I once wrote a story about dog names for Dog Fancy and because I pull homeless dogs from a city shelter, transport dogs, and foster them.
Surprisingly, the names are similar across the country: Max, Oreo, Jack, Princess, Precious, Coco, Star, Milo, Simba, Blackie, Shorty, Buddy, Puppy, Lucky, Sasha, Rocky, Champ, Diamond, Queenie, King, Blue, and Lady… you get the idea. These are fairly innocuous and generic names in a time when people give their dogs monikers like Ziggy Starpug, Heisenberg, and Miss Bedelia Bragadocious.
In Miami, where I pull for a Schnauzer rescue, many of the dogs have Latino names, like Puka (yes, I rescued a Puka and saw other Pukas there subsequently), Negra, Tito, Lulu, Linda and Chico.
If the dog you have rescued is a stray, you can be relatively certain that they do not know or respond to the name they were given by the shelter. You can change a dog’s name while you’re adopting them so that the new name is on their paperwork. Your dog likely had a name before they found themselves homeless, but that name is now lost, so you’ll have to start fresh—which is a good idea, since their former name might be linked to some bad memories for them.
If the dog is an “owner surrender,” this means that the owner has brought the dog into the shelter personally and has likely told the shelter their name. My Schnauzer, Zoey, was an owner surrender, and a horrible abuse case. I loved the name and kept it, but in retrospect I should have changed her name so that she wouldn’t cower every time I said it. Often, people who should not have dogs will call their dogs to them for a beating. This makes the dog afraid of their own name.
If the dog you adopt is in foster care via a rescue organization and has been there a while, they may know the name the rescue has given them. If you don’t like it, then you can change your dog’s name. This is a dog you are hopefully going to have for many years, and you should feel good about their name.
I recently rescued a young white Schnauzer that another rescuer had found running around in the rain in a parking lot in Miami. I immediately took her (being a Schnauzer person) and named her Delilah. We tried to find her owner, but no one claimed her. Having three dogs of my own, I decided to foster her until I found the right home for her, which I did after about two weeks. The new home named her Dior, because the new owner wanted a name that started with a “D” so that the dog wouldn’t become too confused.
The home didn’t work out because of noise sensitive neighbors who complained about the dog, so I took her back and started calling her Delilah again. My parents wanted her, so now she’s Dior Delilah, or DD. She responds to all three names. Sometimes she responds to “Devil Dog,” a name she has earned (it’s a good thing for her that she’s very cute). Dogs are extremely adaptable, and whether they come when called (or not) largely depends on tone of voice.
Contrary to what you might have read, you can change a dog's name to anything you want, even if it’s a long and complex name, because you will end up shortening it and giving them a nickname anyway. Years ago I may have recommended choosing a one or two syllable name with a sharp sound in it, such as Jake, Roxy, or Pepper, but now I’m convinced that it doesn’t matter because most people are bound to come up with a short “pet” name for their dog. My rescued Poodle Jasmine (who came with that name from her prior owners) is often called Jaz and Jazzy.
I would recommend giving your new dog a name (or nickname) that people can respect, that’s cute, or that represents something fairly wholesome. Naming your Pit Bull “Killer” or your Pointer “Stupid” (I actually knew a Pointer named Stupid) will only bring grief for your dog. Ironic names can be cute, though—a Chihuahua named Killer will make people smile.
When you’re starting from scratch with a new name, simply start calling your dog that name and encouraging them to come to you by patting your legs and offering treats. It shouldn’t take more than a few days for them to understand that they’re now called “Charlie.”
If your dog already has a name that they know, you can change that dog’s name to one that begins with the first letter or sound. Naming them something similar will help them to adjust to the new name. Treats don’t hurt either.
I can’t get out of this post without quoting Shakespeare: What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Your dog will still be their lovely self, no matter what you name him. How about Romeo?