Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What is a name?

What is a name?

One of my favorite dog scenes from a movie is a scene in Steve Martin's "The Jerk". Martin plays the role of simpleton Navin Johnson. While staying at a motel, a dog starts barking at him frantically, urgently, as if trying to convey a message. Navin is convinced the dog is trying to warn him of a fire and runs out of his room in a bathrobe and bangs on every door to wake up the guests and evacuate the motel. While waiting as the fire department clears the building, Navin proclaims that he is going to name the dog "Lifesaver". When the firefighters determine there is no fire and it was a false alarm, one of the motel guests turns and informs Navin that he should call the dog Shithead... and Navin takes his advice. As it turns out, the dog is kind of a shithead. He isn't loyal. He ruins stuff. But he's cute and scruffy and knows that there is food for him in tagging along.

I think it is interesting how much we think about names, what they mean, how they will be used. We develop nick-names for each other to show a special bond. A name says quite a bit about your heritage, perhaps even where you are from. A name can make you stand out or blend in. A change in name can change the way we view ourselves and how others view us. Anyone who has ever changed last names or has left behind a childhood nickname for the more adult version can relate to the power and identity behind a name.

When it comes to choosing a name for a dog, cat, or other animal, everyone has their own technique. I think every family who had animals has had their share of names from physical characteristics. In my family's past, Mittens, Blackie, Sandy, Rusty, Whiskers, and Boots are all fondly remembered.

Some animals are named according to a theme. I tend to name my animals after literary characters or authors. Ollie, my ridgeback, is properly 'Oliver' the orphan from Oliver Twist. My cats from my high school years were named Dante after writer and father of the Italian language Dante Alighieri, and Murphy after Edward Murphy the supposed originator of Murphy's Law. Some animal's names are family names or people names. I've known animals named after favorite composers, musicians, actors--even products. Marshall is named after the company that makes electric guitar amplifiers.

These names are often badges of honor that rarely have to do with the attitude of the animal itself and say more about us and our interests as namers than the namees. Where I think we run into trouble in the naming process is when some animals get their name from a predominant personality trait.

When we name an animal after a personality trait (or a name we associate with that trait), we are doing two things that get in the way of our connection with out animals. The first is we are highlighting a trait that may limit our understanding of our furry friend. The second risk we take in naming an animal after a personality trait is the danger in reinforcing bad behavior without realizing it.

Take Angel for example. As a emaciated stray, she peacefully slept and eagerly ate for almost a week in her new home. Her docile behavior earned her the name 'angel'. Once she regained her energy (and a little body mass), her personality became that of the energetic adolescent hound she was. What one would normally associate with exuberance and some behaviors that need managing and training, her actions weren't exactly 'angelic'. Calling the dog 'Angel' constantly brought back to mind and expectation of the peaceful (sickly and malnourished) pup that showed up on the back stoop weeks before. This dog needed a set of rules and consistency from her owners early on and didn't get it for months, simply because they were waiting for their 'little angel' to return.

Pogo, a Jack Russell terrier, was named for hopping about with excitement when greeting family and strangers alike. Smiles and petting constantly rewarded his jumping for years before the novelty wore off. Once the family and friends weren't entertained with Pogo's behavior, the dog looked for other antics to elicit petting and attention. Destructive chewing and incessant barking got attention at first, but then was written off along with the jumping. The irritating combination of jumping, barking, and chewing earned the Jack Russell hours of confinement when guests were in the house. His owners just assumed his behavior went along with the jumping and nothing could be done.

An adult black and orange cat earned the name 'Damien' after the evil child in the horror classic 'The Omen'. The way his eyes glowed from under the bed where he hid the first three days he was home was rather evil-looking. Cats are normally loathe to soil their sleeping space, but the cat repeatedly chose his new owner's bed to relieve himself during those first weeks. Misunderstanding this as bad (rather than a cat's attempt to mingle scents and bond) the owner's doubt about naming the cat Damien was erased. Although affectionate with his owner, the cat hissed, bit, and hid or raced up the curtains when strangers entered the house. The real issue was the cat's actions signaled stress and uncertainty. The name directly resulted in the owner accepting some pretty bad behavior with the assumption that the destruction was simply a part of the cat's nature. After years of escalating destruction, Damien's stress responses went unaswered and eventually the cat had developed neurotic and violent behavior that made him unfit to be around children or anyone other than his owner.

I'd like you to think about the names of the animals in your life. These stories are extreme cases to highlight what can happen if we don't think about the ways our human need to 'name' interferes with inter-species communication. Are they symbolic of a behavior or a person that you admire for a shared personality trait? Can you think of ways that the name might be holding back your understanding and responding to animal communication?

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