Hunting for a fetching name

The hunt for a fetching name

The craze for unique names for pets is real. But animals only recognise our tone and the actions they associate with the names we give them.

The name of a beloved pet is not just a moniker; it is an emotion and more.

What’s in a name?” asked Juliet in Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet. It may not matter for roses. For pet parents, however, the name of our beloved pet is an emotion. At times, many of them. We seldom have a chance in our lives to name something fun, wacky, silly and endearing — all at once. Our kids don’t fall into this bin, but our pets do! Ask any of us the name of our pet, and we’ll tell you one; spend a few minutes with us, and you’ll have more to count! What we call our pet comes from a special place in our hearts, laced with emotions and silliness, and shows our child-like self. 

We didn’t get to name Pippi; the neighbourhood kids, who were friends with him since his streetie days, had already done that ritual. When we first met him, we were told he was ‘Pippi’. It took us many moons to realise it was ‘Peppy’— named after his lively character —but it was too late! The ‘i’ version had stuck. We let that be as it perfectly captured how similar he was to Pippi Longstocking — the fictional character in a series of children’s books —playful, unpredictable and free-spirited. 

If we were to have it our way, Pippi would be named Temba. This popular South African name reminisced our days in the beautiful country we were in just months before meeting our goofball. Although we tried, Pippi frowned at any attempt to change his name. But was his name misgendered? We convinced ourselves that if Pippa can be a girl, Pippi can be a boy too! There’s more — he is also called ‘Shuttu’, ‘Pips’, ‘Pippina’, ‘Puppy’ and everything in between, including a click and a whistle. Amazingly, he responds to all of them, like most other dogs! 

The origin of monikers

Although our pets’ names sound kooky, it’s serious business. Each of them has a long story of origin. Our first dog, Ramana, had his name inspired by a dog with the same name in a Kannada movie. Rinky, who came to us from an uncared-for home, had many things to adapt to, and a new name was the last thing on her and our minds. Mum named the tiny spitz given away to us as Belli. Although my parents don’t have pets anymore, they feed the dogs and cats on the street. Gunda, Rani, Kenchi, Korma, Ajju, Mahataayi, Bheema, Kapeesha are to name just a few in the battalion. 

Growing up, we visited my grandma’s village during every school break, and Tommy there welcomed us each time with a litter of her pups. Fed by and cared for by the family, she was a street dog who did what nature dictated. Sterilisation of dogs was unheard of, and puppies became our playmates. My uncles had a knack for coming up with the wackiest names for us and the animals in the house. We were (and still are) called by our monikers oddly drawn from absurdly manipulating adjectives, nouns and verbs! With pets, this was at another level! ‘Shingi’ was derived from a word that meant macaque; ‘Shaari’ was from a word that meant slender; ‘Sooji’ was inspired by a TV character, and so on. At times, we kids used our ingenuity to suggest some. Tommy’s pups hopefully had a blast with the names! 

What exactly do they hear?

The craze for naming pets is real — books track the trend in names each year; there are yearly compilations of top-10 dog and cat names in many countries. If Bengaluru had such a list, Raju, Gunda, Brownie, Blackie and Rani would surely make it. Names are not restricted to just our house-bound pets; street dogs in many parts of the world also have their own pet name. Call what you may, but do our pets really recognise their names? 

Yes, says science, but not quite like how our brains identify names and words. Experiments show that dogs associate words with actions and recognise how we call them — our tones. Puppies are repeatedly trained to respond to their names with generous handouts of treats. Dogs also react to pseudowords — words that sound similar to their name but are gibberish. Maybe that explains why our dogs respond to all of their silly monikers. Cats, on the other hand, can tell apart their exact name from many similar-sounding words. Both are great at sensing the emotions behind what we say. 

There are good reasons to indulge in the name-game for our pets — so go ahead and give them as many as you would like. With a heart bigger than any of ours, they will take it all in their stride! 

Tailspin is your monthly column on everything that’s heartwarming and annoying about pet parenting.

The writer is a science communicator and mom to Pippi, a five-year-old rescued Indie, who is behind her drive to understand dogs better. She tweets @RamanSpoorthy