When we make friends, one of the first things we share are our names. It’s also one of the first things we learn about ourselves, too. Everyone knows their own name, or should. And as we get to know the world around us, we give everything names. Much language is dedicated to simply naming things.
But personal names are very special. Of all the sounds we hear, we love our name the most. It is a unique sound that we identify as meaning ourselves. In a whole universe of things with their own names, we have a specific identifier that sets us apart from everything and everyone else. We love hearing our names so much that salespeople deliberately use our names to get us feeling good and willing to buy whatever they say after that.
The first thing we do when we get a puppy is give him or her a name. To teach the puppy their name, for example, Rover, we say it over and over, and after a while Rover comes over. The question is, does Rover come over because he learned he is Rover, or does he come over because there’s a treat to eat?
Do animals really understand the names that we give them? Or is this all human romanticism and anthropomorphism, and their name merely a Pavlovian bell?
I think any dog owner will tell you, without doubt, that dogs know their names. Their name is the same whenever you speak with them, so they hear it a lot and listen up whenever you say it. They know that, after hearing you say their name, whatever gibberish comes next out of your mouth has something to do with them.
Try this some time. Talk to someone about your dog while your dog is making believe they are not listening. You will see the dog respond whenever they hear key words, like food, eat, hungry, walk, park, swim, ball, catch, come, no, bad, good, and their name. They’ll lift their head, cock an ear, and respond emotionally to whatever they think you said.
Language is something we humans like to think is exclusive to our species. That’s because we’re species snobs, and think intelligence is essential for language, and that we are the only species with intelligence. That’s why we called ourselves Homo sapiens. Sapiens is Latin for wise. We’re the wise guys of the animal kingdom. When other animals speak, it’s not language. It can’t be. That’s just for us.
It’s important to maintain an image of animals as unintelligent. It allows us to justify exploiting them. It depersonalizes and objectifies animals so we can be mean to them and not feel guilty. And yet, we give our pets names, and expect them to know it. We don’t give them credit for language, but still expect them to understand their name, which is a component of language.
If animals can know the names you give them, then they possess an understanding of the category of “name”. They could, therefore, have names for others, including for people.
From my own experience, my German Shepherd, Molly, would look for the other dog, Pumpkin, when you asked, “Where’s Pumpkin?”. And Molly would find her ball when you told her to. I told her both these things without any body language giveaways, and she understood what I was telling her. I can say with complete certainty that every single person who has lived with a German Shepherd would insist that their dogs know what you are saying. And if you have more than one dog, each will know its own name as distinct from the names of the other dogs.
Cats will know their names, too, but they don’t get as excited when you say their names as dogs do. Cats will come when you call, and each cat will know its own name. They probably know what you’re saying, too. But they don’t typically seem to care as much as dogs do.
Lots of people also have pet rats. I once unintentionally developed a relationship with a rat named Sarah. She was a pet store rat, and was supposed to be food for a snake. But her lack of fear bored the snake, and she survived. We took her in as a pet, and she became a pampered rat. I gave her jaw massages, which she really needed. She let me roll her on her back and tickle her belly, as she closed her eyes and concentrated on the feeling. And she got to know her name, and came when she was called.
Birds have remarkable language ability and clearly know the names people give them. And anyone who has observed a flock of chickens will see complex relationships between the birds that must include naming of one another and of things around them. They’re not clucking for nothing, you know.
Snakes and lizards never come when they are called. They also don’t have vocal cords, like rats, cats, dogs, and people. They rarely have anything to say that we humans can hear, apart from a hiss or clicking sound. Calling them just isn’t in their communication vocabulary, although you might try a hiss. For a snake and lizard, it’s largely body language, and perhaps some odor. It’s possible that their names have a particular smell to them.
People also have pet fish. You can give them each personal names, but none will come when you call. If fish have names for one another, they would probably not be made with sound. After all, they need to communicate within a water medium, which has different properties than communication in the air.
As humans, we use our voices to create names. To understand that name, an animal will need a voice and ears, and a brain that can process it all and understand what is said. You do need intelligence to speak, after all, despite what you hear people say. The more intelligent the animal, the more sounds it can distinguish, and the more uses it can find for those sounds as part of a language.
Dogs come when you call their name because they know their name. This means they have a sense of identity, of being an individual distinguished from other individuals who have their own names. Any animal that can respond to its human-given name must have names for others, including for humans. It makes you wonder what Fido is called by his dog friends and by the cat.
Of course, since you are in a relationship with your pet, there will be times you call them, and times they call you. After all, you control their food and water and other needs. They are probably using your name more than you realize. The problem is most pet owners don’t know their pet-given names.
Attentive pet owners need to learn these animal languages and when your pet is calling you. Otherwise, your pet will feel you are ignoring them, or are too unintelligent to understand language and your own name.