The reasoning behind popular dog names

Sunday, August 18, 2013 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 12:13 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 19, 2013
Michelle Bartlett and her daughter, Bridget, 9, sit with their dog, Sir Henry Eli Gustav, at Twin Lakes Dog Park on Aug. 7. Sir Henry is an active member of the Bartlett household. He was adopted as a therapy dog for 7-year-old Braden Bartlett, who has autism.

COLUMBIA — Sir Henry Eli Gustav, Henry for short, is a young and vivacious golden retriever.

Every time Michelle Bartlett, Henry's owner, takes her two children to school, Henry gets to ride shotgun. After everyone is buckled in and Bartlett pulls into the parking lot of her daughter's school, she does a U-turn and makes a stop at Starbucks. She orders a Venti, skinny, hazelnut latte, and Henry laps whipped cream out of a pup cup.

Popular pup names in Columbia

The following are the most popular local dog names that end with a long "e" sound, according to pet licenses provided by the Columbia-Boone County Department of Health and Human Services.

  • Sophie
  • Zoe(y)
  • Molly
  • Daisy
  • Annie
  • Buddy
  • Sadie
  • Toby
  • Izzy
  • Chloe

Bartlett got Henry from a breeder when he was about 8 weeks old to act as a therapy dog for her 7-year-old son, Braden, who has autism. She decided to name him Henry because it was an old-fashioned English name with two syllables and a consonant in the middle, something she heard dogs respond well to.

Although Henry isn't among the most common dog names, others that also end with long "e" sounds — such as Sophie, Zoe and Buddy — are especially popular. Dog trainers and linguists give multiple reasons for why the long "e" sound at the end of a dog's name is useful, even though most dog owners aren't thinking about logistics or linguistics when they pick their pets' monikers.

Scott Littrell, for example, has two mutts, one named Dixie and the other Turbo Dog. He explained while he was at the Twin Lakes dog park on Aug. 6 that he and his wife named their dogs after beers they enjoyed when they lived in New Orleans.

Alex Vespestad also was at Twin Lakes with his 5 1/2-month-old chocolate lab mix, Boaty. He and his girlfriend are water enthusiasts, he said. He's been water skiing since he was 6, and she likes taking boats out on the water. Two days after the couple adopted their pup, they took him to a water-ski tournament and decided his name should honor their love for water.

Pup trainers on names

St. Louis' Canine Helpers Allow More Possibilities Assistance Dogs, or CHAMP, trains puppies to become service dogs for people with disabilities.

Creating a transition between a dog's name and training commands is an important practice for CHAMP, so names are chosen based on the way they flow with commands. CHAMP board President Nola Ewers believes the sound of a vowel, or the long "e," is easier to follow with a command that starts with a hard consonant, such as, "Ruby, come." Dogs are usually given names that follow that idea.

"I think it smooths out the transition when giving a command," Ewers said.

Trainers normally avoid names that end in hard consonants because they can cause a break between the name and the command. Firmer tones are usually reserved for hard consonants, so using a higher pitch while also saying a series of hard consonants can be difficult, Ewers said.

CHAMP trainers also avoid using a dog's name too often. If an owner overuses his or her dog's name, eventually the dog gets tired of hearing it, Ewers said.

"It's like when little kids are saying, 'Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,'" Ewers said. 

Experts have a word

Matthew Gordon, an MU associate professor of English with a specialty in linguistics, believes a better explanation for the phenomenon of the long "e" sound at the end of a pooch's name is indicative of diminutive language.

Diminutive language typically is characterized by the suffix "y," such as in the name Johnny, where the suffix is placed after the stem of the name John. This isn't the case, however, for names that are shortened to have the long "e" sound, such as Susie.

By using diminutive language, pet owners are nicknaming their animals in an attempt to liken them to small or cute characters, something often noted in "baby talk," Gordon said in an email.

"In the way couples early in a relationship talk to each other," Gordon said. "It's all about cuteness."

John Ohala, an emeritus professor in linguistics at University of California-Berkeley, did a study on "sound symbolism," the link that occurs between the physical shape of a pitch pattern and the meaning of that word. Coinciding with Gordon, Ohala notes in his study that higher frequencies are associated with small things, while lower frequencies depict largeness. Higher pitches in vocalizations tend to denote diminutive language.

Ohala noted the drop in pitch that becomes necessary when one wants to assert an authoritative tone. In "assertive training" exercises, trainees are instructed to drop the pitch in their voice to show dominance, according to his study.

This is also recognized in other species, relative to body mass. Lower pitches, such as a dog's growl, assert aggression and dominance. Higher pitches, such as a dog's yelp, convey submission, Ohala found in his study.

The strings of vowels and consonants and the proportions between the two in language also influence implied meaning. Ohala's study notes that the disproportion of vowels to consonants requiring the use of higher frequencies conveys smallness, while low acoustic frequency denotes largeness.

In addition, bursts between consonants caused by fast airflow is used in dominant speech, such as when giving a command. That's something Ewers also believed made it hard to convey happiness, or other diminutives, when using a series of hard consonants.

Columbia's Puppies with Purpose, which started in 2012, has provided preliminary training for two puppies and an adult dog that then went to CHAMP for continued training. They eventually were sent to clients with disabilities in St. Louis.

Puppies with Purpose gives its dogs two names, said TerriAnn Tucker-Warhover, director and veterinarian for the group. One is used in social settings as a positive reinforcement and is used to energize the dogs when they're out and about. For two of the dogs, this name ends in the long "e."

The other name is known only by the people raising and training the dog and by the new owner. It is used in conjunction with commands, Tucker-Warhover said. This name acts as a "pay attention to me" signal for the dog so that it knows it needs to be alert and ready for the next command.

"A dog's name is like a command in itself," said Ewers, of CHAMP.

A lot of popular dog names might contain the long "e" sound, but many owners knight their hounds with obscure names that don't fit the popularity bill. Sir Henry Eli Gustav, for example.

Paige Kreitz, who was at Twin Lakes with her dog, Colby, said she chose the name for her "goldendoodle" because he had a submissive and playful demeanor when she purchased him from a breeder. She wasn't thinking about training or about diminutive linguistics.

"Colby is like a baseball-hat-wearing, friendly name," Kreitz said, "and that's what he is."

Editor's note: TerriAnn Tucker-Warhover is the wife of Missourian executive editor Tom Warhover.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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Skip Yates August 19, 2013 | 3:07 a.m.

Well, I no longer wonder what professors of linguistics do....

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