The Perfect Name

As we sit in the waiting room of the veterinary emergency center, a young doctor comes out in scrubs, his eyes fixed on the clipboard in his hand. “Um.” The heads of the waiting room waiters lift, awaiting his next move. He pauses, puzzling at the paper in front of him. After a beat: “Brussel sprout?” A young couple scoop up their miniature husky—who bears little resemblance to brassica—and follow him down the hall. Our black one’s named Finnegan. Oh, and also Finnegan Begin-again, Sweetie, Goofball, Puppy. I’ve called him Mr. Nose, Mr. Wet Nose, Mr. Sniffy-Pants, Mr. Licky. He’s been christened Mouse, Snuffle, Kiddo, and Cutie-pie anew each day. Plus he’s Finn. We humans are namers. A child stares and points; we name the thing pointed at. Doggy!, I hear nearly daily when passing parents and toddlers on the sidewalk with my dogs. (Kid!, I once in a while say to my pups in response.) No animal names itself, but we name animals—we love naming animals. Simply spotting a newly discovered species, minutely different than another nearby species, is occasion for a christening. By convention, the discoverer of a new species is given Latin naming rights: often, this is the occasion of much silliness. So there is a beetle Anelipsistus americanus (“helpless American”), a box jellyfish Tamoya ohboya (so named for the sound one might make upon being stung by one), a trapdoor spider Aname aragog, and a fungus Spongiforma squarepantsii. Misunderstandings and unintended consequences also obtain on such namings. The Madagascan tree-dwelling lemur called indri was so named by the Frenchman who heard the Malagasy call out “indry!” when they spotted it: he mistakenly thought they were naming it, when they were in fact calling “behold!” or “there he is!”I Likewise, the familiar bird native to the Canary Islands might be put out to learn that the name of the island is thought to come from the classical Latin canāria, of or relating to dogs. Such sorting and specifying is not without merit: a species name helps us begin to see the animals behind it; to notice their differences; to consider their lives. But often we end right there, with the species name. A new bird alights on the bird feeder and we ask its name, satisfied when we’ve pinned it: scarlet tanager. On a safari, there are checklists— the “Big Five”—of the animals that one might see. Spot an elephant, rhino, hippo, giraffe, or lion, and it is captured, collected. We can pull “I saw an African elephant” out of our pocket for years to come. Oh, we might go beyond the name and find out the flash-card facts of the animal’s biology: life span, weight, gestation time, diet. But the animals soon move on and so, for the most part, do we. Too often names are used as substitutes for understanding: to see the animals but not have to bother to use anything but our eyes. Still, I am a fan of naming. Not by profession: science frowns on giving animals names. That is to say, species naming is fine, but naming of individuals is not. My fields of study—animal behavior and cognitive science—are interesting in this regard, as they are based in observing or experimenting with animals. In particular, animals are most commonly studied not as individuals, but as representatives, ambassadors to their kind. Each “specimen” stands for all members of the species group: each macaque monkey is seen as a prototypic monkey whose behavior can tell us something about all other monkeys. Having an individual name would work against this. Naming is personalizing: if, among the animals with genus name Macaque, each has his own given name, each is his own person. In the development of the field of ethology, though, what was seen as the “troublesome effects” of actual differences between individual animals on studying the species’ behavior led to a change. Where a single animal’s slightly unusual behavior—migrating late, lingering with a dead relative, capturing but not killing prey—was once seen as “statistical noise,” the field came to acknowledge the importance of these differences, and began to try to track individual animals. But not by naming; by numbering, by marking—telling individuals apart via marks such as putting a collar on a tiger, tattooing a monkey, dyeing a bird’s feathers, tagging a seal, clipping a series of toes off frogs or toads, or cutting a distinctive notch in the ear of a mouse.II Jane Goodall, against approved scholarly practice, did name the chimpanzees she observed, and named them fabulously: David Greybeard, Fifi, Flint, Frodo, Goliath, Passion. It is safe to say that the field of ethology was not immediately prepared to embrace a woman studying a chimp she called Fifi. Goodall has said she named them out of naïveté, not being aware that in scholarly research, animals—even chimpanzees, whose genetic code is in the greatest part indistinguishable from that of humans—were not supposed to have the personalities that may seem to come with a name. “I had no idea,” she wrote, “that it would have been more appropriate—once I got to know him or her—to assign each of the chimpanzees a number rather than a name.” Since the time of Goodall’s ethological work, research has come to take it as given that animals have personalities—and researchers have even studied personality, in subjects from chimps to pigs to cats. Individual naming abounds, but only on the Q.T., not in publications. We can see this beginning even with the formative Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov in the early twentieth century, who studied the dog because of “its great intellectual development” and the species’ implicit “understanding and compliance” even when being experimented on or vivisected.III Pavlov named his best performing dog Druzhok—“little friend” or “buddy” in Russian—and experimented on Druzhok for three years. These experiments included separating Druzhok’s esophagus from his stomach and inserting an “isolated sac” for consumed food, in order to examine his secretions at the sight of food. Every surgery was done without anesthesia, which Pavlov thought blunted normal behavior and thus should be avoided. Though Pavlov conceded that, by virtue of their sensitivity and closeness to humans, a dog is “almost a participant” in the experiment on himself, Druzhok, like the others, became critically ill and died directly as a result of Pavlov’s surgeries, pokings, and proddings. The field of psychology owes much to Pavlov’s discoveries. It doesn’t, however, know Druzhok, who remained unidentified in public view. Druzhok was not named or acknowledged in Pavlov’s 1927 book, Conditioned Reflexes, which relates many of his experimental findings. Readers can find mention of “the animal,” “the dog,” “this dog,” “the excitable dog,” dogs No. 1, 2, and 3, even “our dogs.” But no little friend. In contemporary neuroscience labs studying primates, the animals are also named, privately. Often, as anthropologist Lesley Sharp has shown, monkeys in a study are named in a fanciful, affecting way—after the princesses from Disney movies, or after Greek gods. Some are named half inspirationally, half ironically—as the primates in one laboratory named after Nobel Prize–winning scientists. Pet names are also used: “Spartacus” may also be “Jamie’s monkey,” or, because he’s a finger biter, “Ratfink.” Though it is usually a bioengineer or supervising postdoc who gets to name the subjects, even the head of a lab, the Principal Investigator, will use the name—within the lab. “You’re never allowed to use the name of a monkey in a public forum, or in a publication,” Sharp says, noting that, nonetheless, it’s not unusual for labs to have memorials for the animals who they eventually have used up and killed, in the form of plaques or memory gardens. But what of the dogs? I hear you asking me. There are countless dogs in neuroscience, psychology, and medical studies who live their lives in labs. The dogs may have names to the lab workers, but in publications they are identified only by sex, age, or breed (often “beagle”). But not in my lab. My own Dog Cognition Lab studies a topic that would not have been even a twinkle in Pavlov’s grandson’s eye—but that counts on the same cooperativeness and subject complaisance that Pavlov counted on. I don’t keep dogs: my subjects live with their owners, and only meet me for the purposes of doing a study. They are all owned, and they are all named. In studies at our lab—which sometimes take place at a doggie day care or training gym after hours, the owner’s home, or a local park—we call the dogs by their names. Certainly one can reasonably infer that these dogs also understand their names. By six months of age, human infants can recognize speech sounds enough to start to disentangle their names from the other words that are spoken around them. They are still very much pre-verbal, and cognitively not as advanced as most dogs. For a dog, a name, said repeatedly over days and weeks, becomes the sound that lets your dog know that you are talking to her. They know. In many of the dog-cognition publications, the dogs’ names make it in. It’s the only animal research I know of where this regularly occurs.IV Indeed, some reviewers—the other scientists who anonymously read a submitted paper for a journal and give recommendations on its acceptance, revision, or rejection—call for names to be added, if they’re absent. And it is in this way that we know that subjects in Vienna, Austria, participating in a study on dogs’ ability to follow an owner pointing to food were named Akira, Archimedes, Nanook, and Schnackerl. Max, Missy, Luca, and Lily were there; good dogs named French, Cash, and Sky. In Germany, researchers asked Alischa, Arco, and Aslan to complete a visual perspective-taking task, testing their ability to sneak a bit of forbidden food when a barrier blocks a person from seeing them. Lotte, Lucy, Luna, and Lupo completed this one. In England, Ashka, Arffer, Iggy, and Ozzie. Pippa, Poppy, Whilma, Zippy. In 2013, our lab in New York City recruited participants to take on the serious business of trying to sniff out which of two covered plates contained a larger quantity of hot dogs. I don’t want to tell you who could do it, but I’m just saying: we could nearly make a complete alphabet of hot-dog sniffers ready to turn professional: A.J., Biffy, Charlie, Daisy, Ella, Frankie, Gus, Horatio, Jack (and Jackson), Lucy (times three), Merlot, Olive (and two Olivers and an Olivia), Pebbles, Rex, Shane, Teddy (and Theo and Theodore), Wyatt, Xero, and Zoey.V In that same year, it should be known, three of the dogs’ names (Madison, Mia, and Olivia) were among the most popular (human) baby names in the metropolis. Of course all the dogs have names. “Without names,” one of my academic colleagues has said of dogs, “they’re not persons.” By contrast, non-pet dogs, kept for other purposes, may not be called by names. Racing greyhounds have formal, fancy names in the programs which are rarely used; in racing they are but a number on their flank, as muzzles are strapped on their faces. Few dogs in our society will be named “Dog”; “Mister Dog,” maybe. “Dog” is the name of a species; to name the one who you invite into your home is to personalize the dog. And one of the first things we do—one of the first steps in adding a member of your family—is to name them.