Good Dogs

How to Name a Dog (in Six Easy Steps)

A time-tested, mother-approved, no-fail method for figuring out what to call a new pet

photo: John Cuneo


I.

The way I heard it, the dog was just there, treading water down in a cold ditch somewhere in North Georgia. This was six months or so before I adopted him. A pair of kind souls driving through saw him huddled in the weeds, just off the shoulder of one of those narrow mountain highways, so they swooped down, dried him off, and took him to a vet in Greenville, South Carolina. He spent some time in the shelter before my girlfriend, who never met a lonely mutt she couldn’t foster, took him in. Then came the sudden bout of pneumonia, which I still blame on that wet Georgia ditch. Contagious as he was, he couldn’t stay at her house around the other animals, so he ended up at my place to recuperate. And he’s never left. I took one look at that runny-nosed, rheumy-eyed hound and next thing you know, I’m signing adoption papers. But I didn’t know what to call him. I couldn’t think of any pneumonia-related names, so I tried to come up with ditch-appropriate ones, naturally. Old Muddy. Briars. Muck. Stephen, my college roommate from Hahira, Georgia, used to tell me, “You’re so bowlegged, you couldn’t catch a pig in a ditch,” so I went that direction for a bit. Bow sounded a little country-club to me. Pig was just damn confusing. You should never call a dog a pig. Still, the thought of ditches and briars brought Bush Hog to mind, but I’ve never been a fan of double names. That’s too precious. Sure, I could have simply called him Ditch, but I didn’t want to saddle the poor boy forever with his traumatic past. 

John Cuneo

II.

I suppose I could have gone with Georgia names, since that’s where he was found. Clayton or R.E.M. or Herschel. (In fact, I got a little fixated on Herschel for a while, since I suspected this dog might have some Walker in him.) Brook Benton sang that song I remembered from the seventies, “Rainy Night in Georgia,” so for a day or two I thought about calling him Benton, but to be honest, he doesn’t much resemble a Benton or a singer. He looks like an experiment. Long legged like a treeing dog—the aforementioned Walker hound or maybe a Tennessee Brindle—he carries around a square block of a head that he wields like a wrecking ball. And he has a barrel chest like my uncle David up in Montana, so I spent an hour or so thinking I might call him Dave, but I have never been fond of naming an animal after a relative. One or the other is bound to be offended at some point. Uncle David teaches at a place called Flathead Valley Community College, and I thought Flathead would be an interesting name for a dog especially considering his chunky head, but it felt somewhat disrespectful to a Native American tribe out West. I didn’t want to cause any trouble.

III.

My girlfriend tells me stories about her mother, Darlene, and animals. Darlene used to keep her glove box stocked with assorted collars, just in case she ran across a dog or a cat with “that lost look on its face.” On road trips, she stuffed the family cats inside a pillowcase and snuck them across the lobbies of no-pets-allowed hotels. I never met Darlene, but I guess I would appreciate her particular brand of crazy. Anyway, over the years she developed what she felt was a foolproof method for double-checking potential names. She said before you slap a name on an animal for life, you need to walk out on your back porch just after dark and practice hollering the name, like you are calling the dog or cat home for supper. Float the name out there on the air and see how it sounds in the real world. If you can sing out your dog’s name without being embarrassed at what the neighbors think of you, it’s a keeper. In my neighborhood, I know a few folks who are not currently aware of this strategy. Every time I hear them hollering for BooBoo or Snookums after the local news, I want to throw something over the chain-link fence in their general direction, in honor of Darlene.

IV.

This ditch-discovered dog owns a whipsaw tail over which he has little control. It seems to possess no nerve endings, because he isn’t fazed when he shatters wineglasses or hammers somebody’s shinbone. He may have given the cat a mild concussion one morning. I Googled “famous tails” and ended up on a couple of sites I can’t mention, and one that told me how to tie my ponytail way up high like Ariana Grande. There was even an instructional video. I’m relatively bald, so that information was wasted on me. The dog is colored an odd mixture of black and tan, and I used to drink that beverage at a bar called Clancy’s. I actually stuck with Clancy for almost an entire day until I decided naming a dog after a bar said more about me than it did him. He tends to whine for no reason too, so I started trying to come up with well-known whiners. I could have gone with McEnroe, I guess. Or maybe that annoying kid from Caddyshack, Spaulding. Or any soccer player. But I can’t see me standing on my back porch hollering for Messi or Ronaldo.

John Cuneo

V.

One afternoon somebody looked down at my dog and his big squared-off head and said, “That boy’s got some boxer in him,” and that comment sent me down the rabbit hole on my computer, searching the names of famous boxers, even though I don’t like naming animals after well-known folks. But most of these fighters were dead, which I felt gave me some leeway. Marciano never lost a fight. That gave a dog a lot to live up to, and I didn’t want to set expectations too high at such a young age. Jack Dempsey’s head was actually shaped a lot like my dog’s. And to be honest, I almost settled on Dempsey, until I ran across an article about Sonny Liston. I thought Sonny would be a cool dog name, but it didn’t pass the back-porch test. The neighbors might think I was calling a child I didn’t have. Then, just when I was about to leave the world of boxing, I ran across a little twenty-second video from a heavyweight title fight back in 1973, Smokin’ Joe Frazier versus George Foreman. The champ comes stalking toward Foreman and ducks down, and Foreman clocks him with a tight uppercut that sends him to the canvas. Howard Cosell was broadcasting the fight, and he all but jumps out of his seat, screaming that now-famous three-line chorus: “Down goes Fray-zsa! Down goes Fray-zsa! Down goes Fray-zsa!” I don’t think Howard got that excited about saying the word Frazier ever again.

John Cuneo

VI.

I got excited too. I knew the second I heard Howard Cosell screaming that I would call this boxer that started in a ditch Frazier. Now he’s growing into his name. When he climbs off the sofa, he sort of waddles toward you, wagging that big head, just the way Frazier used to leave his corner at the beginning of rounds. And sometimes at night, when he’s out in the yard taking care of his business, I stand on the back steps and do my best Howard Cosell—“Down goes Fray-zsa! Down goes Fray-zsa!”—loud enough for the neighbors to hear. I’m sure they don’t know what to make of us, but I really don’t care. It sounds damn near perfect to me. 


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