How dog names have changed over time

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

how dog names have changed over time

Story at-a-glance -

  • Trends in pet names reveal people’s attitudes toward their pets as well as popular cultural items of the time
  • In medieval times, dogs were valued for their hunting, guarding and herding abilities more so than they were viewed as family pets, and dog names reflected their practical uses or involved descriptions of the dog’s appearance
  • By the 1600s, dogs were perhaps becoming more intertwined as pets, and their names began to reflect their personalities as opposed to just their appearance or physical skills
  • In the Victorian era, pets were increasingly viewed as members of the family, or at least worthy status symbols as lap dogs, and often had “people” names
  • Fast-forward to the modern day, and dogs are thoroughly viewed as members of the family, complete with names that could pass for a human child; pop culture is also reflected in dog names

Dog names, like human names, have changed throughout history, giving glimpses into human attitudes about their beloved canines from eras gone by. While it may seem like little more than trivia to consider how people named their dogs centuries ago, it's actually quite revealing. In fact, it's so intriguing that there's an entire field dedicated to the study of names — onomastics.

An onomastician is a person who studies names, and one onomastician, Leonard Ashley, Ph.D., an English professor emeritus at Brooklyn College, stated to the San Francisco Examiner, "It may seem silly to get into discussing pet names, but it tells you a lot. It's not trivia. It's human behavior. Mankind names things — and names show the psychology behind it all."1

Medieval dog names were practical, descriptive

In Medieval times, dogs were valued for their hunting, guarding and herding abilities more so than they were viewed as family pets.2 As such, some dog names reflected their practical uses or involved descriptions of the dog's appearance, such as:

  • Sturdy
  • Whitefoot
  • Nosewise
  • Holdfast
  • Bellina

Purkoy (from the French word pourquoi) was reportedly the name for one of King Henry VIII's wives (Anne Boleyn), who named her dog this because it was inquisitive. Other dogs were named after their owners' professions, such as Hemmerli (little hammer), who belonged to a blacksmith, and Speichli (little spoke), who belonged to a wagoner.3

In the 1600s, dogs names reflected their personalities

By the 1600s, dogs were perhaps becoming more intertwined as pets, and their names began to reflect their personalities as opposed to just their appearance or physical skills. Historian John Reeks, Ph.D., posted a list of 17th-century hunting dog names, which he told Slate came from a 1686 book by Nicholas Cox, titled, "The Gentleman's Recreation in Four Parts."4 Highlights from the list include:

Bouncer

Cryer

Dancer

Flippant

Flurry

Gallant

Juggler

Merryboy

Pleasant

Plunder

Sweetlips

Stately

Thunder

Tattler

Tracer

Trusty

Wonder

Whipster

Victorian-era pets were members of the family

In the Victorian era, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded (circa 1824), signaling the beginning of animal rights and a time when pets were increasingly viewed as members of the family, or at least worthy status symbols as lap dogs.5 According to Victoriana Magazine:6

"For a fashionable woman in Victorian England a pet miniature dog was as indispensable as an opera box or presentation at court. She was nobody without her pet who accompanied her wherever she went, and was fed and housed, according to canine requirements, as daintily as the heir to the title and estates."

As such, their names began to take on more human elements, including "people" names such as:7

Albert

Ada

Arabella

Dante

Ernie

Gertrude

Fletcher

Owen

Lucinda

Reuben

Wyatt

Myrtle

Rosetta

Reportedly, city clerk records in the U.S. from the 1870s revealed registered dogs with names like Jack, Jip, Carlo, Major and Rover.8 The popular Fido is also listed, which comes from the Latin word for faithful.9

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Modern-day dog names are often the same as people's

Fast-forward to the modern day, and dogs are thoroughly viewed as members of the family, complete with names that could pass for a human child. A 1997 survey of registered dogs in San Francisco, California, revealed the most popular dog name was Max (and there was still one Fido on the list).10

Other popular dog names were popular people names as well, including Molly, Jake, Lucy and Sam. In 2013, Rover, a website that connects dog owners with pet sitters, published a list of top dog names based on its U.S. database of several hundred thousand registered clients. The results were similar and included:11

Males Females

1. Max

1. Bella

2. Charlie

2. Lucy

3. Buddy

3. Bailey

4. Jack

4. Daisy

5. Cooper

5. Lily

6. Rocky

6. Molly

7. Riley

7. Lola

8. Toby

8. Maggie

9. Bear

9. Sadie

10. Harley

10. Chloe

By 2018, the list changed only slightly:12

Males Females

1. Max

1. Bella

2. Charlie

2. Lucy

3. Cooper

3. Luna

4. Buddy

4. Daisy

5. Jack

5. Lola

6. Rocky

6. Sadie

7. Duke

7. Molly

8. Bear

8. Bailey

9. Tucker

9. Maggie

10. Oliver

10. Stella

Like names of the past, current dog names can also signal trends in pop culture and more. Rover noted that Harry and Meghan both spiked in popularity by 133% and 129%, respectively, in 2018, courtesy of the royal wedding. Other popular names were sci-fi characters, musicians and superheroes, especially those from "Wonder Woman," "Black Panther," "Star Wars" and "Guardians of the Galaxy."13

Villainous name also increased by 18%, with the top five villainous dog names reported as Loki, Bane, Sid, Anakin and Lex. Even food and brunch names, including Biscuit, Cinnamon, Muffin and Waffles, made an appearance.

As Kate Jaffe, dog name curator for Rover, told NPR, "What we've found is that the things that we care about the most, whether it's the food we're eating or pop culture, are really mirrored in the ways that we're naming our dogs"14 — a trend that seems to have held true over the centuries.