How to Name a Dog

Garden & Gun

Mugsy was a boxer. Resonating within that sentence is the simplicity of the perfect name. The same words appear to mean two completely different things. They could mean Mugsy was a breed of dog called a boxer. But I could also be referring to a man named Mugsy whose profession was that of being a boxer, because Mugsy is the kind of name we would expect a boxer to have—Mugsy, Rocky, Jake. That sort of thing. The name Mugsy works because a boxer looks like a boxer, and in that sense it’s easy to imagine what a dog like that might be named. One could even claim it’s clichéd, but I think the only person who would claim that is the kind of person who would begin a sentence with the words one could.

I was in single digits when we had Mugsy. Mugsy chased cars with a joyful, indefatigable single-mindedness. Lots of dogs do, of course, but Mugsy actually caught them and clung to their still-turning tires with teeth that somehow never seemed the worse for wear. He wasn’t hit so much as he was slammed into the road. Repeatedly. He’d wander back home all bloody smiles. I was heartbroken when I discovered he’d been sent away to live on an old lady’s farm out in the country…where I believe he is to this day.

The first dog I named myself was Barney. Barney was a basset hound. Mugsy and Barney are names that operate within the same blatantly descriptive universe, I think. Barney, like most bassets, was a sad-looking dog, a dog with a worried expression, as if he were beset by constant troubles when the reality was that he was cared for and fed free of charge. He’d been fixed. He didn’t have a worry in the world, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at him. Barney is the name we ascribe to a sad man, the difference being that people aren’t born sad, but if they’re given this name out of the womb they will without a doubt become sad. The name dictates the sadness to follow. Dogs benefit from being dogs in that we have a good idea of what they’ll look like and the general characteristics they possess before we give them their names. Naming dogs is a kind of blessing, an affirmation; naming people can be a curse.

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