What’s the best name to give your dog?

It may be time to park Rover and consider something more imaginative, says Jonathan Young.

Max Findlay isn’t famous, but 25 million people remember Fenton, his labrador, who decided to chase the red deer in Richmond Park. The moment was captured on video and went viral, as poor Mr Findlay pursued the errant hound, repeatedly bellowing ‘Fenton!’.

It was a reminder that dogs’ names can be very public, especially when carried by miscreants. On our little rough shoot, for example, no one recalls easily the host of well-behaved spaniels that have worked the coverts, but we all remember Piper, an ‘enthusiastic’ labrador owned by a major figure in the Arts world. His ‘Piper, come HERE, you blankety blank!’, delivered in Shakespearian timbre, is now our standard catchphrase whenever we see a dog off-piste.

It’s worth remembering this when picking a puppy from a squirming litter: whatever you decide to call it may come back to haunt you. But, despite their behaviour, Fenton and Piper bore perfect names for working dogs, in that a disyllabic word, with the emphasis on the second syllable, can carry over long distances when shouted, as Mr Findlay amply demonstrated.

It’s a principle that’s applied to most gundog and hound names, as Mark Hankinson, former director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, explains: ‘What they appear to hear is a form of Morse code — the long and short sounds that make up a word or a name. So a hound name needs to be at least two syllables long.’

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Within this formula there’s considerable room for lyricism, as anyone knows who’s heard a huntsman summon Bramble and Bracken, Primrose and Pricket. Many of these names have been used by hunts for centuries and were included in Sir Peter Beckford’s Thoughts on Hunting (1781) — anyone stuck for a good name for their dog would do well to consult Baily’s Hunting Directory, which keeps a register of them.

Dogs’ names: Illustration by Emma Earnshaw for Country Life.

But lovely and ancient as these names are, many people now prefer to establish their own canine traditions. Francis Fitzherbert, the 15th Baron Stafford and first-class shot, gives all his dogs a name beginning with T. ‘It started with my first dog, which I called Taxi, as I thought it would be amusing hailing a taxi on the shooting field. Since then, I’ve had a Tarmac (where I was a non-executive), Timber, Tipple and my two Norfolk terriers, Tubby and Tinker. My brother, Pip Fitzherbert, has used slightly more inappropriate names, such as You, Dammit and, perhaps the most amusing, Oy!’

The use of human forenames for dogs used to be frowned upon, but, sometimes, they work splendidly. Harry Parsons and his partner Gail Westcott, founders of the Working Sealyham Terrier Club, name all their bitches ‘after our grandmothers, mothers and aunties. They were all tough and very capable East End gals,’ says Mr Parsons, ‘with proper old-fashioned names, such as Alice, Ethel, Doris and Madge — perfect for robust little terriers. But, of course, most people don’t know this, which is why one very smart lady at the Moreton-in-Marsh country show asked if they were called after scullery maids.’

Sealyham terrier puppies

Sealyham terrier puppies. ©Millie Pilkington for Country Life

Other dog owners draw their inspiration from Nature. Rachael Robathan, a Devonian and former leader of Westminster City Council, says ‘there are few things more beautiful than the county’s rivers and so we have Otter (a perfect black labrador), Tamar and Tavy, our much-loved Parson Jack Russell terrier. They remind me of early mornings with my father, rod in hand, and an ice cream for breakfast on the way home’.

Her love of water is shared by Lt-Gen Sir Barney White-Spunner, former commander of the Field Army and now chair of UK Fisheries. His Irish-bred fox-red labradors are Brosna (a river in Co Offaly) and Luska, after the bay in Co Tipperary. The riparian theme has also influenced Robert Pitcher, former master and now chairman of the Middleton Hunt. ‘My working labradors have all been named after fishing rods, so we’ve had a Hardy, Orvis, Winston, Walker and Garrison.’

The latter name might also be a contender for one of Emily Fisher’s future dogs. She spent the early part of her Foreign Office career in Zambia, where she was involved in military liaison. That experience set the pattern for her canine names. ‘I called my first dog, a Staffordshire, Colonel H Biscuit and I loved him so much I bought the car number plate COLONEL, in his honour. Then I had an English bull terrier with a bit of an attitude, so I called him Commodore.

An English Bull Terrier — ‘Tank’ actually seems quite a decent name for one.

‘I’ve now got a black labrador — Gunner — and a Sealyham called Major,’ adds Emily. ‘My daughter named her yellow labrador Captain, but only after we had dissuaded her from calling him Tank.’

The Duke and Duchess of Rutland have also looked to the armed services for ideas. ‘David’s late liver labrador was called Nelson, after Lord Nelson, and he recently got a shih-tzu, named Spitfire,’ says the Duchess.


(Picture: ©Country Life/Sarah Farnsworth)

His Grace the Duke of Rutland with the now-departed Nelson the labrador (Picture: ©Country Life/Sarah Farnsworth)

No such martial names, however, for Lady Carole Bamford, founder of Daylesford Organics, whose shih-tzus answer to Bellini, Margarita and Tequila. The drinks motif is also favoured by Nicki Whiddett, a staff nurse. ‘We love Champagne and had drunk a couple of glasses when we first considered buying a dog,’ she says. ‘As a result, our boxers are called Moet, Cuvee and Bollinger.’

Wildfowlers tend to be more old-fashioned and have traditionally named their retrievers after quarry species. Graham Downing, who has fowled since childhood, called his first dog Curlew. ‘Then came Teal, Wigeon and Pintail. My son George has Teal’s litter sister, who’s also called Wigeon.’ (As was, reputedly, one of The Prince of Wales’s gundogs.)

Having seen thousands of working dogs, my personal favourite name remains Robert. As with Desmond, the Duke of Norfolk’s dog, it’s an incongruous name for a working hound and I’ve only encountered one.

But Robert the springer spaniel had style. No matter how much his owner yelled, whistled and waved his arms, Robert would trundle off, trust in his nose and return in his own good time with a bird. Fenton, I suspect, would have approved.

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