If the naming of cats is, as "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" proposes, a "difficult matter," I'd submit that dogs aren't exactly a can of beans in this respect either. In fact I think they are more difficult. Probably T.S. Eliot just found cats mysterious and intriguing – perfect for inventive naming. But with most cats you don't have to consider the question of your sounding ridiculous yelling their names across open spaces. With dogs, the embarrassment factor does have to be considered. I mean, I would never have the temerity to publicly summon a dog called Rumpelteazer, not to mention Mungojerrie or Skimbleshanks.
To be fair to the great American poet, such names for cats were meant to be esoteric secrets known only to the cats themselves. On the other hand (and this is where dog-naming enters into it too, as we ourselves have recently discovered, welcoming two new canine characters into our lives) the names Eliot proposes as "sensible everyday" nomenclature are hardly less absurd. They are "Peter, Augustus, Alonzo, James, Victor, Jonathan, George and Bill Bailey." I ask you! Can you hear yourself saying "Heel, Augustus!" or "Sit, Alonzo!"
Actually, the dog-loving world seems to divide into camps on the subject of names. In one camp are those who have no qualms over giving their creatures human names. In the opposite camp are those who feel that a dog should have a dog's name. My wife (and therefore both of us) are in the second camp. She is quite decided about this. When we collected our second guy from the Edinburgh Cat and Dog Home she announced in a tone that brooked no contradiction that she doesn't approve of human names for animals. A young lady behind the counter agreed – someone had brought in a cat called Sarah. This happened also to be her own name, and she felt a bit peculiar sharing it with a cat. But everyone else around went oddly quiet. I expect their pets were called Angus or Rob, Jock or Bill Bailey but they didn't dare admit it.
It was quite clear that Max, the name by which our No. 2 Dog was hitherto known, would not be having a tag with Max engraved on it. Not that his feelings in the matter were to be consulted. Before we drove off with him and his newfound friend the small black character already on board, Max had become Skippy.
Less than 24 hours later, however, there was a change of plan. Somehow Skippy didn't suit this long-legged lurcher mutt, so we started to try a few other good names. None of them seemed to work. We met a man with a gigantic dog (name of – well – Seymour) on the path near the motorway. "Oh," he said, "he'll soon tell you what his name is."
In next day's Glasgow Herald there happened to be a piece about favorite dog and cat names. A survey had suggested that human names for our pets are in the ascendancy. I would never argue that dogs and cats are not just as important family members as any of us, but their behavior, to be frank, is – well, it's different from humans sometimes. For instance, though I love biscuits I don't generally leap vertically in the air to get hold of one. Vigorously shoving my nose into soggy piles of autumn leaves is also something I do very infrequently. Nor, to be honest, do I prance. And yet it seems that today these endearing activities are performed all the time by distinctly canine creatures named Molly or Charlie. Molly and Charlie head the list of top names for dogs – with Rosie, Alfie, Jack, and Millie all in the first 10.
I've taken to asking dog owners I meet what they call their Best Friends. Jack is everywhere. Rosie is not unknown. One lady said she used to have two border setters. The first was called Lucy. The second – irresistibly – was called Cagney. She had once met someone in the park whose dog was called Odin – and apparently it did look rather like a mythical and magnificent Norse god. I have friends who called two of their dogs Emma – the explanation being something to do with being a Jane Austen fan.
So – confession time. Our two new dogs now have names. The short black one is called Sweep. The tall lanky one, Sniffer. What could be more descriptively accurate or dog-sounding? They don't object. It's only other humans who seem oddly stunned into disbelief by these perfectly fine names. They go either very silent, or laugh. If we'd called them Millie and Alfie I suppose they'd have no problem.
I admit that our dog names are not contemplative or profound. But then contemplation and profundity are not exactly dog characteristics. They are more cat things, really. And one thing is certain: A dog should never be given a cat's name.