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Dog Names Reflect the Times
Sit! Dillon, Oliver, Murphy and Molli

Julie Chao
Sunday, October 12, 1997

It seems Max and Molly have gone to the dogs.

In the past, people have tended to name their pets after a physical or personality trait - hence Spot or Rover. But an Examiner computer analysis has uncovered a new trend: Human names are all the rage for canines.

Of 12,706 dogs registered in San Francisco, 137 are named Max; there is only one Fido. Max is also top dog in Marin.

And of the 10 most popular dog names in San Francisco, seven are suitable for humans; in Marin, all but one are. Molly, Jake, Lucy and Sam are big in both counties.

Mary Fishman, of Oakland, doesn't need a database to tell her that dogs are people, too. Her 11-year-old daughter, Liana Berliner, named their Old English sheep dogs Maggie and Alice.

"She thinks of her dogs more like people," Fishman said. "They're her friends."

The study of names has a name as well - onomastics.

"It may seem silly to get into discussing pet names, but it tells you a lot," said onomastician Leonard Ashley, an English professor at Brooklyn College. "It's not trivia. It's human behavior. Mankind names things - and names show the psychology behind it all."

A survey of several hundred dog owners in New York and Los Angeles conducted last year by Kal Kan, a dog food manufacturer, echoed The Examiner's findings: people names are in vogue and Max is No. 1.

"More and more, pets are true family members," said company spokeswoman Alice Nathanson.

Max Herschend, exercising her black mutt, Lou, in San Francisco's Dolores Park, said she used to think she had a lot of fans when she went to the park.

"I heard it all the time - Max! Max!" she said. "At first I thought, gee, someone likes me."

In three years as a groomer for Pets Unlimited, a nonprofit pet hospital in San Francisco, Allison Hatcher has noticed a micro-trend.

"We're seeing a group of yuppies coming up with more serious names, like Wallace and Miles," she said. "We're also seeing a lot of Zacks and Zoes."

One caveat to the dog data is that most people don't register their dogs. Carl Friedman, director of San Francisco Animal Care and Control, estimates the total number of dogs in the county at about 75,000 to 85,000. His estimate is based on the national average of 25 to 30 percent of households have dogs.

Although the pet database is littered with a cat entry here and there, cat registration is not required in San Francisco. But anecdotally, evidence from observers and from parts of the country that do register cats suggests they tend to get more traditional animal names, such as Tiger, Misty, and yes, Kitty.

Pet observers agree on some generalizations. For example, men give manly names, and women don't.

"With men, you tend to see more macho names, like Spike," said Brenda Hennen, a receptionist at All Pets Hospital in San Francisco. "We see a lot of thugs and hoodlums - their pets' names are always like Felony or Gangsta. Some guy's cat was named Torque.

"With women, we get a lot of girly names - Samantha, Natasha, things like that."

But there are exceptions.

"I'm always surprised how unashamed men are to have a ridiculous name for their pet, like Miss Kitty Poo Poo," said Hatcher, adding that she's talking about gay and straight men.

Hatcher had another observation: "A lot of young Asian women give names like Pooky or Booboo, names most people would be embarrassed to say out loud."

Lynn Crawford was surprised to learn that Lady is the top name in San Francisco for female dogs. Exercising her dog, Sophie, at the Eureka Valley Rec Center in the Castro District, Crawford said: "Here you're more likely to find Queenie. We've gone beyond Lady."

One undisputed fact: Dogs who bite are most often named Rocky. According to Health Department records, of about 375 dog bites recorded from 1994 to 1997, seven were perpetrated by a Rocky. Next were Mugsy, Max and Zeke, each tied with six bites.

Onomastician Ashley noted that the rise of leash laws put a choke on Rover and the decline of Latin students has squashed Fido, from the Latin for faithful. San Francisco has just five Rovers and one Fido.

Jim Breeden, in Dolores Park walking his boyfriend's beagle / Australian cattle dog mix, explained that Armistead was named after San Francisco writer Armistead Maupin.

Breeden said his boyfriend both admired the writer and saw similarities to the dog.

"He's old and gray and chubby," he said. "He's also very sweet and well-behaved."

Still, he's not sure Maupin would be flattered. "(My boyfriend) lives in fear of running into Armistead (the human)," Breeden said.

When children are allowed to choose the name, Disney can have a big influence. In San Francisco alone, "The Lion King" has spawned 17 Simbas.

Some owners name the dog based on the breed's country of origin.

"This is new in the last generation or two - if it's a German breed of dog, people want to give it a German name, as if it could speak German," scoffed Ashley.

In the next breath, he insisted that a Weimaraner he once had really could pronounce its name, or at least part of it - Wolfgang.

Some choose names based on personal reasons. Wolf Frenkel, a San Francisco attorney, named his dog based on a childhood vendetta. In eighth grade, he got into a heated name-calling argument with a friend, Alistair.

"I got so angry at him, I told him, "I'm going to name my dog after you!' " Frenkel recalled.

Twenty years later, he got a golden retriever and named her Allie.

And now for the adult portion of the story, we present Eric Skiver's Jack Russell terrier, Boner.

"Yeah, that's my Boner," he said nonchalantly while watching the little dog race around a park in the Castro. "He was a Christmas present."

He said he decided on the name when the dog started acting amorously with his arm. After three years, Skiver said even friends who swore they'd never call him Boner have gotten used to the name.

"Sometimes when kids ask me his name, I'll get looks from the parents, but the kids don't care," Skiver said.

And what about at the vet's office? "They usually don't say his name. They just call my name."


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