When I adopted my dog Chloe sight unseen from a shelter in Michigan via Petfinder.com, she came with the name of Buffy. And she certainly looked like a Buffy in her profile photos—sweet and soft and eager to play. A dog who would buffer your emotions, and remind you to stay soft and gentle and happy yourself.
But somehow I could not see myself—a then-edgy New Yorker—calling out the name “Buffy” in Riverside Park. I mean, it’s a cute name, but for some reason I wanted to avoid being interpreted as “cute.” I’m too darn serious, thank you very much. And I’ve never seen that Vampire Slayer show—I don’t even own a television set. So the name Buffy would be misleading on many levels.
So that was Silly Reason #1. What was most important to me, however, was that Buffy’s new name be a reflection of her—her looks, her personality, her distinctions. I wanted a name that would summarize all that was unique about her dogness. Thus, I decided I would not give her a new name until I met her face-to-face.
I wrote about meeting Buffy/Chloe in my previous installment of “The Chloe Chronicles” (“Home, Again,” Sept/Oct 2011). In short, she was a 55-pound Spaniel mix, mostly white with brown markings, with a big bushy tail and a classic Spaniel face. The white stripe down the center of her head and snout was perfectly straight and proportional, as if hand-drawn by da Vinci himself. And personality-wise, she was totally a Buffy. Sweet and soft and friendly—just as her pictures had suggested. She was also quite anxious at the beginning, so I knew I wouldn’t see the real her right away.
I remember when I first brought the dog to our local, marvelous two-acre dog run in Fort Tryon Park), the first thing everyone asked me was, of course, her name. They all though it rather comic that I hadn’t chosen one yet. So I explained that her name had been Buffy but that I was going to change it once I got a sense of what her name should be. “Plus,” I said. “I’m not even sure Buffy was the name given by her first owner. ‘Buffy’ could have been the name the French Spaniel rescue group gave her when they pulled her from the shelter.”
In many spiritual traditions and creation myths, each human being has what is called a True Name. It’s the name of our soul, really, our Original Self, the part of us that lives on and on through many lifetimes. For those who don’t believe in the idea of reincarnation, our True Name is the name St. Peter has in his register at the Pearly Gates. In any case, it is said to be a very powerful experience to be called by your True Name, because the name brings forth everything that is, well, true in yourself: goodness, compassion, generosity, loving kindness … that sort of thing.
All of this is to say: I wanted to give my new dog a name that would call forth her Original Self. The dog she had been before she was abused and neglected and abandoned. But try explaining that in a New York City dog run.
“Well, what are you going to call her in the meantime?” one of my new dog-park friends, Chantay, asked. She was a tall, gorgeous, African-American woman with an historic brownstone townhouse in Morningside Heights and an excellent sense of humor. Her dog—a Weimaraner mix—was named Boo. “It’s easy,” she said. “One syllable, no mistakes.” She said that some day, she wanted to have three dogs so that she could name them One, Two and Three.
“I’m not sure what to call her,” I said. We stood and watched the erstwhile Buffy enjoy the dog run: happily romping, nipping and rolling in the dirt with her new dog friends. There was a Ridgeback mix named Lexie (who was Queen of the run); a French Bulldog named Myrtle; and a tiny, timid Terrier mix named Bird. “How did you come up with that one?” I asked Birdie’s human companion, Jenn, who was associate director of a prominent animal shelter in Queens. “I don’t know,” she said. “She just looks like a Birdie. Small and cute and sweet. Buffy does look like a Buffy, you know.”
“You’re right,” I said. “I guess I shouldn’t rule it out entirely.”
For a few days, my new friends and I watched my dog run and play, hoping that her True Name might reveal itself. She was sweet and submissive—always the first dog to give up the toy in a game of tug; always rolling onto her back into a “love-me-I’m-submissive” pose when a new dog approached. “So she’s a lover, not a fighter,” Chantay said. As she said this, Lexie zipped past us, ready to take down an old Bassett Hound (Beatrice) who was lumbering through the entrance gate with her lumbering human. I loved to watch Lexie run; I loved to watch how much she enjoyed being the run’s top dog. She was never mean about it. Instead, she seemed rather exuberant, like a bride ready to take down her wedding party if they dared do anything to ruin her Big Day. And every day in a dog’s world is a Big Day. We joked that Lexie’s name should be Bridezilla.
But back to Buffy. As we watched her play at the dog runs, we shouted out various names to see if she would respond. We experimented with human names (Mavis, Blanche), food names (Carrot, Ginger, Pepper), Buddhist names (Tara, Maitri, Pema), literary names (Rumi, Edith, Colette) and rock-and-roll names (Townshend, Daltrey, Percy, Bron-Yr-Aur). But Buffy did not respond to any of the above. She romped and played and rolled in the dust, oblivious to the odd string of words we humans were shouting to her.
By Friday the names had gotten sillier because, as it turns out, Friday night was happy hour (Yappy Hour) at George’s Dog Run, and people brought beer and wine. Buffy was called, in no particular order: “Dogtella Versace,” “Compassionate Conservatism,” “She Who Shall Not Be Named,” “You Gotta Problem With That?” and “The Artist Formerly Known as Buffy.” Chantay concluded we should call her “You” as in “Hey, You!” But that seemed too impersonal and even a bit rude.
I finally decided I should limit my dog-name choices to French names, in honor of Chloe being part French Spaniel. And in honor of my own part-French heritage. For some reason, I liked old-lady names, and came up with several: Babette, Claudine, Delphine and Chlothilde.
Actually, my new dog reminded me in some ways of an elderly French lady—une grande dame. The soft, slightly crimped hair on her ears took on a reddish color in the sun (all the grande dames in Paris dye their hair red). She had lively amber eyes. She was a pretty dog—very sweet-looking and feminine. She liked to stand on her head and wag her rump and her tail in the air in a manner that had something of the burlesque about it. So that was it: my dog would be named after a retired Folies Bergère showgirl. Thus, she became Chlothilde.
And how, you may ask, does that name call forth her Original Self? It turned out that my dog liked, above all, to entertain people. She liked to make people laugh. When someone came to our apartment, she’d run to the door with a shoe in her mouth, or a toy, or half of a chewed-up stuffed animal; present the gift to the visitor; then stand on her head. That’s a showgirl. I announced to my friends at the run that, after careful consideration, I had ruled out "Dogatella Versace” in favor of Chlothilde.
The only problem was, no one could pronounce or spell Chlothilde, and the explanation I had to give people who inquired after this odd name took a lot of time. And we New Yorkers are all about saving time. Could I live with a Chlothilde, whose name took 10 minutes to explain?
When I took Chlothilde to her first vet appointment in NYC, the assistant came out into the waiting area with a clipboard in her hand and a confused look on her face. I knew she had to be looking for me. “Ch…?” she said, reading the file on the clipboard. “Chlo… Cloth?… Cloth-ilde?” She pronounced the latter like Rothschild. I wondered how long it took the French nobility to get the pronunciation and spelling of that name down. Centuries?
Then again, I have a few name issues myself. My real name is Eileen. Don’t ever call me that—I won’t answer you. I cannot tell you how many hundreds of times I have had to tell people how to spell my name and/or having to correct customer service representatives on the telephone. “No, not Irene, Eileen.”
“Aileen, did you say?”
“Never mind. Just put down ‘Lee.’”
I have probably wasted the equivalent of seven weeks of my life trying to convey my own name. I didn’t want to spend the next 10 years going through the same thing with my little Chlothilde.
Thus, she became Chloe. And she really did become a Chloe. Who loves the snow-ee. On walks we go-ee. Her dog-boyfriend’s name is Rainbow-ee. Frenchifying her name, I officially dubbed her Chloe du Bois. Chloe of the Forest. And a fine white wine.
Some say it’s best not to change a shelter dog’s name. I get that. Many shelter dogs are already confused and frightened and traumatized. So a new name—a new foreign word—could actually add to the confusion. Dogs need consistency and a sense of safety, and keeping their name is one way to do that, a constant in the midst of many changes.
Others say that if you do change an adopted dog’s name, the new name should rhyme. That had left me with Muffy, Scruffy, Toughy, and (Chantay’s suggestion): “I’ve Had Enough-y.” Nah.
In Native American and many other spiritual traditions, a person is given a new name at certain milestone passages in life—the transition from childhood to adulthood, for example. Or when a major feat has been accomplished. I myself have been given quite a few spiritual names in the past two decades, ranging from Sangye Lhamo (Buddha Goddess) to Mirabai (Goddess of Poetry and Song). A Peruvian shaman even once told me my True Name, which I cannot reveal. These names are bestowed by teachers—by masters—and they usually involve elaborate initiation ceremonies. They are meant to not only name what we are, but what we aspire to be. (Eventually, I came to realize that they are actually one and the same, but that’s another story.)
Anyway, I told myself that by giving Chloe a new name, I was somehow initiating her into a new life with me. I hoped it would be a better life for my shelter dog—a new life full of romps through the forests (for her), and fine white wine (for me). I’ve taken her to France twice, by the way, and everyone there knows how to spell and pronounce Chlothilde.
I don’t have room in this column—or in this lifetime—to share with you all the nicknames I have now given Chloe. We all have zillions of nicknames for our dogs, after all. But when Chloe is acting cute, I call her Cute-tilde. When she is looking plump, I call her Fatty-tilde. When she is tired, she is Sleepy-tilde. You get the drill.
Sometimes I even accidentally call her Wallace—the name of my former dog. Wallace was the subject of the “Rex and the City” columns which used to appear here on the pages of Bark. For the past few months, I have been working on Volume II of Rex and the City. When I write, I go very deep into my “writing zone”—into the world of my book. Thus, when I take breaks, I often remain in that writing zone, and am not quite in the present moment. I’ll be staring out the window while waiting for a fresh pot of coffee to finish brewing, and this Spaniel mix will walk into the room and I’ll say: “Hi, Wallace,” before realizing it’s Chloe. She doesn’t seem to mind. A greeting by any other name is still a greeting. Plus, we know it’s nothing personal. My father often calls me by my sister’s name. But I know that anything said in kindness and joy is perceived as such.
Joy. Last summer, Chloe and I were out by the pool, tending to a rather unruly Provençal-type garden in upstate New York that was teeming with coneflowers and black-eyed Susans and giant hibiscus. They swayed in the heat, as if dancing in woozy love-bliss to a slow song. Chloe snuffled through the flower beds looking for rabbits (“Chloe, no!”), then took a dip in the nearby pool (“Who’s a Swimmy-tilde?”) and then barked at some deer who were hanging out near the pear trees, waiting for fruit to drop (“Who’s a fierce guard dog? Who’s a Fiercy-tilde?”). She looked so happy, and I felt so blessed to be living in such a place. (“Who’s a Happy-Tilde?) Then we walked back toward the house, through a small orchard with views of the Hudson River. Chloe trotted ahead of me with her tail held proud and high, as if I never would have found my own house without her guidance. (Who’s a Smarty-tilde?”). I had called her by five different names in a matter of minutes.
I decided, in the spirit of the moment, to call Chloe “Buffy” to see how she reacted. She was running ahead of me at the time, and when I called out this name, she turned and looked at me with a big dog smile on her face. She remembers! I thought. And she’s smiling! Maybe her life as a Buffy hadn’t been so horrible after all.
The bottom line is: dogs just like being called. Period.
And perhaps no dog—or anyone—can truly have only one name. Chloe is a Chloe and a Buffy and a Goofy and a Sweetie-tilde. She has all of these qualities, each of them expressed at different times. It’s the same with humans. We express different emotions, thoughts and feelings every moment of every day. No one person remains the same; nothing remains fixed. So, perhaps instead of one True Name, we have many.
Recently, I added yet another nickname to Chloe’s list: Buffy. Buffy the Stuffed Animal Slayer. Be afraid, toys. Be very afraid.