If you meet a Kevin, he’s probably a human. Bella, Luna or Max, though? Don’t be so sure.
Some names are used for people. Some names are used for dogs. And then there are the Jacks and Rileys and Angels of the world, who live in the magical place where people and dogs overlap.
Our friends at the Atlantic recently noticed the trend of dogs named after humans, and we wondered: How common are dogs with human names? To find out, we explored the names of 61,000 dogs available for adoption on the website Petfinder, and compared them with baby names in Social Security Administration records stretching back to 1880.
As it turns out, about 1 in 7 Petfinder dogs had names that also are commonly given to babies. But within this subset of dogs named after humans, there’s enormous variation in the popularity of certain monikers. For example, only about 1 in 2,000 of the Petfinder pooches were named Kevin. But other names — Bonnie, Jackson, Hunter — had substantial overlap between babies and pups.
In the frenzy of trying to find out whether our dogs were secretly people (or we were secretly dogs), we noticed two trends. First, we saw a lot of feminine people names among the adoptable dogs. The data bore this out: About 20 percent of female dogs had names that also were common among American humans, compared with about 10 percent of male dogs.
And second, there weren’t many 20th-century human names among the dogs. It turns out that if adoptable dogs have people names, those names tend to be either very old-fashioned or very modern.
Many current favorites for dogs such as Daisy and Charlie were in the top 50 baby names around 1880, when the Social Security Administration started keeping track. But at the other end of the spectrum, the three most common people names for adoptable dogs are extremely au courant: Bella, Max and Luna all reached the height of their popularity for babies on or after 2010.
To verify that these trends weren’t specific to shelter dogs, we checked our findings against the names of dogs living with their owners in New York City and Seattle, where owners register their dogs’ names to get pet licenses. Bella, Max and Luna were the top three dog names across both the shelter dogs and the NYC/Seattle dogs.
We did see some differences further down the list: The adoptable dogs featured more Dukes, Brunos and Bears, while the dogs with owners had more Teddys, Luckys and Princesses.
The most popular human names, including James, Michael and Mary, were barely present in either list of dogs. And, out of 61,000 adoptable dogs, only three were named Robert.
Why are these very common baby names so uncommon among adoptable dogs? The name Jack — common among both dogs and babies — gives us a clue. Nicknames tend to be much more popular among dogs than formal given names. There were 10 times as many dogs named Bobbie as dogs named Robert, and three times as many Billys as Williams.
Even these nicknames, though, rarely make it into the top 100 dog names.
So what makes a dog a Michael, an Edward or a Mary? We reached out to the shelters to find out.
Some dogs have human names because they were, well, named after humans. A Labrador-shepherd mix in California was named Michael after a kennel worker. Others got their names because they matched specific characters from pop culture. Mary, an American Staffordshire terrier mix in Tennessee, was named after a similarly cross-eyed character in a Jethro Tull song. Michael and David in Oklahoma were rescued together as strays, which earned them names from the 1987 film “The Lost Boys.”
But shelter workers said the human names usually aren’t based on the traits or circumstances of specific dogs. Rather, these dogs are named in themed batches to help deal with the sheer volume of pets moving through animal welfare organizations. One shelter we spoke to switches themes every month, using names inspired by soups, street names and country and western singers.
So Edward, a shepherd, got his name as one of a batch of Jane Austen dogs (along with Darcy and Marianne). Another Michael was part of a litter of puppies named after the Jackson 5. One of the Marys was one of three sister dogs named after the witches in the 1993 film “Hocus Pocus.”
In some cases, a human name can help clinch an adoption. Leslie Granger, president and CEO of the animal welfare organization Bideawee, said, “We often hear from adopters that they felt an instant connection, because the dog shares a name with their mom or best friend.”
“We give human personality traits to our dogs and cats,” said Granger, who herself has cats named Maximus and Harry. “They’re more a part of our family now, so human names are more fitting.”