Quite unexpectedly, I am fostering a Labrador retriever. Alex was raised by a Japanese owner, but he’s living in my English-speaking home for the next few weeks until I can find him a new home. Call it Home-Stay Abroad, For Dogs. Alex is picking up English quickly, but when I want to be sure he understands, and more importantly obeys, I use his mother tongue. I know we’ve got communication going because when I say o-sanpo ni iku? (お散歩に行く？Wanna go for a walk?) he wags his tail like crazy and looks for all his toys so he can bring them along.
Outside, I get strange looks from my Japanese neighbors, who seem surprised to see a foreign woman using Japanese commands with her dog. It’s particularly surprising because so many Japanese use English commands with their own dogs. I’ve always wondered why that was, so I looked into it. It turns out that English commands gets around the problem of politeness levels and gender differences in the Japanese language.
Let me explain: spoken Japanese varies significantly depending on the gender of the speaker and the level of politeness the speaker chooses to use. There are standard dog commands in Japanese but owners tend to forget they’re speaking to a dog and slip into regular speech, and the variations can be confusing to the dog. The standard dog command for “Sit!” is suware (座れ), which is of a low level of politeness, the sort of command a policeman would use with a prisoner. A Japanese woman would never use that level of speech, so a female dog owner might unconsciously avoid the command and use more polite language, such as suwarinasai (座りなさい) or osurwari (おすわり). Meanwhile, men in the same household might opt for lower levels of politeness.. That lack of consistency doesn’t make for good dog training.
Here are a few other Japanese dog commands and their English equivalents:
座れ suware Sit!
お手 ote Paw! (Hand!)
伏せ fuse Down!
待て mate Stay!
よし yoshi Good! Ok!
来い koi Come!
止まれ tomare Stop!