Saturday, November 26, 2011

Agility in KSA Week 6

On Thursday, the Dhahran agility class met for the sixth time. It was probably our best class yet.

After dragging all of the equipment from our cars to the field (with careful stacking and use of bungees, we have improved our transport efficiency to one dolly trip each and one dog trip each), MH and I started talking about what we wanted to do that week. I said, I want them to do another short sequence using the two tunnels, perhaps jump-tunnel-jump-tunnel-jump. Michelle suggested instead that we put the two tunnels adjacent to each other and start with them. Our goal would be to get the dogs and handlers motivated and running fast. I thought that sounded like a great idea.

So we set one tunnel up in a J-shape, often easier for a novice dog to negotiate than a C-shape, and the other as a straight tunnel with about 16 feet between them. We had the handlers line up and ran them through very quickly. Most of the dogs were driving for the first tunnel and heading right for the second to the surprise of their handlers who were often hard pressed to get to the end at the same time as their dogs. We encouraged people to throw toys and treat containers to help the dogs go on.

Then we added a jump at each end, before the first tunnel and after the second one. We have dogs of all sizes and we have to change jump heights a lot. The beauty of this setup was that MH could be at one end and I could be at the other assisting as needed.

I had to hold the dogs at the start line for the first couple of times through because we had some handler chatter and arm-flailing that needed some correction, but the handlers and dogs quickly got into the groove. They progressed so quickly and successfully that we added a second jump at the beginning and the end--now we had six obstacles for them to do. The whole sequence formed a smooth arc across the field.

I got goosebumps watching handler after handler approach the first jump, remove the lead, set their dog up at the start, lead out past both jumps to the tunnel (with their back to the dog), stop and look over their shoulder, hold out the hand closest to the dog, and calmly release their dog to the tunnel as they took off down the was as close to the real thing as I could ever hope for and quite an achievement in just six weeks. They looked so confident and their dogs were so enthusiastic about "doing it again"--exactly what I was hoping to achieve with this class.

I've already arranged with Community Education to teach the class again in the next session (late January-March), and I've invited two of my current basic obedience participants who have shown exceptional promise to join us. A particularly unique challenge of teaching agility in Dhahran is the difficulty in creating continuity and improving skill levels from week to week when people are out on leave so much. In ten weeks, most people might attend only five or six times and rarely in succession. Still, MH and I think that all of the time and effort are more than worth it!

Raining Early in the Eastern Province

It's not often that my desktop weather gidget (gadget + widget) looks like this:

That's right! It's raining! Water droplets falling from clouds (they are pretty dusty droplets but let's not quibble over details)!

Last Monday as I went out with the dogs for their 4am walk, I looked to the west and saw huge streaks of vertical lightening. The rumble of the thunder was just at the limit of my hearing (but Mimi sure could hear it and was not happy about it). The system was many tens of kilometers away and I thought no more about it.

The weather patterns here are interesting in part because there are no permanent lakes or rivers that can provide moisture to storm systems and generally speaking, the Arabian Plate doesn't have a lot of topography which exerts a strong influence on the formation and movement of storm systems. Storm systems thus tend to be localized over relatively small areas. Rainfall can be violent but is usually brief. Even the presence of clouds is a bit unusual because it is normally too dry for clouds to stay around for long. So I saw the clouds to the west and thought, it might rain out there today but we probably won't see anything here.

It turns out that the weather system was larger than I realized. It passed through Dhahran later that afternoon as a dust front and was followed by three days of the most gloriously clear and cold weather. Sweatshirts! Long pants! Throw open the windows and let the hovel air out! It gets that cool for only a few weeks out of the year, usually in January, which is also the time it typically rains, so this weather was a welcome surprise.

I could tell last night that it was warming up again--back to shorts and Tshirts when walking the dogs (in contrast to some Brits and most of the Saudis and Asians who bundle up like they have to face Arctic conditions whenever the temps are below 70F). So I was pleasantly surprised to see more clouds this morning right overhead.

The rain started as I was driving to work--and five hours later it is still raining! You could almost convince yourself that winter is just around the corner.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Agility in KSA Week 5

This week I thought it might be fun to give you some idea of what is required to make this agility class a reality.

First, I want to give a gigantic thanks and thumbs-up and bow of respect to my co-instructor MH. She has thrown herself completely into this agility teaching gig . Frankly, I couldn't have made it work without her.

We have now reached the stage where we have enough gear that it takes three trips from car park to soccer field, each of us manhandling a dolly precariously stacked with awkwardly shaped loads. It is all made harder by the fact that the security gate we use to enter school grounds is about 20 feet higher in elevation than the soccer field.

It is still dark here at 5:30 in the morning. Class equipment dumped in the soccer field. Jumps are made entirely of PVC with J&J Dog metal jump cup strips attached. I put as much stuff as I can into duffels for easier transport.

But it isn't simply a matter of driving up somewhere and we are done. All of the class equipment has to be loaded into our cars the night before and unloaded each class meeting. The soccer field is about 100 yards from the car park. We are now meeting at 5:15 am to do the gear-dragging so that we have about 20 minutes for transport, 20 minutes to set up the field, leaving about 25 minutes to work our own dogs before the first participants show up at 6:30 am when class begins. And to make all of that happen, I have to get up at 3:00 am on my weekend morning. Pretty brutal.

To complicate matters, the soccer field is enclosed with a fence but it has 12 permanent openings. I made mesh panels that can be clipped over each opening to give us a practice space that is sort of secure. It takes between 3 and 4 clips per opening to attach the panels. The field is 390 feet long and 150 feet wide and the openings are distributed around the perimeter so clipping up the panels before class and taking them down afterwards is a significant time commitment.

Moving to the grassy field was the impetus for us to introduce weaves this week. We are using Susan Garrett's 2x2 method (and MH's three sets of 2x2s). Even in the first lesson, and considering that we are not training handlers or dogs who will ever see competition agility, we saw some great success.

View of the field this week. You can see MH and her PWDs and the silver mesh shade we put over our three dog crates in the background. Looks kind of like real agility, doesn't it? In fact, this photo seems pretty tame until you remember that it was taken in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia!

When I Travel

Lots of people both in the US and in KSA ask me what I do with the dogs when travel. The short answer is that I have my houseboy stay at my place with them.

I've never tested the pH of dog spit but I strongly doubt that it is a median 7.0 pH. Caustic or acidic, dog spit dissolves dog toys. Before every trip out, I sweep the house and make a grand event of washing all stiff, stinky, or otherwise treasured toys. Then they get tossed into the dryer. This is a photo of the finished product: clean, dry, fluffy, almost-like-new dog toys. I've found that they last much longer with a regular wash.
I was extremely reluctant to adopt that apparently pejorative term when I first arrived in KSA, but pejorative is in the eye of the beholder. Like feminists who want to reclaim ownership of the very old word cunt or gay men who want to invest fag with a meaning that they define and control, the word "houseboy" can make some KSA newbies uncomfortable. "Domestic help" sounds so much more sanitary, right? But such semantic gymnastics don't change the reality--lots of people who live in KSA, Saudis and expats like, use other non-Saudi expats in a variety of functions: gardener, house cleaner, maid, cook, baby sitter, etc.

My houseboy is named Upul. He is from Sri Lanka. Upul is a Christian (probably Catholic but I never probed that far). He is one of the few houseboys who is willing  and able to handle dogs.

I am fortunate beyond measure to have found Upul because as far as my dogs and cat are concerned, Upul walks on water. Upul hung the moon. Fun and joy begin when Upul shows up. I get to witness this firsthand every Friday when Upul comes by to get the key and cleaning supplies for my car, which he washes and polishes to a dealership gleam each week. The dogs engage in the usual greeting frenzy but then quickly start bringing him toys.

My dogs are not at all inclined to engage in behaviors for which they don't receive any sort of reinforcement, so the fact that they bring him toys as soon as he appears is fairly telling. Upul immediately engages in tug with Harry, accompanied with plenty of growling, and fetch with Mimi.

Upul told me a very interesting story when I got back from my last trip.                                       He told me that after he packed up his things on Friday morning in expectation of my return Friday evening, every time he and the dogs came back in the house, Mimi ran around the place looking

This is a remarkable stor y on many levels. First, it is pretty clear evidence that the dogs don't miss me too much when I'm gone. But second, Mimi is smart enough to know that when Upul leaves (as indicated by him packing his things), I am returning soon. And third, Upul is observant enough to notice her behavior!

Mimi, Harry, and Upul.
 I am extraordinarily lucky to have someone like Upul who cares for my crazy terriers and my silly Saudi cat as much as I do.

Flyball! (appendix)

Here are some photos that I wasn't able to muster at the time of the original post.

Kim and Stella with Lauren's back and Duwain's headless body. These photos are out of focus and very dull because we can't use a flash during racing.

Lauren and Ryp and Duwain, generous owner of flyball whore Eris.

Karl Ruetz's back (he is so dedicated to flyball that he went through all of the training to become a judge!), Danielle and Makena, Valeria and Steve (box loader extraordinaire), and Alyssa and Mika.

My coach's notes for the A and B teams, respectively. The circled numbers are the race numbers. The columned numbers are the passes in feet (W is wide, AJ is around jump) and the numbers below the total line are the total race time in seconds with W (win) or L (loss) indicated. The notes are crumpled up from being alternately crammed in my pockets and yanked out to record results.

DR! races for the two-day tournament. This little scrap of paper looks a bit beat on because I carried it in my pocket all weekend, pulling it out frequently to check on what team was coming up.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


The heady mixture of dog hair, dog pee, fritos, doughnut sprinkles, half-drunk sodas, dregs of wine from the night before and dregs of coffee from this morning...the cacophany of dogs on the edge of meltdown and people taking a game we play with dogs far too seriously (and themselves too often on the edge of meltdown), the shriek of the judge's whistle, the snap of the box ejecting a tennis must be flyball!

It was a real stroke of luck that my November leave, timed to take place during the Muslim eid holiday when Aramco is closed, coincided with the flyball tournament hosted by my old club Dogz Rule!, about whom I have written many posts. The lovely Bell County Expo Center in Belton, Texas, located about 60 miles north of Austin, is a perfect venue for running flyball.

This is a good point to clearly state for the record that I flew halfway around the world just to go to a flyball tournament (literally halfway around the world, because I traveled about 12,900 km and the diameter of the earth is 12,750 km!).

When I told DR! that I could come help with the tournament, I expected the club to ask me to help with scoring. That's not a high profile job but a properly run score table is critical to running a flyball tournament; a typical tournament has multiple divisions containing four or five teams each, up to six dogs on each team, and multiple judges, all of which is organized and managed from the score table. I would have been happy to sit at the score table and in between recording scores and printing race results, watch the racing all weekend.

But to my complete amazement, when I showed up I was listed as coach or pass caller for all three DR! teams! I immediately demurred on pass calling. That's a skill that takes regular practice to do well and I've not practiced it for two years. So I ended up as coach. For three teams!

I have to confess that I harbored a secret hope that DR! would ask me to coach their C team. I coached that team for most of the time I was with DR! The C team is a team for green dogs who are testing their tournament readiness, older dogs who may be slowing down a bit, dogs who may not be able to run an entire weekend. Unlike the A or B teams which have relatively fixed line ups, the C team always went in with a second goal (besides winning, of course): to give all six dogs as much mat time as possible (only four run in any given race so there is lots of lineup juggling). The dogs assigned to the C team changed from tournament to tournament making it quite a challenge to coach! But I'm proud to brag that we usually finished first or second in our division. Sure, sure, the dogs and handlers were doing all the work, but I like to think I had a little tiny bit to do with it! The C team may not have set world time records but getting good passes and clean runs were often far more exciting for all involved.

So I was utterly thrilled that I not only had an opportunity to coach them again, but I was also going to be working with the A and B teams as well. I couldn't believe that DR! had that much faith in me.

But wait, there's more! DR! whipped out some club Tshirts--can't do flyball unless one is properly attired in club colors and logo. One of them was even an old shirt that I donated to the club when I left!

Finally, in an act of incredible generosity, Duwain offered to let me run his beautiful red BC Eris (as in goddess of discord). Eris was on the amazing team (the "well oiled machine") that took Harry all the way to his ONYX title at his last flyball tournament in August of 2009. She is lean, barky, and utterly obsessed by flyball, so consumed by the game that she will run for anybody, a charming behavior flaw. I didn't get to run Eris in just one or two races, I ran her all weekend long. I didn't do much coaching for the C team after all!

Rrrreeeeaaaaaadddyyyyy! Loud, barky dogs like Eris (and Harry in his day) are often useful in getting other dogs revved up. We are just inches away from the start dog.

I know for sure that I would probably have ended up in a corner at least once that weekend with tears in my eyes because I was missing my fabulous boy Harry, who lived for flyball. But because I was able to regularly put my hands on a dog, a bucking, leaping, excited, barking dog and work the passes and run up and down the lane with my team, the weekend felt exactly like it was supposed to.

I've written before about the strange sport of flyball, how it draws groups of disparate people together with a common love of dogs and a bit of a competitive streak (and in the case of DR!, a propensity for foul language and starting on the wine a couple of hours after lunch, excepting the Ruetz family, who have stuck with DR! through thick and thin even though they don't engage in ANY of these questionable behaviors), and how the social aspect of the sport has as much appeal for the humans as the tennis ball part of it does for the dogs. That really struck me again as DR! members, both new and old, welcomed me back, well, like I was part of the family. And several other people from other clubs came up to me that weekend and said, hey, I noticed you've been gone. When I explained that I had been gone, that I was just in for a visit, to my surprise they all said, well, it's really good to see you here. Many dog sport communities are like this, and NAFA Region 5 flyball clubs are no exception.

After it was all over, Kim casually mentioned that it was as if I hadn't ever left. It meant a lot to me that she felt that way. It meant a lot that Duwain trusted me with his beautiful but crazy dog. It meant a lot that the club had enough patience to let me stalk up and down the lane yelling at everybody all weekend.

Get it! (No, I have no fingers on my right hand, apparently.)

Dog friends have been my truest friends over the years, and DR! folks are some of the best friends anyone could hope to find.

Intertubes Wildlife

There is some really crazy stuff out there on the intertubes. To wit.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


I'm taking a short trip out of the Kingdom. In the name of opsec, I'll wait until I return to post details.

What is opsec? Well, I listen to the radio a lot, and one of the four English-language radio stations we get here in the Eastern Province is AFNR, Armed Forces Network Radio. They run military-themed PSAs all the time, including some about opsec, or operations security. No reason that we non-military expats shouldn't apply some of the same common sense as we move about in this unsettled part of the world. No, no, nothing is near a tipping point yet, at least in KSA. But sadly, the people who live in this particular region of the world are prone to regularly making their own tipping points. Ignorance, fanaticism, money, water, awkward algebra for power.

But back to the hiatus...those of you whom I plan to see shortly, you know who you are!