Saturday, December 29, 2012

Keep It Simple: Roasted Vegetables

While I enjoy cooking and find it an enjoyable challenge to apply complicated recipes, it is true that simple foods are often the most pleasing in both preparation and eating.
I was invited to a friend’s house for a Christmas day dinner. She had invited a number of other couples and singles and wisely asked everyone to bring a dish. I chose to bring roasted vegetables.

I based the idea on something I got from the “Food in a Flash” radio spot where Mike Colameco explained that while he loved Brussels sprouts, he didn’t care for their generally bitter taste in more traditional recipes. He went on to say that roasting them got rid of the bitterness and this was an easy method to prepare them. I tried this on a small scale and realized that it did indeed work (the sprouts were delicious), that it was an extremely easy way to prepare veggies, and that the method could be scaled up or down as you needed.

So here’s not so much of a recipe as a method for preparing roasted vegetables. The volume of vegetables I list below will feed 8 to 10 people. You’ll need two cookie sheets that fit side by side in your oven. I suggest that you test them for fit before you begin.

Wash and rinse all veggies. Choose large sprouts (the small ones can get mushy). 

Cut off the stems and remove the outer leaves of a 8-10 Brussels sprouts. Cut them in half.

Remove the top and seeds of two red peppers. Thinly slice into long strips.

Peel 8 or 9 garlic cloves, smash (I use the flat side of the knife), and remove the center if green.

Trim then cut two large carrots into square strips. The strips should be around 1/4 inch thick or they won’t cook through.

Cut a large yellow squash into slices that are about 1/4 inch thick.

Cut up a head of broccoli, removing the tough stems. You want to end up with floret chunks about the same size as the sprouts (more for visual symmetry than for any culinary reason).
Trim, peel, then coarsely slice two small red onions. Separate the pieces.

Place half of all the veggie pieces in a plastic bag. Add some coarse salt and about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of olive oil. Be generous with the olive oil. Securely close then shake and roll the bag around to ensure that all the pieces are well coated. Pour the veggies onto a cookie sheet. Make sure they are evenly spread out and that the sprouts are arranged cut side up.

Repeat with the second half of the veggies, a second bag, more olive oil, and a second cookie sheet.

You can add fresh rosemary to the bags but I prefer to let the flavor (and color and texture) of the vegetables stand on their own.

Depending on how fast you cut up vegetables, the prep can take about 30 to 45 minutes.
Add an additional drizzle of olive oil to the cut face of each sprout. This is necessary if the sprouts are large but can be skipped if they are on the small side.

Move one of your oven shelves on the top rung, put the cookie sheets in side by side, and turn on the broiler. I start out with a low setting for about 10 minutes, then turn it to high for 10 minutes or until I see things starting to smoke a bit, then turn it back to low for another 5-10 minutes. You can give the cookie sheets a bit of a shake but there is no need to turn anything over. Check the veggies often. The sprouts and the broccoli will blacken on the edges which is fine. Poke the carrots with a fork—when they are starting to get done, everything else is already done. Total time should be around 25-30 minutes but this depends on your broiler, of course. You don’t want to overcook or you’ll end up with a soggy mess.

I dumped the veggies into a large Pyrex bowl, covered it with foil, and carried it to my friend’s house. It sat on the counter for well over an hour then was popped into the oven to warm just before serving. The veggies were crisp and flavorful. We gobbled them up along with dressing, ham, turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy. I brought home just enough leftover veggies to have for lunch at work the next day.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Ignoring Azza (Training Azza 13)

Azza had an interesting learning moment yesterday. I was walking the dogs as usual and while we were nearing the hovel on our return, we encountered a guy that I’ve met at social events a couple of times. He had a question for me about some dishes his sister had insisted that he bring to KSA with him when he moved.

Normally when I’m walking the dogs I don’t let anyone approach me nor do I approach anyone unless the dogs already know them. Azza is far too unpredictable in her response and often displays fear behaviors that understandably get some people a bit worked up, which in turn gets her even more worked up. It’s a vicious cycle that I have found best to avoid altogether.

However, I’ve discovered an interesting thing: when I tell people to ignore Azza completely and to not make eye contact with her or even look in her direction, she doesn’t get nearly as fearful. So I agreed to walk over and take a look at the dishes but I first gave the guy these instructions. 

Fortunately, he’s a smart guy and did exactly as I asked. He and I had a conversation about the dishes (whether they were worth anything, what he should do with them since he didn’t have room to keep them, etc.). The terriers ignored him as he clearly had nothing of interest for them (i.e., no food). Azza slipped behind me when I got close to the guy and hackled up but she didn’t growl or drop to the ground. I ignored her, he ignored her, the terriers ignored everybody, and suddenly I realized that Azza was moving forward towards the guy to sniff him. 

This is fabulous because this is the default behavior I’ve been working on when she sees something scary, the “what is it?” command which requires her to give the scary thing a nose touch/sniff to earn a treat. Without missing a beat, I reminded the guy to ignore her and we continued talking about the dishes. Azza gave him a quick sniff then casually returned to my side.

This was quite a breakthrough for her. It’s the second time that she has successfully been around a stranger during our walks and not completely lost her shit, and the first time that she approached a stranger on her own with no negative reaction. It helps that both times I’ve encountered people that followed my instructions to ignore her no matter what she does. Azza certainly isn’t ready for random interactions yet.

You probably have a dog who thinks everyone he sees is his friend. The terriers are generally that way, although living here has dampened their response a lot since so many people we pass on our walks are scared of them and freak out if the terriers drift towards them to see if they can be greeted. Azza is simply a different beast. Her first response to anything new is fear, fear, fear: hackle, growl, and run away if possible and if it’s not, get as scary as possible (for example, her eyes become enormously dilated and she pulls her ears down and out from her head, parallel to the ground like helicopter rotors). This new behavior of cautious approach (on her terms) is a tiny baby step but it represents a huge shift in her emotional state.

Cultural Exceptionalism (Part Two)

Even Fox News can string together something that looks more like a narrative than this, but the Arab News is renowned for such tantalizing yet nonsensical tidbits.

I have no doubt that the quote is correct, however.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Rare Moment of Calm

Azza, Mimi, Harry, Tsingy, and HellBeast asleep at the same time. In the same room. Rare indeed. I crawled out from under the blanket on the couch to take this photo.

If The Religious Police Don't Approve, You Didn't Need It Anyway

I want to buy a new iPad. I have a first generation iPad without a camera. While I don't play games on my iPad and thus couldn't care less about the improved display of the newer ones, there were some features such as camera and video that I wanted to have.

I did the research to figure out which one I should buy. Apple isn't making this easy since iPad 2, 3, mini, and 4 are available these days. I knew I wanted both WiFi and 3/4G since the WiFi-only iPads don't have a GPS antenna and that is a function that I particularly value and use a lot. Once I decided on the model, I visited one of the local stores in the Al Rashid mall to price compare and decided that the price difference between buying one in the US and buying one here was negligible, especially when you factor in the instant gratification aspect of picking one up in the mall.

Once the decision was made, I arranged my schedule on Thursday (my weekend) to go get my new iPad and spend the day getting it set up. I was very excited as one usually is when anticipating a fancy new toy to play with.

I walked in the store and asked the guy if they had the model I was looking for. Yes, we have that, he said, but it doesn't come with FaceTime.

For you non-Mac or old-Mac users, FaceTime is a videotelephony app that works sort of like Skype but that makes video calls from one Apple device to another. I have resisted Skype because it ties me to my computer--I'd have to sit in front of my desk in a not-too-comfortable chair. But imagine if I could make those kinds of calls using my iPad. Now that sounds interesting. So FaceTime was another feature I wanted to gain in my new iPad purchase (it isn't available of course in the first generation iPads because they don't have cameras).

No FaceTime, I asked. Well, I can install it myself, can't I? No, he said, FaceTime is blocked in the Middle East. It can't be put or used on iPads purchased in the Middle East.

And I suppose that I have now crossed some sort of threshold for the bizarre after 3 1/2 years living here because I didn't even bat an eyeball. I totally accepted what he said was true. I thanked him very politely for telling me that and I went home.

I've now done a bit of research and found that it is true that iPads and iPhones sold in most Middle Eastern and some African countries do not have FaceTime installed, that it can't in fact be installed at all. There is some vague chatter about ways to force it to install on your device but I won't take that chance. I'll just pick up my new iPad when I'm next in the US.

You might be wondering why FaceTime is considered so horrible that it can't be sold in these parts of the world. In short, mixing of the sexes. The most frightening behavior that mutawahs can imagine is that of young men and women, unrelated to each other, mind you, speaking to each other. And believe me, the world would fucking end in a fireball if they could SEE each other at the same time. (The new age fools who think the Mayans were on to something, and the crass commercialists who want you to think that too while buying their products, have nothing on the Saudi religious police when it comes to apocalyptic scenarios.)

The same kind of censorship is applied to Amazon Kindle book titles. I surf to the site from a Saudi IP address so Amazon assumes that is my "region." Instead of the million-plus Kindle titles you can see from the US, the censored view from the Middle East only has a few thousand. Fortunately, "region" is a variable that can be reset by the user. I change it to "United States" and voila, I can browse and purchase pretty much whatever I want. I suspect the mutawahs haven't noticed this feature yet or it would have been disabled already.

Pfft, you say, so what, this is hardly a big deal for me, I live in the US where I can read and watch and buy whatever I want. Well, I suggest that you do some research on the "global internet accord" that has been under discussion for some time. Countries like China that need to control the internet to control social unrest and Arabian Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia that need to control the internet in order to enforce adherence to religiously defined behaviors want to control ALL of the internet. And that means YOUR internet access and functionality will be affected if they get their way.

Freedom is not free.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Desert Dog and Rain

It rained in our area for almost 8 hours yesterday. This time it was a real rain, not the usual spit of moisture and dust that leaves a film of dried mud on everything. reports 16 mm, consistent with data from local Aramco weather stations.

I have stopped the dogs’ pre-dawn walks again because the feral dog pack has been getting more aggressive and I don’t want to take the risk of being stalked and attacked in the dark. So I try my best to rush home from work, throw on some walking clothes, and take the beasts out for a good long walk while we have a bit of daylight left.

There was no daylight yesterday and in fact it was raining steadily but I decided to walk the dogs anyway. It wasn’t that cold, only about 53 F. Harry and Mimi have experienced much more challenging conditions. But the main reason I decided to walk them was to give Azza her first experience with rain. She’s a year old and while it did rain a tiny bit in February and March of this year, she’s never seen real rain.

Mimi spent the walk hunched over trying to look as miserable as possible while Harry trotted along as if it was just another day.

As an aside, Harry adores his daily walks. I reach for my shoes and the leashes and he starts doing what I call his “walkie dance” in which he shuffles and hops from foot to foot, so excited he can hardly contain himself. He only stops dancing long enough to get close to me so I can snap his collar on.
I quickly discovered a rather interesting design flaw in desert dog Azza: her ears. Those enormous upright ears become rain scoops. You could almost hear the drops plinking into them. She squinted and tilted her head and held first one then the other ear down to sort out these new sensations. (She has extremely fine control over her ears and is able to independently rotate them almost 180 degrees from upright to flattened back against her head.)

Then she discovered the rain itself. She slowly looked up and realized that something was falling from the sky. Naturally she began to leap up into the air again and again trying to catch the rain drops. She was so joyful and excited to learn about this wonderful new thing in her world. She splashed through mud and puddles as if they weren’t there (Harry and Mimi walk around puddles). I let her get just as wet and dirty as she wanted because she’s got an easy-care coat like the terriers.

When we got home, they all got a good rubdown with the towel I had strategically left by the door and after a bit of zoomies around the living room, a roll on the Persian carpet, and some dinner, all settled down for a nap.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Men in Dresses

Thobes are the white dress worn by many Gulf Arabs. Thobes are a costume in the same sense that an actor on the stage wears a costume. The efforts of many people (usually not including the actor or the wearer) are required to construct them and maintain them. In business and social settings, these garments by design and intent create a significant barrier between Saudis and westerners. 

I have worked with Saudis who wore thobes to work every day but at some point and for some reason decided to switch to western clothes. To my eye, the difference was dramatic. Instead of mannequins wearing costumes, they became real people. I had to stop myself on more than on occasion from telling them how nice they looked--worried that they would think that I meant that they didn't look nice before and that I was thus impugning their "traditional" costume (more on this at the end). Pissing off the wrong Saudi can get you fired around here.

Thobes are usually made from a cotton-polyester blend. Linen, silk, and pure cotton all wrinkle during normal wear. But through the magic of blended fibers and lots of starch, Saudi men look like ambulatory, stiff, white, perfectly unwrinkled pipes. The collars can range from a western-style pointed collar to a stand-up “Nehru”-type collar. Thobes are always long sleeved and many have heavy cuffs that require old-fashioned cuff links. The garments are usually pulled over the head and closed at the neck with just a few buttons or snaps although I've seen some with fastenings all the way up. There are a couple of layers under the thobe including pajama-type pants but thankfully I know nothing more than that. Thobes are usually dry cleaned or else housemaids spend hours ironing and starching them.

While thobes are predominantly white, in the cooler months many Saudis switch to dark colored dresses made from heavier fabric resembling that used to make suit jackets.

Saudi thobes are nearly always accompanied by a white or red and white gutra or head scarf and a black iqal, the rope-like device that rests on the wearer’s head (it isn’t a headband and doesn’t hold the gutra in place; it mainly acts as a weight). Saudi men spend an inordinate amount of time fussing around with their gutras, constantly flipping them up and back in various elaborate folds. All of this preening and costume adjusting is strongly reminiscent of 12-year old girls flipping their hair around. (Saudi women also constantly readjust their head scarves so when looking at a group of them you see a sea of flipping motions. It can be quite annoying if you think about it too much.) In a strong wind, men have to hold the two front ends of the gutra down to keep the thing on their heads. The gutras are made from very light cotton sometimes blended with silk. These items are also dry cleaned or require a lot of handwork to maintain. Gutras are thin and serve little practical purpose in protecting the wearer from the sun or dust or wind.

Thobes are constructed in panels with capacious pockets built into the sides (abayas most emphatically do not have pockets; I suspect the sexual innuendo is far too horrific to be contemplated). Thin men have their thobes made with princess seams to emphasize their figure (I am absolutely serious about this). Fat Saudis (plenty of those to go around, Americans have nothing on the Saudis for obesity) have extra material in their thobes so there is no constriction or narrowing to interrupt the straight line of material from shoulder to ground. As an aside, did you know that the waddling ass of a fat man in a dress looks just like the ass of a fat woman in a dress?

Thobes are most often floor length. I always get a laugh watching thobe-clad Saudi men delicately pick up their skirts to cross a wet parking lot or to walk by an area where sprinklers are running. They would of course have to pick up their skirts to climb stairs but no thobe-clad Saudi man would ever do that.

Unlike a woman trying to accessorize a gown, the choice of footwear for Saudi men is simple: leather sandals that resemble gigantic, gold-embossed, fungus-y toenails wrapped around their feet (don’t even get me started on basic foot hygiene; callus smoothing and nail clipping isn’t part of the package) or black or dark brown leather dress shoes and dark dress socks. It looks as ridiculous as it sounds.

Every so often you see a mutawah with a high-water thobe hemmed to around mid-calf (you get a good view of those dress socks). Even the mutawahs who wear western clothes usually wear high-water pants. This is to keep their clothing from becoming dusty or dirty from the ground contaminated by all of us non-believers walking around.

Sadly, you often see very young boys decked out in thobes and gutra and fungus sandals. I say sadly because I don’t view it as an endearing attempt to copy their elders but a display of early indoctrination. 

Even more pathetic are the handful of westerners who attempt to wear thobes. This is usually strongly discouraged by Saudis because we are told that we (westerners) don’t know how to wear thobes and abayas “correctly.” Whatever. They can have the fucking things.

Saudis will quickly inform you that the thobe is a “traditional” garment for Saudi men. Perhaps it is traditional in the sense that in many cultures spanning South Asia, Middle East, and North Africa, men have worn some variant of a robe, skirt, or dress-like garment for centuries. This is of course not what the Saudis mean by "traditional" because they do have a strong cultural exceptionalism. But old Aramco photos do not show the pristine, crisp garments that you see today. Instead, in the photos many Saudi men are wearing dark colored, knee-length tunics, long pants, and sandals, and have cloths tied around their heads in a turban style. Frequently the men also top off their ensemble with western-style suit jackets. In other words, they are wearing clothing suitable for herding goats and camels in a desert climate, which is what the Saudis were doing before the Americans found oil and gas here back then.

(Check back in a couple of days. I have some of these photos but I forgot to bring them home.)

There is nothing traditional about men in a desert-herding culture wearing white dresses and delicate head covers that blow away at the first puff of a shamal. So it is ironic to see poor, rural Saudis who still herd goats and camels for a living today wearing grubby, dusty thobes. But I suppose maintaining the myth of tradition is more important than practical wardrobes.

Friday, December 07, 2012


That's Kinky's new name. It's either Hellbeast or The Little Orange Fucker and the latter takes too long to say.

In the past week, he has racked up these accomplishments:
  • Knocked my keys and glasses off the table twice, then played with the keys and knocked/pushed them under a bag on the floor so that I couldn't find them in the morning when I was trying to get to work.
  • Chewed up two of my morning supplements that I left on the counter when I took the dogs out for a pee (he left one of them on the carpet in an explosion of white powder; I never did find the gel capsule the powder was in).
  • Consumed a rather large holiday dog treat brought all the way from the UK by my friend PM; I had left it on the counter in a bag while taking the dogs out for a quick pee.
  • Knocked Tsingy's bottle of Metacam on the floor, along with the syringe applicator, from the kitchen counter while I was taking the dogs out for a pee; I later found half the syringe in Azza's mouth, the plunger shoved nearly a foot under the carpet (I stepped on it, ow!), and the bottle of pain medicine in the closet where I keep the dog and cat food.
  • Licked up about 1/4 cup of steaming dog meatloaf pulled right out of the oven when I left the pans on the stove top to cool; I hope he burned his mouth, the little orange fucker.
  • Bit Upul on the leg when he dared to give Tsingy a treat first.
  • Repeatedly bullied Tsingy by chasing her every time she left her room to get a drink or tried to be sociable.
  • And finally, consumed a goodly part of my new flip flops, the THIRD pair that he has eaten (the first two were so badly eaten that I had to toss them).

I swear to dog, I will never get another orange cat again. The hellbeast has soured me on them forever.

I totally know what you are thinking: never leave anything out in the kitchen. I now have a printed message in an emphatic font pasted to my door reminding me of this every time I leave.

In case you were wondering, he sleeps next to me every night, often curled up under the covers with just his head poking out. Unless he's otherwise occupied eating flip flops. Little orange fucker.

Agility in KSA

The latest season of agility in KSA is winding down. We'll be taking a break from about Christmas to the beginning of February.

We added some new handlers for this set of classes and I'm very proud of the progress that everyone has made in the past 10 weeks.

With intermediate-level handlers to serve as models, I felt that I could push the new ones quite a bit and the intermediate handlers even harder. Most of them are doing respectable to impeccable front crosses and RFPs, can sort of read course maps, can handle serpentines and threadles, and can direct their dogs to the backside of jumps. Their start-line stays aren't quite where I'd like them to be but that is because none of them are practicing this at home despite my weekly exhortations/pleading/nagging (my actual tone doesn't seem to make any difference). Most of the handlers are doing two sets of somewhat closed 2x2 weaves. PM and her yellow lab Nellie are doing six poles (three sets of 2x2x) with nearly closed poles. I have been enforcing handler positions and dog entries and we've been using targets for most of the dogs for the weave exercises. If we can keep at it, I may have 3 of the dogs doing inline weaves by the end of the next session (February-March 2013).

We've done skills challenges, CleanRun Backyard Dogs courses, and courses of my own design. Sometimes they work flowing sequences of 7 to 10 obstacles and sometimes they work skills on 3 or 4 obstacles. I try to mix it up as much as I can with our tiny equipment set.

It's really interesting to me to figure out what each dog and handler pair needs in the way of coaching and guidance. Some of my readers who do agility would probably find that maddening. I find new insights into how people and dogs learn and how they "see" agility obstacles. Sometimes getting a handler to do her front cross in the right place at the right time is a huge success. Sometimes getting a dog over a jump with joy and intent is the success. Every action is measured anew for each team.

For both the basic obedience and the agility classes, I decided to increase the level of my communication with them outside of class. A couple of days after every class, I send an email to everyone recapping what we did in class, explaining things in detail as needed, and tell them what we will be working on for the upcoming class, and reminding them of the skills they should be practicing as homework. The emails are a lot of work as each one may take me 30-45 minutes to write and edit. It's a one-sided communication as I rarely get replies but I have had several handlers tell me that they appreciate the emails.

I haven't posted many photos because the larger class size doesn't give me that luxury. But I'll leave you with this:

Seven jumps, two tunnels, one chute, five pairs of tunnel bags, three sets of 2x2 bases, all the required poles, two gear bags (one with water, numbered cones, shade, and clips, and the other with treats, toys, clickers, targets, course maps, wallet, phone, and all of that kind of personal gear), six weave poles (hinged on a steel base and not actually in this load), a crate dolly, assorted bungees, Mimi's soft crate, and Mimi (in the front passenger seat) in one Honda CRV. Whew!

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Training Azza 12

I’ve commented before on what I believe is a fundamental
miswiring in the brains of feral or “desert” dogs such as Azza. They engage in
behaviors that are unusual in most domesticated dogs. They are overly sensitive to environmental triggers that many domesticated dogs would ignore. It isn’t simply a case of socialization or training. I’ve had Azza since she was about 7 weeks old and she’s as well socialized and trained as any dog I’ve had. While necessary, socialization and training are not even close to being sufficient to make these dogs '"normal.” As is the case with any wild animal, we are at best only taming them. I’ve begun to view working with Azza as a project to provide her with tools to cope with the world. Training isn't going to make her "normal" but it will help her to be less stressed and fearful. She is now a year old and while she can be incredibly frustrating to manage at times, I have to admit that she and I have come a long way together.

In the past two years, I’ve worked with about 10 different
desert dogs in private training settings and I’ve seen a good cross section of the behaviors that they can exhibit. Most of them prefer to flee than fight but they will offer subtle yet clear signals when they are thinking about attack. When they are pushed to the point of attack, it is amazingly quick, nearly silent, and often extremely violent (that is, their intent is to kill or disable). No half measures with these dogs.

The feral dogs are incredibly lithe, lean, and strong. There is a lot of power packed into those skinny bodies. Handling them is not for the faint of heart or will. You have to be willing to stand your ground and you have to be extremely consistent. For example, Azza is trained to sit at doorways. I taught her this mainly to prevent her from bumping Harry in a clusterfuck rush in and out. She will not go in the house until I give a verbal release and a hand signal. And the hand signal must come from my right hand, the hand closest to her. If I gesture with my left hand or give a verbal only or fail to give a verbal at all, she won't move. In other words, she is beautifully trainable but remarkably inflexible in applying that training. Everything has to be done exactly the same way every time or she gets worried, stressed, anxious, and then begins to act out.

Pfft, you say, that's hardly an example of problematic behavior. But it is a good example of her inability to function in unfamiliar situations, even though the only "unfamiliar" aspect of that is the use of my left hand instead of my right. If something as trivial and simple as that makes her worry, imagine her reaction when confronted with much more chaotic situations. When one of these tornadoes wrapped in dog skin acts out, there can be problems. But they are problems that can be managed if you are willing to put in the training time.

I started working earlier this year with a couple who had adopted a desert dog puppy they found wandering the streets. I did a series of private lessons with them during the summer and they signed up for my basic obedience class. As of Thursday, they had successfully completed 5 weeks of it. The dog was quite typical for a desert feral but had a set of fear issues that I thought was far smaller and less problematic than Azza's. I thought all was well with them until I got a call from the woman on Friday asking me about a problem they were having when they were walking the dog.

Upul and I have been working through the exact same problem with Azza all summer long. You'd be walking along thinking all was well when she'd suddenly flip out and start to leap and lunge and nip and bite at you. The behavior was random and I could never identify a trigger. After watching her carefully, I decided that she was wasn't acting out from fear. But beyond that I still don't know why she behaved this way. Rather than anthropomorphize, I could only observe her actions and devise a plan to deal with them. In the end, the best way to handle these fits was to grab her collar and wait them out. She nipped Upul for quite a bit longer than she did me because he wasn't willing (at first) to be firm enough with her. It took nearly all of my strength to hold on to her some days. She acted like she was possessed by an evil spirit or perhaps having some sort of fantastic stroke. It was incredibly frustrating because it was random.

After suffering through a couple of months of this, I realized that I needed to change my approach. I upped the rate of rewards she got during walks to a treat delivered every few feet (we are going through kibble at a prodigious rate) and that has made a huge difference. Azza would much rather have a bunch of treats than be collared until she calms down. She gets a treat for not eating stuff off the ground. She gets a treat for calmly looking at a scary abaya wafting by or a terrifying kid on a skateboard shooting past then looking back at me. She gets a treat for walking in heel position on a loose lead. She now ever so gently bumps my hand with her nose if she thinks she's being good and hasn't had a reward in the past 30 seconds! In short, I began a training and reward frenzy and over a period of a couple of months reshaped her behavior so that there simply isn't room for her fits.

I spoke to the woman on the phone about ways to deal with their dog's fits, relating some of the problems I had with Azza and some of the things that worked for us, and I emailed them first thing Saturday morning with more detailed advice. Given their success to date, I had every expectation that they would work through this with their dog.

So you can imagine my horror when I got an email this morning from the man telling me that they decided to put the dog to sleep.

PM, MW, and I joined forces tonight and let our pack of five dogs run wild in an empty backyard. While watching Nellie pound Azza into the dirt while Mimi looked for an opportunity to sneak in a bite and Boodle danced around the edge of the melee barking ever so threateningly and Harry nosed around in the grass around our feet for something to nibble on, we drank a toast to poor Roxie.

I'm mad, I'm sad, I'm disappointed. I know that this didn't have to happen. But now it's done and I must find a way to learn something from it. If nothing else, it convinces me to redouble my efforts with Azza. I won't throw her away just because she's difficult.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Dust and Shimmering Heat

A friend asked me tonight if we were going to keep in touch with each other after we left this place. And it turns out to be a harder question to answer than you might think.

A couple of weeks ago the same friend and I were shaking our heads over the fact that our friends and family back home (hers in the UK, mine in the US) never call us here--it is always us who do the calling. We manage to mentally reconcile the two work weeks, our Saturday to Wednesday, theirs Monday to Friday. We figure they have access to the same global time calculation methods that we do so they can't use the excuse of not knowing what time it is here. Many of us have some form of VOIP that provides our friends and family with a local number to call so they don't have to make an expensive call to a Saudi number. Yet they never call. Is it a case of "out of sight, out of mind"? Or do we suddenly become foreign for simply living in a foreign place, so foreign that normal modes of communication don't apply anymore?

We admit that here in Dhahran we live life according to a different pattern and at a very different pace. There is little reward and often active discouragement for us to put in extra hours on the evenings and weekends (possibly because it makes the Saudis look bad, but that's not where I want to go with this). We have to travel to a different country (Bahrain) with a full immigration and customs procedure both ways to purchase items as basic as tennis shoes and bacon. We have limited freedom of movement within this country but are given many days of vacation in which to go somewhere else. But the sidewalks pretty much roll up here with the sunset and most debaucheries are kept discreetly behind doors. Living in Dhahran was described to me as being like living in a small town, which I suppose is true if the small towns you've lived in are surrounded by electrified and razor-wired fences with 24-hour cameras and guards at gates with bullet-proof vests, sidearms, and automatic weapons. There is a veritable army, literally thousands, of small brown men to take care of the lawns, pick up the trash, clean the houses, wash and drive the cars. There are few places in the world where this lifestyle could be replicated, if it is even moral to want to do so.

We all know people who are very good friends with us who simply disappear from our view when they leave. That's our perspective, of course, that they disappear. From our friends' perspectives, I wonder if it isn't us who disappear in the dust and the shimmering heat. Even if they thought Dhahran was a paradise when they were here, it can hardly compete with the heaving, gleaming, colorful world that they now occupy on the other side.

Good intentions don't seem to be able to survive once you make that final trip across the desert.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Fun House Ride

Whenever I get a mid-morning phone call from Upul, I always feel a tiny flutter of anxiety because my morbid imagination immediately takes over with visions of various disasters. His calls usually turn out to be more amusing than alarming, though, and this morning was no different.

It rained in Dhahran today (a whopping 2.2 mm but that still counts as rain). Upul rides a scooter so he of course has a rain coat, a bright yellow one. He called me to tell me that when he arrived to walk the dogs and came in the house in his yellow rain coat, Azza lost her shit (my words, not his). She lunged at him, bit at her crate walls and door, barked and growled. I think that response meets the standard of "losing one's shit." Of course Mimi and Harry offered their usual joyous greetings. Upul said that he went back outside and left the coat with his helmet. When he came back inside and spoke to Azza, she was more or less normal. But he said that when he let her out of her crate, "every hair was straight out!"

I've seen her in a state of extreme fear arousal before and she can indeed puff up like a cat. This enormous puff of hair forms over her shoulders, along her back, and across her hips. Even her tail gets fuzzier. She can vaguely resemble a poodle with a formal show cut, little puffs and balls of fur here and there, since the rest of her coat is so short and flat (but much softer than the terriers).

I told him to bring the coat into the house and put it on the stool and let her approach it and sniff it on her own terms. He did this while we were talking and reported that she puffed up again ("every hair is straight out, ma'am!"), approaching his coat only once then backing away growling. I told him to ignore her and let her get used to it, and to walk her only if it wasn't raining too hard. I didn't get a second call so he either walked her successfully or decided not to walk her at all.

Loosely related to these events was the walk that MW and Boodle and the dogs and I took this evening. It's very cloudy today and the normal dusk became rather gloomy with the early sunset. I think MW set us all off when she started and gasped at what at peripheral glance could have been a large cat but turned out to be a piece of wood next to the path. Things went downhill quickly.

There were indeed very real cats around every corner, crouched beside every palm tree, perched on top of every can and bucket. It was like being in a cheap fun house ride where shrieking clowns and moaning skeletons randomly fly at your head while bright lights sear your eyes.

Mimi's first response upon sight of a strange cat is to bite the dog that is closest to her, which is usually Harry. When prevented from doing that, she goes for Azza, who is usually looking for something to bite herself. I've gotten quite good at separately cinching up Mimi's leash and Azza's leash with one hand while leaving Harry's leash untouched and simultaneously herding each bitch to opposite sides of me with my other hand. I can do this in a fraction of a second because I've had a lot of practice at it. To get the full flavor, you also have to add in Azza's 100-decibel barking and Mimi's weird trilling bark, more like a bird than a dog. MW has her own issues with Boodle who does plenty of his own barking and lunging. Harry remains oblivious to all of this as he simply can't see or hear well enough anymore to get involved.

Once the dogs were all nicely on edge, we happened to see a guy walking his dog on the other side of the street. Good grief, the dogs just lost it entirely. That was like the part of the cheesy fun house ride where the little car you are riding in takes a dip then a sharp turn to the right, slamming you into the cold metal side.

CircusK9: the fun house ride that keeps going and going!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Scientific Illiteracy

I've ranted about this before (I think that I have although I can't find the particular post) but it is always a topic worth revisiting. Modern humans live in a world filled with amazing technology: tablets, mobile phones, satellites, GPS, digital books, microwaves. Nearly all of us use these things daily, either directly or indirectly, without any understanding at all of how they work, how they are built, the physics that control their functioning.

Americans are my usual target as they are particularly scientifically illiterate for a country that consumes a big chunk of the world's technology resources. However, it turns out that pretty much everybody is fair game to be lumped into the "scientific idiot" group.

Two weeks ago at work an email was circulated around by the secretary network. Quite a few of the executive secretaries maintain large, informal mailing lists to which they send bcc announcements of yard sales, ads for air fare promotions, and other relatively useful but benign bits of information. But sometimes things a bit more insidious make their way into this informal network.

The email said that people in the area were receiving mysterious "hang up" calls from numbers with Lithuanian and Ukrainian country codes and warned us to not call the mystery number back under any circumstances or immediate doom would befall us. If the call was returned, all of the contact info on our phone would be stripped, and the bad guys would get our credit card info and huge charges would suddenly appear on our account.

Nonsense. Utter nonsense. Cell phones don't work that way. You might incur a per-minute charge for calling that weird number but unless you gave the scammers on the other end your contact info or your credit card number, they certainly couldn't get it automatically.

I copied a web page debunking the scam from a hoax buster site and emailed it to the secretary of my area, suggesting that she might not want to forward emails without checking their veracity first.

Then last week another email made the rounds of the secretary network. This one had an internal forward claiming that it came from a manager over in Aramco's Fire Department. Well, it must be true then, right? It's got that stamp of authenticity right there in the email header!

The email told a story (undated and without mention of source) of a woman who had been driving in the rain with cruise control on in her car. When she stepped on the brakes, her car "took off like an airplane"! The story had lots of detail, like her name and the city where this was supposed to have occurred, but nothing that could be substantiated. These are all characteristics of hoaxes or "urban myths."

Of course, this story is total nonsense as well. People that believe it are basically making a public announcement that they drive two-ton-plus weapons on a daily basis and have no fucking idea how they work.

I typed "car hydroplane hoax" into Google and got over 170,000 hits. I snipped the main search page and forwarded it to my local area secretary without comment.

What's the take home here? First, basic concepts of science, math, and engineering are not being taught to everyone even though everyone needs them. I'm not talking about elite concepts reserved only for specialists but basic principles of physics, algebra, electricity, kinetics, etc.

And second, the ability to read and logically analyze information is a skill that has been lost now for a couple of generations. Very few of my peers are able to present coherent arguments for or against a particular view without resorting to tautologies or ad hominem attacks (it is because it is, or you are wrong because you're a poopyhead). Almost no young people I interact with can present linear narratives (A happened yesterday which caused B today which will result in C tomorrow). And yes, I am aware that I just presented two pseudo-anecdotes in support of my argument and anecdotes do not prove anything either. Sure, my blog, my soapbox. But hopefully I will spur you to research these ideas yourself instead of taking my word for it.

There is good evidence in the geological and biological records that most Cenozoic species (that have existed in the last 65 million years or so) generally endure between 1 and 5 million years before disappearing. There are plenty of days when I am quite sure that Homo sapiens won't even make it to half a million.


I don't suffer from writer's block: I usually always have plenty to say (putting it more bluntly, I rarely lack for an opinion on things). However, I am not able to write about things going on with me these past few weeks. Not to worry, nobody is in imminent danger. I'm not writing in code about looming disaster. But I've been a bit consumed with issues of life and work and I can't write about them here.

Many of you may have heard that Aramco was the victim of a successful cyberattack back in August. It was well timed, taking place right before the eid holiday started when staffing levels across Aramco's admin areas were rather low. Rumors continue to swirl about who did it and why. I don't pay much attention to them because we'll probably never know the truth.

As a result of this attack, Aramco's monitoring of all email and internet activities has dramatically increased, including activities on home internet. Maybe you think I'm being too cautious? My answer to that is that you would perhaps make the same decisions I'm making if you lived here too.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Training Contacts: Old Dog, New Trick

This past week was the eid holiday. I didn’t have any travel plans but spent half days at work instead (got a lot of projects going at the moment and I needed to make some progress on one of them).

I also started a new training project with the dogs. Last fall I obtained a nice, stiff oak plank that is about 10 feet long and about 12 inches wide. Oak plank for dog training, you are thinking, wasn’t that expensive? And perhaps a bit excessive? Not by the standards of this place. Pine planks are nearly impossible to come by. And pieces of wood cut in standard sizes are simply not to be found. I'm not insisting on typical American wood size standard but any kind of standard at all. You can take any ten pieces of wood and they may look similar but when measured you’ll find their dimensions are random. No cheap pine, no standard dimensions. While out with friends in Dammam, I ran across this piece of oak that was more or less the size I wanted; it suited my purposes well so I bought it.

The plank is for training contacts. I of course don’t have any contact equipment for the agility classes and will never have any. I have no place to store the equipment and no way to transport it even if by some trick I magically conjured up a garage for myself (in that case, why stop at a garage? Why not a back yard too?).

But I thought that I could still introduce the basic concepts of contacts to our little agility group with the plank. The progression is to put the plank flat on the ground and teach the dog to keep all four paws on it. Then you teach the dog to run along the plank. Then you teach the dog some sort of contact behavior at the ends. I’m going to stick with a two-on two-off behavior because it is easy for novice handlers to recognize when the dog executes it properly. It is a behavior that can be clearly marked and rewarded since the dog comes to a complete stop with his front paws on the ground and his hind paws still on the plank. Finally, I plan to lean the plank on my table, raised up to 12 inches with the spiffy PVC platform I built for it, to create a low-angle ramp. 

Agility purists might scoff and say, well, running contacts are all the rage now because they shave hundredths of seconds off your course time. And I'd counter that speed is hardly the point since we don't actually have real contact equipment. Some of you might sniff and say, well, this or that method is better than a contact plank. And I'd counter that I'm making do with what I have, which ain't much! In a way, it’s like I've regressed back to the early 1990's when the sport was getting started.

I bought some bright blue and yellow paint. After a primer and one color coat, I added my homemade sand/paint coating to give the plank a grippy feel. It looks super!

It’s been years since I thought about teaching contacts and I’ve never used the plank method. So I decided to spend my eid holiday developing a training protocol that I could use in class. The protocol needs to be flexible to accommodate all the variations of dog and handler that I have to work with in class. But of course it also needs to produce some positive, reliable results.

Since Mimi already understands contacts, she grasped the idea of the plank right away. She’ll be helpful in demonstrating the final product but I needed more of a blank slate to work with.

Azza of course would be the obvious choice to work with if she was a normal dog. Given her overwhelming, paralyzing fear of new things (behavior which is far beyond the pale of normal), it has been quite a struggle just to get her to put one or two paws on the plank. Forget walking along it. She could barely be dragged past it. However, we have been making progress since I installed the flat plank as a permanent part of my living room. After missing most of two meals, she figured out that she had to put a paw on it and keep that paw there or she was going to be pretty hungry! In short, she is not a very good model for normal behaviors that I might encounter during contact training with the plank. Azza is a "special needs" dog.

It turns out that I’m doing most of my exploration of this training problem with Harry. Yes, that’s right. I’m teaching a 14 year old smooth fox terrier a two-on two-off contact behavior from scratch. He’s going deaf, his eyes are cloudy with cataracts, and he’s pretty stiff in the mornings, but he’s definitely up for a new training game, especially if it involves a clicker and treats!

The first task was to teach him that the placement of his feet mattered: four paws on the plank, not three, not two, and dancing over the plank didn’t count either. He picked that up in two training sessions.

The next task was to get him to stay on the plank as he walked/ran up and down it. He’s still a bit fuzzy on this concept but I can tell he’s trying.

At the end of the plank, he usually runs off and turns around to face me for his treat. So I’m starting his training sessions with half a dozen or so “get ready” commands to remind him that sitting by my side is the rewarding place to be. Using plastic targets really helps with this. He runs to the end, sees the target, slams his paws down on it then looks at me for his treat. He still twists his body quite a bit, in the process coming off the plank, so I’m using jump wings on either side of one end to help keep him straight.

I'll continue working with Harry for the next couple of weeks until I am sure I can teach someone else and their dog how to manage the contact trainer. And I'll be sure to tell our little agility group about Harry's contribution to their class!

Friday, November 02, 2012

What?! I Was Just Looking At It!

Mimi, new toy, and Azza.

Agility in KSA! Week 5

The eid holiday was this past week and a lot of people are still out on leave so only four handlers showed up in class this morning besides me and CJ. I knew this was going to be the case so I decided to put out three challenges and give a prize to the handler who managed each one the best. An agility friend (A in Portland) donated a bag full of small plush toys for this very purpose--generous and thoughtful and definitely put to good use! The handlers loved the idea of winning prizes!

CJ and Webster working the third challenge: serpentine handling in a ring of jumps.
 The challenges were five jumps in a straight line, two straight tunnels side by side, and a ring made of six jumps.

For the first challenge, it was my plan to have the handlers send their dogs away from them over the jumps to see how far their dogs would go. The handler was not supposed to cross the plane of the first jump. However, two of the dogs had no reliable send so instead we had their handlers call them over the jumps. The rest of the handlers got to use a plastic lid baited with food as a target. I had everyone backchain the sequence, doing two jumps, then three, then four, then finally five.

HD's desert dog (mostly Canaan dog in origin) Savvy has never been off leash in class. HD is worried about her running off or even attacking another dog. But with such a small class, it was easy to get everyone to stuff their dog in their crate when it was Savvy's turn so she had as calm a working space as possible. Savvy has never been sent over a jump so it was clear that HD was going to have to do a recall with her.

To our amazement, Savvy nailed this exercise. She sailed over the jumps and ran right to HD who had the biggest grin on her face. I was holding Savvy by the collar (another huge step forward for this dog who was so mistrustful of everyone when she started) and she was pulling pretty hard to get going over those jumps. I was so proud to see this lovely dog completely absorbed in doing some agility with her handler. Savvy has come a long way since she started back in January.

Look at Savvy go! HD at the end of the jumps calling her dog.
MW's Boodle has always been a reluctant jumper and he does not like to be sent over jumps. He is 12 years old so this isn't a problem that I have spent a lot of energy trying to fix. So I let her do a recall with him too. It must have been the cooler weather because he did a wonderful job too!

JW sending Jack over all of the jumps after a complete set of backchaining. CJ is guarding the target, ready to cover the food with her foot if the dog goes around any of the jumps.
HD and Savvy won the first challenge because of the tremendous leap forward both of them made but I let MW take a toy for Boodle too because he showed so much more commitment and enthusiasm than usual.

For the second challenge, it was my plan to have the handlers send their dog into one tunnel then turn them into the second tunnel without going between the two tunnels. I demonstrated it with Mimi and I could tell all of them were thinking, yeah, sure, they make it look easy--my dog will never do that. Even though I expected that all of the handlers would have to move forward between the tunnels at least a little bit, I knew that with a bit of coaching they would all be successful. And that proved to be true.

MW and Boodle working the tunnels.
Savvy again surprised us. She doesn't like tunnels (finds them pretty scary) and will only go into straight, shortened tunnels. I wasn't even sure she'd do this particular challenge at all. But I let HD and her daughter have a go, again with Savvy off the leash, and Savvy managed to slowly make her way through the tunnels three times in a row! That's more tunnels than she's ever done before.

The real star of this exercise was LF with her golden Amira. Amira has become quite the tunnel sucker and after a bit of coaching and practice, LF was able to handle the challenge as I intended. It was pretty awesome to see a novice handler pulling off nice distance handling.

In one tunnel...

...and out the other! LF and Amira.
There are quite a few handling options for a ring made from six jumps but I chose to set the third challenge as a serpentine: over the first jump away from the handler, back towards the handler for the second jump, etc. This would give me an opportunity to introduce RFP (or false turn) handling to the new handlers. Doing serpentine handling in a circle instead of a line of three jumps is considerably harder, but I don't like to make things too easy. It makes for lazy handlers.

Me and Mimi demonstrating serpentine handling.
Back Mimi goes over another jump.
Another handler and dog rose to the top for this challenge: JW and her mix Jack. She is so serious (I have to constantly remind her not to tell Jack "no" when she, JW, makes a handling error, and to praise him at the end of a sequence with love and treats) but she tried really hard and absolutely nailed the serpentine after a bit of practice with the RFP handling.

HD using perfect serpentine handling--look at Savvy's focus and lovely turn over the jump.
JW and Jack nailed this exercise quite nicely.
Another week of agility in KSA and great fun was had by all!

Monday, October 29, 2012


A friend sent this. A joke is always funnier when it has a ring of truth to it.

There's even more irony to be found when you know that in certain parts of camp during the "October community event" as Halloween is euphemistically called by Aramco, you will see dozens of fully veiled Saudi women dragging along costumed children--princesses and pirates and Spidermen--from house to house in search of candy.

While we are on the subject of suitable covering, another friend sent me this.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Agility Season in KSA! Weeks 1-4

It's agility season in KSA again! The class has met four times already so as usual I’m behind on my updates. We have a really big class this time with 10 handlers: five novices, four returning intermediate level, and one new but more or less intermediate level (she took some classes in the US but never competed). And I’ve got a new partner in crime (co-instructor) as well: CJ, the handler of the crowd-pleasing mini dachshund Webster. 

It's a full house! We've got shade! And dogs and handlers galore! Read on for more details.

When MH left the Kingdom this past spring, I knew that I’d have to find someone to help me with the classes. None of these folks has ever competed so I couldn’t use that as a criterion. And most of the intermediate handlers have made good progress and show a fairly good understanding of the basic handling moves and the overall objectives of agility. All of them have the occasional setback (dog getting the zoomies, dog not recalling, handler muddling crosses) but all of them show excellent patience and perseverance. In other words, some of them that are becoming rather decent handlers so I couldn’t pick one solely on the basis of skill level.

One of our intermediate handlers PM (on the left) and her yellow lab Nellie (Azza's BFF). They are setting up for a tunnel exercise.

I chose CJ because she has shown a good understanding of fundamental handling and because she and Webster made a lot of progress in their first six months. It was an added bonus to me that CJ works in education and understands techniques of instruction and methods of learning—important things when you are on the other side of the instructor-student relationship. I also chose her because she has a big car so she can share equipment hauling duties! And because I knew that I could work with her. And because I thought that she would agree to do it! 

CJ in the foreground watching LF set up her golden retriever Amira for a send to tunnel exercise.

We’ve been dividing the class up into novice and intermediate groups for two reasons. The first is the obvious one: the two groups are working on very different skill sets. And dividing them up reduces the time everyone has to wait for their turn. CJ and I are alternating between the two groups to spread ourselves around as much as possible. I heard from three of the intermediate handlers that they thought that she did a “pretty good job” the first week! I was pleased to hear this because I know from experience that they are a tough crowd! I sort of tossed her into the deep end of the pool but she seems to be offering the students consistent and gentle guidance.

CJ and I are doing a good job of managing the division of labor. The limiting factor is still our fairly paltry collection of obstacles. To add some new challenges, I made four jump wings (enough for two jumps) out of scrap PVC, a piece of white plastic garden paneling that I cut up, and a bunch of zip ties, and introduced those to the intermediate handlers along with pinwheels. That went so well that the second week I had them work on 180s with and without wings. Because some of the equipment is used by the novice group at the same time (so far just a couple of jumps and a tunnel), I have a reduced set of obstacles to use for the intermediate sequences. But this is giving me great experience in designing challenging sequences with limited equipment. 

Waiting patiently. From left to right, LF with Amira, MW with Jack, SS with Abby (intermediate team), BW with Jake, and MC and M with Seamus.

Here are two course maps for the intermediate group to give you an idea of what I mean by limited equipment. Those of you who know agility will immediately see many more sequence possibilities in each arrangement. That's by design, of course. I designed the two set ups using the equipment I had available then worked out 4 to 5 different sequences for each. That certainly kept that group occupied for the full two hours!

Another new element I’m incorporating is a group sit/stay exercise at the beginning of each class. MH and I got tired of holding dogs who wouldn’t hold a sit/stay no matter where the handler was (1 foot away or 10 feet away). It was clear that people weren’t doing their homework. So I decided to make them do a group sit/stay. At a minimum, they now get some practice in class each week and perhaps some of them will be shamed into doing some practice at home when they see other dogs holding their stays in the face of all sorts of distractions. 

Getting sorted out in the group sit stay. From left to right, MC and her daughter M with Seamus (yes, he's a wire fox terrier!), JW with her small mix Jack, BW with her poodle mix Jake, JJ with her daughter H and their terrier mix Rocket.

And a brand new feature of class is the shade tents you see in the photos. We nearly broiled ourselves the first week so PM called in some favors with some friends in high places and arranged with Recreation to set up the tents each week. I am well aware of what the weather is like elsewhere (I have weather widgets on my computer at work for various spots around the U.S. and Europe); in short, everywhere else the weather is suitably fall-like. Here, it is still topping out near 100F most days. We don't have normal trees with leaves that turn colors. We have trees but they are desert-adapted and/or what I'll call primitive species that don't have that kind of seasonal behavior. We don't have frost or a nip in the air. We certainly don't have rain. Instead, we have 85% humidity from sunset to noon every day. There isn't much sign of the weather cooling down so the shade tents have been an extremely welcome addition.

With so much going on during each class meeting, literally a two-ring circus, it's been hard for me to take a lot of photos. I am going to try and videotape parts of a class in November so maybe that will compensate a bit for the lack of photographic evidence.

HD and her daughter (holding the leash) running Savvy, a desert dog of probably Canaan dog origins. Savvy arrived in class terrified and ready to either bolt or kill every dog she could see. She now accepts petting from most of us and is actually jumping jumps with enthusiasm. HD doesn't want to let her off the leash for fear of her either running off or attacking another dog, both always a possibility with these desert dogs.

After four weeks, the novice handlers have been introduced to recalls and sends over a jump (with variable handler, jump, and dog spacing), the jump-tunnel-jump sequence in its various permutations, and left and right FCs using two jumps but with the third off-course obstacle a jump or a tunnel. Their dogs really aren't showing much signs of tunnel-sucking yet but it's never too early to start working on your handling in front of an off-course tunnel.

MC and her daughter M with their wire fox terrier Seamus. I am quite excited to have TWO junior handlers in the class. Good experience for them, good experience for me.

I would like to integrate the two groups in a couple of weeks. This increases wait time and I may have to pull out one jump to have people work on jump skills while waiting, but it will allow us to throw more complex sequences at the novice handlers that are embedded in the intermediate sequences. I've also got plans for a cross clinic since a few of the intermediate handlers are a bit rusty.  A jump box and jump circle would be perfect for the clinic and excellent set ups for the novice handlers as well. There is no lack of things to work on each week, that's for sure!

Monday, October 15, 2012

They'll Think You Slaved Over a Hot Stove For Hours

I had a friend over for dinner last night. It was a somewhat impromptu invitation but I did have three chicken breasts already defrosted so I had managed at least that level of planning. I created this menu in about five minutes while standing in front of my fridge looking at the contents: paprika yogurt chicken breasts served with mango chutney on top of basmati rice and garnished with fresh sliced cucumber. Including pauses to chat and drink some whine, the whole meal took me less than 40 minutes to prepare and cook.

Some time back I posted a much more elaborate recipe for mango chutney. The recipe I'm posting this time is scaled down to be easy and quick to make. 

Rinse the breasts and pat dry. In a large saucepan or pot, mix a copious amount of sweet paprika (more than you think is required), some dried rosemary that you've rolled between your hands in an attempt to rejuvenate it a bit, and about a cup of good yogurt. If you have fresh rosemary, use that instead! Stir this mixture well. Arrange the chicken breasts in the pan and spoon the yogurt mixture over and around to completely smother them. Set aside. No need to refrigerate them because you'll be cooking them shortly.

Thinly slice one medium or four or five small red onions. Place the onions in a saucepan with some olive oil and give them a good stir over medium heat to begin to brown them. Clean and thinly slice a small red bell pepper. Add to the onions and give it all another good stir.

Wash and peel two ripe mangos. Dice into smallish pieces and add to the onions and red bell pepper. Give everything a good stir and reduce the heat a little bit.

Add 3-4 tablespoons of honey and generous portions of dried ginger and fresh ground black pepper. If you have fresh ginger, use that instead! Give your salt mill a couple of small twists over the pan. Add about 1/2 cup of water to the pan, stir very well, and reduce the heat a little bit again.

Peel and finely chop two cloves of garlic. Add that to the mango chutney along with 3 or 4 tablespoons of cider vinegar. Stir and reduce the heat again.

Let the chutney simmer for a few minutes, stirring often. You can add more water if needed but I find it comes out best if you only add water once at the beginning. Your goal is to reduce the liquid so the chutney becomes thick and sticky. Turn off the heat and transfer the chutney to a small serving bowl to cool.

Measure out your rice and water into a pot and start it cooking.

Put the pot with the paprika yogurt chicken breasts on low to medium heat. You don't want to boil the yogurt. As you heat the mixture slowly the yogurt will thin and separate. Turn the breasts a couple of times.

When you judge the chicken to be done (it will only take a few minutes), turn off the heat and let the breasts sit in the sauce until the rice is done.

Clean and slice a small cucumber. Arrange the slices on a plate and drizzle with balsamic vinegar.

You can serve the chicken breasts and rice directly from their cooking pots or dirty up more dishes and put them in serving bowls. Depends on who you are trying to impress, I suppose.

Quick, easy, healthy, low fat, low salt, colorful, and tasty!

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Training Azza 11

Azza is now about 10 months old. It’s hard to remember that she is still a baby because she is so large, 15.7 kg. Perhaps she’s grown a neuron or two recently, bringing the grand total to about five, because she has been noticeably behaving better the past couple of weeks.

Mimi chomping on Azza's head during play.

What do I mean by “better”? The most obvious change is a reduction in some of her fear responses. While we were on a walk last week, a stroller passed us twice and she did nothing. Nothing. Just a couple of weeks before that she saw a stroller approaching and totally lost her shit, lunging, barking, showing teeth, hackled up. Another example: I bought some flowers from the Garden Club yesterday at lunchtime and left the flat on the porch in the shade. When I took her out to potty, she noticed this new thing right away but instead of growling at it, hackling up, and backing away like she usually does, she cautiously approached it and sniffed it (I was giving her the command “what is it?” to encourage her).  She has ignored it on subsequent trips out whereas in the past she’d show a fear response for a couple of days every single time she encountered the new thing. Ignoring it! That is a gigantic leap forward for Azza. 


Happy Harry. He's been sprayed with the hose, nibbled on bits in the grass, and generally enjoyed his morning out with the pack.

Yet another example: Aramco is making a mysterious construction project involving a 3-foot deep trench across the full length of my building. Harry ignores the trench but likes to pee on the orange fencing and on the boulders that get dug up and tossed to the side. Mimi immediately wanted to jump into the trench—of course, she’s a proper little terrier and no flimsy orange fence can stop her. Azza gave it all a good sniff but not once did she show fear. I had literally steeled myself when I opened the gate to take her out to potty that first time with orange fencing and piles of sand and rocks and trenches ringing our little sidewalk, fully expecting to have to drag her past all that mess to a patch of undisturbed grass. She didn’t react at all. 

Nellie is fast but Azza is faster. Azza can change directions in a flash. My little camera can't keep up.
I classify these types of incidents as “fear of new things.” She is behaving better by showing more tolerance of (and indifference to) “new things.”

She’s also doing much better at ignoring people who pass us on our walks. I still have to shorten her leash a bit when people pass us to prevent her from doing anything unexpected and to keep her on a straight path but in between sightings of passers-by, she is able to walk along on a loose lead, her head even with the terriers. Almost like a switch has been flipped, she has been doing far less of the obsessive head-turning and staring at people coming up behind us.

I was horrified to realized when I cropped this photo that Mimi has a mouthful of Azza's skin! Man, those terriers are ferocious! Azza puts up with this and more.

I call these types of behaviors “misinterpreted threat”. She is behaving better by showing a better understanding of the fact that there are other people in the world and most of them have nothing to do with her in the potential or the actual.

As an aside, I hold the leashes in my left hand. Harry and Mimi know they are to walk to my left or in front of me. They usually walk side by side. I hold Azza’s leash in my left hand as well but I trained her to walk to my right. This prevents “braid-o-matic” action and keeps her from crashing into them in her random flinging about. I extended this concept so that Azza’s heel position is on my right. Yeah, not kosher for formal obedience but who cares. In fact it makes for a great parlor trick. I can put Mimi and Azza in a sit/stay, walk to the other end of the room, turn and face the dogs, and call Mimi to a heel on my left while Azza remains in the stay then call Azza to a heel on my right to end up with a dog on either side of me. I use the same command “get ready” for both of them but they know which side they are supposed to go to.

Happy Azza covered in water, sand, and dog spit.
One of Azza’s biggest training issues right now (besides the accursed tippy board) is greeting transitions. She isn’t able to calmly greet other people or dogs then continue with whatever she was doing before. When greeting, she goes into meltdown mode, thrashing and flinging herself around with the fit usually ending with her literally melting into a puddle on the ground. She frequently pees when greeting. But even her reaction to greeting transitions is slowly changing. When we meet up with MW and Mr. B or PM and Azza’s BFF Nellie, Azza still does her meltdown act. But I’ve trained my friends to simply continue walking after we humans greet each other (and the terriers and the other dogs give each other polite sniffs). I keep a good grip on Azza’s collar and we all ignore her thrashing. The time it takes for Azza to return to normal is getting shorter and shorter. Two months ago I’d spend up to 10 minutes trying to prevent her from throwing herself bodily at the other person or dog, all the while dragging her forward in some semblance of a walk. She is strong and remarkably lithe. It is like holding on to a giant orange centipede. With teeth (she can be mouthy when frustrated). Now, in just a minute or two we are all calmly walking in a group of four dogs and two people.

PM, Nellie, Azza, Mimi, and Harry. They think she has a treat but she really doesn't. She was trying to lure them all closer for a photo.
I mentioned this to PM the other night as we were watching Azza and Nellie chase each other around a backyard: I was not sure that Azza was ever going to become normal enough to keep. I was afraid that I might ultimately have to put her down. With those fear issues and the great ignorance of dog behavior around here, I couldn’t risk that she’d end up in a family with kids or with Saudis. But there she was, playing with Nellie with full joy and abandon, using proper signals to start and stop play, drinking from the water hose (I give full credit to PM who patiently taught her how to do that), coming when called, standing quietly with no restraint while I hosed the sand and dog spit off her before we started for home. 

Azza and Mimi sharing the hose for a drink. PM spent months teaching Azza that the hose wasn't a thing to be feared.
In short, like Pinocchio, she’s becoming a “real dog.”