Saturday, March 24, 2012

Training Azza (3)

Why am I starting this post with a pic of Azza drinking out of the house water bowl? Because the water bowl is just one of the many surprising challenges that she presents me with daily.

At first, I kept a small water bowl in her crate because during her house training she was spending a fair bit of time in there. But now that she is more reliable and spending more time out with the rest of us, I figured she could drink out of the same water bowl as the other animals.

Too bad she was terrified of it! She went for two days without drinking before she broke down and slunk over to the bowl for a furtive lap or two. She still creeps up on it, and as you can see in the picture, she is as stretched out as she can be, making sure that not a single hair of her body touches the scary bowl.

Ready? Get it! She will jump up and drive forward for a toy. She appears to prefer plush ones with squeakers.

I continue to work patiently with her. Our work on the "what is that?" behavior has started to show some success.

On Friday, she went on her first "neighborhood" walk away from the circum-golf course path and soccer field where we normally go and along which we normally only see other people. Instead, I took her on a short walk along a street with houses and yards and what turned out to be an endless array of scary things.

Harry getting his regular weekend nap in the sun, perfect for warming old bones. Azza was too restless to nap--you can tell that she hasn't settled.
 Using her still-new "what is that?" behavior, I free shaped her to nose-touch a kid's swing that was moving in the breeze (at her first sight of it, she hackled up, dropped to the ground, and started growling)--I consider this a new personal best in free shaping. I also free-shaped her to nose-touch a type of trash can she'd not seen before (it was very large and scary). And I lured her across a metal grate over a culvert in the sidewalk, paw by paw. She managed to slowly creep/walk past many parked cars (larger cars require extra treats). She sat calmly at my side before I released her to cross streets. She didn't pull on the lead, alternately walking in front of me or in a heel position by my side, the latter getting lots of rewards. All in all, a grand success.

Even though her shoulders are barely half an inch above Mimi's, Azza can reach the kitchen counter with her front paws. She is pretty much nothing but legs. Upul and I are working on discouraging this behavior.

Upul giving the dogs a treat, as he always does before he leaves whether I am there or not. Azza waiting patiently. I insist on 100% enforcement of this because she is pushy and nippy.

I have a large agave-type succulent outside my gate. Every few weeks, its javelin-like leaves threaten to impale me as I go in and out so I have to trim them back. I leave the pile of trimmings on the ground next to my sidewalk for the gardener to haul off the next day. When Azza went out to potty the first time, that pile of stuff wasn't there. When she went out the next time, well, she got sight of those leaves on the ground and she slammed on the brakes and refused to walk past them. I walked over, tapped the pile, and said "what is that?". Slowly, slowly, she approached, getting treats for every step she took towards the scary thing, until she put her nose on it. Then, jackpot! A handful of treats and we calmly go back to our original business.

She completely understands now that Harry is not to be bumped or licked or otherwise annoyed. It took four chomps from him but she at last got the message. But now he has become "forbidden fruit" and she is obsessed with him. She waits until he settles down on one of the big dog beds, then creeps around behind him and curls up next to him, usually back to back. Amazingly, he allows her to do this and doesn't even give a single growl as long as she doesn't fidget or flop about. Harry has become oddly both more and less tolerant as he gets older (he's 13 and a half now, nearly deaf, and going blind as well). He and Mimi are always touching when they sleep at night. I never thought I'd see him tolerate the pesty puppy too.

It's been an unusually cold spring, weather not seen in these parts since the late 1990's. Harry likes to be covered on those cool evenings. Azza crept in after he was settled and curled up behind him.
I also work her on a long line to practice recalls. My trusty 15-foot cotton lead is nowhere near long enough for this dog. I had to go to a 50-foot piece of nylon cord. I let her lunge around me in huge looping circles, call her in for a game of tug, and release her to do some more laps. She is damned fast, and when she runs her hind legs and feet move so far forward in between her front legs that they are almost under her head. So we practice recalls and she gets some good exercise too.

I have tried to explain the situation with dogs on camp before but I suppose it is worth repeating. Dogs are barely tolerated. Right now, the official customs rule is "no toy dogs"...and to a Saudi customs agent, ALL BREEDS are toy breeds. Doesn't matter whether the dog you want to import is a toy breed or not. His word is the final one. There is no appeal, no higher authority, no logic. If my Saudi neighbors (I have three of them in my immediate area) complain about my dogs, for any reason, even if it is a false accusation, I would have to get rid of Azza, might be kicked out of Aramco housing, might even be fired. There is no recourse, no appeal, no logic. If a Saudi says it is so, that is the end of the discussion. If you are a westerner, you will always lose. So it is imperative that Azza learn that she can't jump on and attempt to greet every human she sees, that she can't bark at imaginary scary shit at 4 a.m., in short, that she gains some civilized behaviors that will allow us to cope in this environment (and I'm not talking about the weather).

A three-way game in progress. It was hard to get this photo--I need a couple more hands!
 But back to the training. Azza likes to tug and with careful management, I can get a three-way game going where I alternately toss a toy for Mimi to retrieve and play tug or toss a toy a few feet for Harry with one hand, and I tug with Azza with the other hand. I think they get more excited with the proximity of the other dogs but so far there has been no hint of aggression or guarding.

Origami dog discovers the couch.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Agility in KSA Weeks 18, 19, and 20

It's been a bit hectic in the agility class lately because we lost MH. Last week (week 19) was her last class with us. Her husband couldn't take the FW at Aramco any longer (let's just say that if you prefer to work in an environment where merit and hard work are rewarded, this is not the place for you) and accepted a position with another oil company located in Cairo, Egypt. They managed to escape before the golden handcuffs were locked in place--sometimes people stay, hating every day they go to work, because they can't afford to leave! But the H's got out before that happened.

I am bereft. I have no idea how I can run these classes without her sharp eye and gentle suggestions. Having a large-dog handler as a training and teaching partner really brought a fuller dimension to the sequences I set up and the exercises we would run on them. It became a habit for me to set up the equipment then watch MH run her two PWDs on it. Her success or failure allowed me to properly adjust everything so that the sequences would work for our intrepid little group of handlers. Plus she was always ready with a new approach to solving a handling or training problem. The classes will not be the same.

In recognition of her leaving, I designed a special course for week 18, borrowing the idea directly from Nancy Gyes' extremely successful "Alphabet Drills" in which she created training exercises based on the letters of the alphabet. MH's dogs were named Austin and Dallas so I designed some short sequences based on the letters a and d.

The handlers generously contributed money and for MH's last class we were able to present her with a $200 gift certificate to Clean Run. There were definitely tears all around at the end of that class!

In a nod to MH's preference for NADAC, I set up a more open, flowing course than usual for her last class with us. She was able to run both of her dogs in numerous variations of this exercise. It might be the last time she gets to do agility with her older dog. Very sad.

I designed this particular sequence around a gently curving jump chute with the goal of getting the dogs and handlers to commit more fully to jumps. A lot of them fail to cross the plane of a jump, instead coming to a stop right next to it, with the totally expected result that their dogs stop too! We had some decent success with the chute although few of the dogs could do all five jumps in a row.

This particular sequence was so fun that I set it up again this week for our last class and had the handlers work some of the variations to challenge their skills. And I deliberately set out to challenge them too, asking for front crosses, RFPs, serpentine handling, wraps, jumping with collection, jumping with extension. It was a fun class to end our session with.

Today was the last agility class in KSA until late September. I am so utterly blessed to have had the opportunity to play agility for 20 weeks. I wish we had a longer agility season here but with limited facilities and the hideous weather, I really don't have much choice.

Looking forward to the fall, I will begin contact training with a contact board first on the ground then propped up on the table, which will have a spiffy PVC frame lifting it up to 12 inches. I will also build a wobble board, testing it with Azza first, of course, and drag that out there. And I hope to get some more PVC parts when I'm in the US this summer and build four jump wings to help start the handlers on distance work.

So I have grand plans, even though I have to be very patient to put them all in place!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Training Azza (2)

Azza's free shaping is proceeding at a blistering pace.

Four days ago, I introduced her to a cardboard box. I managed to get her to sit on top of it.

Two days ago, I put the same box on the floor, but open side up. After many dozens of treats that rewarded the most minute of motions, she actually put her front paw in the box and held it there for a big jackpot.

That same night I introduced her to a metal 2x2 weave pole base. No poles, just the metal. She had to be lured the first couple of times but quickly figured out that I was rewarding her for walking over the metal bar. I threw the treats forward on the ground...amazingly, I had to show her the treats quite a few times at first because she wasn't used to this mode of reward.

Well, tonight we started with the 2x2 weave pole base with poles. Sure, I know that she is far too young to actually weave. But this dog needs to have these activities broken down into very small pieces. Besides, the metal and the plastic are the kinds of things that normally trigger her fear response. So the more time she spends being rewarded around them, the better.

In just half a dozen clicks, she was running through the poles to get a treat I threw forward on the ground, running back to me to set up again. Running! I managed to step back about three feet and she still ran through the poles away from me...the click only comes after she is through the poles and the treat is thrown forward of her head after the click. So she is performing a completely alien behavior around formerly scary things in anticipation of the reward that is to come. The power of positive training!

At one point I even nudged the metal base with my foot, causing it to make a scraping sound on the tile floor. A couple of days ago she would have run away from this new, scary noise. Tonight she ignored it and continued to play this fun game.

Just this alone would constitute a huge success in her training.

But there is more! I pulled the box out again and after perhaps 20 clicks, she actually put both front paws in it! This was accomplished by pure free shaping. I would reward her smallest paw lift, then paw touch on the edge, then paw movement towards the inside of the box, then paw landing inside the box. She was gaining confidence with each click and reward.

For the coup de grace, I cheated a bit and lured her, and she put all four paws in the box then sat down in it! Of course she got a huge jackpot and that was the end of that session.

Her loose lead behavior is coming along very nicely. We still struggle with recall in some contexts; in others, it is very quick and happy. She can calmly wait for treats while the other dogs get theirs first (she has to be reminded to "wait!" but she doesn't move a muscle!). She runs to the door when I pick up her collar and leash. Her "drop it!" still needs a hand on the scruff to remind her but she is getting faster and better at dropping the cherished item on her own (as opposed to my prying open her jaws and extracting it, which I am perfectly willing to do).

She's certainly a training challenge, and for that reason it is very satisfying to see her start to have a good time with the training. Work and play should become the same thing for her.

Blog News

What a milestone! I've had more than 10,000 page views on the blog! It's been about five years since I started it, but this has never been a high-volume site. The hits really started going up once I started posting about our agility classes. There are anomalies such as the 60 hits on my post on Ladies' Kingdom. I suspect that many of those hits are from web searches on that phrase, and my little essay is probably not what those folks expected. And I can't help but think that some of these hits are being made by people that lack the best intentions (Big Brother is always watching you in Saudi Arabia).

Anyway, here's a tip o' the fedora to the agility community!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Training Azza

Azza: I want that toy! Mimi: Get your own damn toy! Harry: ...zzzz....
 I've been focusing on recall and loose lead walking with Azza since those are things she will need all of her life. But Azza's training continues to get more complex as I discover things I like and don't like in her behavior.

Her housetraining is nearly complete although I don't let her spend too much time out of my sight. But that is for other reasons, not out of fear that she is going to pee on my expensive carpet. 

On the relatively benign side of things, Azza charges towards people who pass us on the golf course exercise path. It is 10 or 12 feet wide so she does make a clear effort to move towards them. I detect no aggression, only puppy exuberance. But that behavior is utterly incompatible with life in this camp (she jumps on the wrong Saudi and she's gone and perhaps me too). So I've been teaching her that as soon as we see someone coming within about 20 feet of us (from any direction), she is to come back and sit by my side, and hold the sit until released, while getting lots and lots of treats. I specifically try to treat her when she looks at the person then immediately looks back at me. She's getting really good at this and will quickly move from a position in front of me (where I prefer my dogs to walk) into a sitting heel position by my side (facing the same direction as me). Often the only command I have to give now is "Azza, come!" My goal is to eventually get her to continue to move past these walkers and runners but for now, having her sit is just fine.

Since she likes to tug, she needs to learn the rules of tug. They are three: I initiate and end the game. She doesn't grab the toy in my hand unless invited to do so. She drops the toy on command. Having a solid "drop it" has proven extremely useful with the terriers so I started there. I do have to hold her scruff (hold, not shake) but a few seconds of waiting and she drops the toy. I immediately present it back to her with a "get it!" command as reward for dropping it. This training is going very well. She will even tug outside.

I hope to build in a fetch behavior since she likes to tug so much (bring the toy back to me and we'll tug some more) and am playing around with that but only casually, not with any focus at this time. I prefer that she and I just play without too many rules and restrictions.

Her bite inhibition with me is pretty good now. She clearly knows when her teeth grab finger instead of bear. Even Harry sometimes makes a mistake. But Azza will need a bit more training in this area.

She's got a few behaviors that are not so benign. A few nights ago, I realized that I forgot to put her fish oil capsules in her dinner bowl. She is growing so fast that her skin is flaky. So she gets four fish oil capsules a day. Anyway, as I bent down to toss them in her bowl, she freaked out and tried to attack me, growling and snarling and lunging at me. Whoa nellie!! Cujo rears her head at only 14 weeks.

I've never had a dog that was that aggressive about guarding. And I definitely don't like that behavior. I need to be able to extract things from my dogs' mouths, including bones and their food bowls, whenever I want.

As a result, I've been handfeeding Azza at least one of her meals each day (messy but effective) and I randomly touch her back and shoulders while she's eating. Tonight I was able to pick up her food bowl while she was eating and put it back down immediately and she didn't do anything. I will continue to work this for quite a while.

Azza also has some major fear issues: parked cars, trash bags shaken out to be put in the can, me coming down the stairs with an armful of laundry (it's the laundry, not me), machines that make noise, dogs barking in the distance, unexpected non-food objects in familiar places, workers in yellow jumpsuits (Upul pointed that out and I have since confirmed it with my own observations)...the list goes on and on. She nearly had a heart attack when I opened the dishwasher for the first time in her presence.

I'm working on teaching her a wide variety of replacement behaviors, mostly tricks such as nose touch to hand, spins, go through my legs. I work on those when she is not stressed but I have not done enough repetitions to make these things accessible to her when she is freaking out. I noticed that it helps when passing scary things like parked cars to use the happiest, highest pitched voice I can make to tell her to "come!" So I'm learning a lot too. She's much softer than the terriers and is challenging me to soften up my own handling and training.

But the real push in this area is to get her to investigate new objects, not flee from them in fear. So tonight I introduced her to free shaping with the clicker. I figured she was operant so the main hurdle would be her fear of the new objects. I started with a cone. It took much longer than I thought but she did put her nose on the base and on the top. Then I put a small board down in order to get her to put a paw on it. Wow! Was this a surprising training session! She did just about everything she could to NOT touch the board. If I nudged it by accident, she would scoot a few feet away and we'd almost have to start over again. But I did get her to nose touch it in different places.

In contrast, Mimi will nearly come unglued in her attempts to get in, on, through, under, paw on, paws in, mouth on whatever I put in front of her if she knows that I have clicker in hand. 

Azza is going to see random contents from of all sorts of drawers and cabinets and closets over the next few weeks, and she will get rewarded for anything she does with these objects. I am hopeful since it is clear that she is a smart dog and learns quickly.

In my opinion, these behaviors are a product of her living feral for those early weeks. It makes sense for a feral puppy with few defenses to stay away from anything that doesn't look like food. These behaviors were already in place when I got her so I suspect it will take some time and patience to move her to a new space.

But hey, she and Harry and Mimi went on their first morning walk together two mornings ago. It was a bit chaotic but I'd say that progress is being made!

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Agility in KSA Week 17

The handlers are all doing so great that I figured it was once again time to challenge them a bit. So I designed a Snooker course for last week's agility class.

Designing short sequences to train specific things is not that difficult and I am never at a loss for ideas there. But I have never designed a Snooker course. It was a bit harder than it looks, especially when you factor in our equipment limitations here. It took me eight attempts to draft up a reasonable idea on paper then further tweaking in the course designer software. And we had to tweak it just a bit more when we set it up. A real learning experience for me.

I didn't actually research the exact specifications for a USDAA Novice Snooker course, although I know the rules of the game because I played it fairly often. So when you look at my course map below, you will probably find more than one thing that violates the rules for course design for this game. But, when I look around, I don't see anybody else here who has played USDAA Snooker but me, so as long as the course was runnable for our little group but still challenging, it would be fine.

I decided to go with a four-red-jump course to maximize their chances of success. I also explained the timing rules to them but we did not enforce opening and closing times, only recorded the total time in case of point ties. I also told them that I would allow them to make some errors not normally allowed (refusals for the most part) but that taking obstacles in the wrong order would get them whistled off.

I appointed a chute fluffer, a timer, and a scribe for every run. I was the judge calling points for all runs but my own (MH called points for me and Mimi). I even made up some score sheets. And finally, I scrounged through my supply of dog toys and brought prizes for the highest scoring student of each round (MH and I played for points but not for prizes).

So here's the course that I made.

 We had time to play three rounds and thankfully three different students won each round! They were all quite skeptical in the beginning when I explained the rules but got into it fairly quickly and a couple of them were clearly trying to be strategic and competitive! It was great fun, especially when I challenged them all to try something completely different for their third run through the course.

Some of them might very well end up back in the real world with their dogs already infected with the agility bug, and I'm trying my best to give them confidence to successfully pursue it.

Dog Obedience in Dhahran

I may never get used to my infamy amongst the expats in camp. When I am introduced to someone, they nearly always pause for a second then say "Oh! You're the 'Dog Lady'... or the 'Dog Teacher' or the 'Dog Whisperer' (which I totally hate) or my favorite, the 'Dog Guru'."

When you're running the only dog training show in town, word does get around.

Because I have a big trip planned for May on dates that fall right in the middle of the next session of Community Education classes, I'm not teaching the Basic Obedience class during April-June. All of the folks at the Community Ed office emailed me to say how much my class would be missed!

The current obedience class finishes up next week. While it is a tremendously fun experience to teach each eight-week course, I am always a bit relieved when I am done because I have my weekends back. And I am resolved to spend a bit more time out of camp than I usually do.

I have been reading and researching new ideas for the obedience class and am slowly incorporating many of them, to the betterment of the class. For example, for the weeks 6 and 7 classes, I hauled an agility tunnel and tunnel bags to class. This is actually almost as much work as hauling all of the gear to the agility class because the obedience class is held in a large, air-conditioned room that is up two flights of stairs!! Piling stuff on the crate dolly is not a solution--no handicap access ramps in Saudi Arabia. I have to carry all that stuff up to the room.

Since the primary pool of new agility participants will come from my obedience class, I figured, why not give them a tiny taste of agility (the tunnel is the obvious choice) and at the same time give myself a chance to evaluate them and their dogs with a critical eye?

All of the dogs loved the new experience, which means their handlers loved it too. I even had two handlers successfully send their dog to the tunnel this afternoon!

I also switched up the curriculum so that I introduce some behaviors earlier so that they get lots of reinforcement over the duration of the class. As a result, the dogs are doing extremely well with loose lead walking, one of the most common problems people have with their dogs.

The best part is when the handlers tell me how much better their dogs are behaving at home or on walks. As always, it makes me proud of the time and effort they are putting in to training their dog. And it makes me feel good that I helped them get there.

Sunday, March 04, 2012


Azza at about 11 weeks of age.
Meet Azza. I've had her for a month, and she's about 12 and a half weeks old now, give or take a week.

Back before the Saudis got religion, the Arabs used to name their girl children after plants and animals. Azza means "young gazelle."

 Azza is a "desert dog." What a desert dog actually is depends on who you are talking to but they are often mixed with saluki or canaan, the former a hunting sight hound with folded ears and the latter a desert herding breed with prick ears. Desert dogs can come in any color combo depending on what was mixed in (doberman, lab, golden, GSD, pit bull, etc.) but a common color pattern for the generic "desert dog" with probable saluki origins is orange or gold on top and white below with white accents, like Azza. I've never seen a "desert dog" with a lot of coat.

Azza the day I brought her home. She's about 8 weeks old here.
 Most desert dogs are pretty leggy and lean, although if they have a lot of lab or pit bull in them they can be chunky. Azza's saluki roots give her that leggy, streamlined look and almond-shaped eye holes (her eyes themselves are round like any other dog).

Azza exhausted at last.
So far I'm pretty sure she doesn't have any solid bones but is instead made of cooked noodles. I've never seen such a flexible, floppy dog. Her tail is even more amazing. Whip thin, she appears to have a lot of control over it, holding it high and curved over her back when happy. But it flies around like a wet string when she gets the zoomies.

Harry doesn't actually hate her. As long as she behaves herself, he tolerates her well. They are sharing a quiet moment in the morning sun.
I've been curious about these dogs ever since I saw them. Most of them are aggressive and often bite people. They maintain huge bubbles of space around themselves and rarely tolerate touching by strangers. And unfortunately, most of the people on camp that have one of these dogs don't have a clue about how to manage them. They can't be walked. They have to be locked up when people come over. I wondered if a consistent program of positive training and socialization begun at a very early age would make a difference. So I've been keeping an eye out for a very young desert dog.

About a month ago, Azza landed in my lap. She came from a litter whelped by a feral desert dog who lives at one of the private Aramco beaches.

Azza and Kinky playing. He starts it as often as she does!
The switch in her brain may flip in a few months and she could turn into psychotic desert dog, but for now she's proving to be a challenging but very rewarding training experiment.

Upul's comment upon seeing her was classic: "Ma'am, she's going to be big!" I hope so. How can I say I am a dog trainer if I don't spend some time, truly dedicated and focused time, training something besides a smooth fox terrier (as much as I love them)? Yes, I'm even thinking about agility!

Nothing like a nap in the sun! When I see tableaux like this, I really do hope she doesn't turn into Cujo in a few months. Oh yes, Azza's touching Mimi, who's in turn touching Harry.
Azza gets along well with Mimi and Kinky. Tsingy ignores her. Harry hates her but he has so far applied extremely appropriate discipline when she annoys him. Pesty puppy won't get the message so I let him manage it his way (he's chomped her four times but so far no damage--and he gave her plenty of advanced warning each time!).

Azza and Mimi like to play very rough but I allow it...for now. Mimi seems to enjoy having another dog to play with although she is far from her puppy days.

Azza is all feet and legs right now. I know she looks half-starved but that's how these saluki-desert dogs develop. Really, I'm stuffing her with food!

Looks ferocious and it is pretty rough but they seem to both have excellent bite inhibition.
Azza's training program so far includes sitting to have the leash removed and not running wild until released, loose lead walking, sitting on verbal or hand command, sitting when people pass us while walking, stay, recall, name game, waiting for other dogs to get treats, not jumping on things or me ("off"), pooping and peeing on a schedule (my schedule, that is) and not in the house, bite inhibition during play, and tugging games. She hasn't shown much love for the hand touch game but I'm working on that. She loves all kinds of toys and it's easy to get a three-way game going with Harry on one tug, Azza on another, and Mimi playing fetch with a third toy. I can growl in her face and she'll growl back and tug harder! I love feisty dogs!

For now, I think Azza has a nice home with us.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Lost in Translation

I received this via email. The back story might be concocted after the fact but it sure is consistent with the photo and how things generally work in this part of the world.

A new fuel tanker arrives on location somewhere in the Middle East. The HSE manager tells the Pakistani fleet supervisor to ensure that the tanker is clearly labeled “Diesel Fuel” and “No Smoking” in Arabic. This is what he got.