Friday, June 29, 2012

The Beasts

The only point of this post is to share some new pictures of the beasts.

126F. I don't know how they stand it.

I took this photo just this morning. Azza gets along very well with the terriers. She is still fascinated by Harry since he doesn't want her to get too close.

Azza could kill Kinky with one snap of her jaws but she doesn't. Notice that his claws aren't even extended. It's very dramatic and showy but not much actual contact is made.

Azza will drag Kinky along by his head. The cat shrieks and yowls and flops around but comes right back for more.

Shopping Adventures

There's a new single woman named LW who just joined Aramco's legal finance group. Through mutual connections, I was asked to get in touch with her and show her around a bit. She and I could not be more different in personality, taste, opinions, etc. (I strongly suspect she votes Republican and she has TWO TVs in her 740 sq foot hovel because she leaves them on all the time for background noise; I probably turn my TV on two or three times a month at most) but when you live in the little bubble that is the expat community in Dhahran, you don't have the luxury of not hanging out with someone simply because they are different than you. So we've been out shopping a couple of times and I had her over to the house to meet the beasts for about half an hour.

Yesterday we went into the Dhahran Mall in Khobar with the express purpose of visiting the Pottery Barn store which opened a couple of weekends ago. Sadly, a store that I would never have shopped in at home has become a local tourist attraction for us expats. On our way through the mall, LW nabbed a pair of white flats to wear to work. It was the work of perhaps 10 minutes--she spotted them, dived into the store, tried on two pairs, asked for a less scuffed pair in her size, and paid the guy, all the while negotiating his lack of English. I didn't even know it was possible to buy shoes this quickly. I am not a true size and have to try on multiple pairs in each brand to find the fit.

We also stopped in at Saco World (sort of pale imitation of Home Depot) where we grabbed some 110V multi-plug extension cords (110V appliances are no longer available IK but all Aramco housing is still 110V), I got some paint for my contact training board (bright blue and brighter yellow) and some dog toys, and LW found a package of "real" sponges.

Then it was off to the glorious, glittery home furnishings displays of Pottery Barn. I was on a particular mission to find two new pillows for my couch. Surprisingly, we both gravitated to some lovely muted blue ones with a floral pattern. Pillows purchased, mission accomplished.

Then because it was about 15 minutes to prayer time (LW didn't believe me at first when I told her that we'd be locked out of the stores but locked in the mall during prayer), we skipped over to Chili's restaurant to get nutritionally disastrous but delicious burgers. Chili's is another business that I would never patronize by choice at home but it's about the only place to get a decent burger here. We had a fun time chatting about life experiences and our respective plans for the future.

All in all, it was a very successful day of shopping, one of the best I've had here so far.

I followed that up with an early morning trip to the commissary this morning (it's Friday so my weekend). No Saudis (they never get up that early on Friday morning), just a few bleary eyed expats like me wandering around. I didn't find any baking soda--it is a very irregular product here. But I managed to score some coarse sea salt for my grinder. I've been looking in numerous grocery stores for over two months for coarse salt. I of course purchased two large containers of it (per the usual hoarding).

And I found this over in the veggie section:

Yes, that is a container of locally grown, organic red bell peppers. Three of them for about USD 5. The com also had organic potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplants, and some fruits from the same company. I am not sure I can express what an amazing and dramatic change this represents. First, you have to have consumer demand, then you have to have a Saudi farmer enterprising enough to see the potential and then make the effort to grow these items in some more or less environmentally friendly fashion.

Some other interesting shopping-related changes have been happening here in the Kingdom. Women have not been allowed to work in shops for quite some decades (because it leads to mixing of the sexes, which the mutawahs fear more than anything else). That meant that there were only male clerks in the lingerie shops. Imagine having to buy your bras and underwear from some smarmy, smirking Indian or Saudi clerk. It's bad enough that you can't try anything on (no Saudi clothing shops have dressing rooms) but you couldn't even be measured or fitted.

Enough women from sufficiently powerful families complained (for years) such that at the end of last year, the King decreed that all lingerie shops had to employ only women clerks by June 1 of this year. The sounds of wailing and rending of garments and gnashing of teeth from the conservative religious factions lasted for weeks. But the King didn't budge and it actually became a reality: you can walk past those shops and see women clerks in them. To be sure, these women clerks are veiled head to toe in abaya and niqab, but it is a giant leap for women's rights in this repressive country.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Discretion versus Being a Terrier

Azza agrees with Falstaff that “the better part of valor is discretion.” The dogs and I had quite an adventure this morning. We weren’t even a third of the way along our usual walking route when we were attacked by a small grey feral cat.

I haven’t seen a feral cat in months (other than the one in the empty house a couple of weeks ago). Reports of missing pet cats have been coming across the email chains every few days for some weeks now. Even we dog owners have been on high alert since the beginning of the year. The reason for all of this? Two packs of feral dogs have staked out territories on camp and they are killing cats and stalking dogs.

The dogs have not yet attacked a person but they have attacked cats and small dogs in front of witnesses, who are not always able to successfully intervene.

I encountered the western pack, a group of five to seven light colored dogs that look a lot like Azza, back in January in the jebels. I had all three dogs with me. The pack split up and tried to surround us. I picked up Harry and Azza (she was just about 10 weeks old then and much smaller) and, dragging Mimi the entire way, managed to make it about half a mile back to the car. Mimi was ready to take them all on. I was terrified. I haven’t been back to the jebels since.

About a month later, in the pre-dawn dark, I encountered the same pack several mornings in a row in my area of the cluster housing ghetto. I managed to get the dogs back home after one very close encounter but the pack followed us all the way to my gate. I stopped walking the dogs in the mornings for about a month and then switched around my schedule so that I took them out only after the sun was up. That’s not much of a comfort zone since the dog packs hunt well into the mid-morning, but the hope is that I can spot them sooner.

My experiences are not isolated ones. Many of my dog friends who live in the cluster housing ghetto reported being followed or threatened by the same pack all throughout the spring. Having a larger dog doesn’t appear to be any protection. Many group emails were sent, many complaints were made to Aramco but very little effective steps were taken to deal with the dogs. (IMO, this is because no Saudis were complaining.)

To turn the narrative corner, any feral cats that are left have certainly had some interaction with the wild dog packs by now and so are on edge and on alert. Otherwise they’d already be dead.

So this morning the three dogs and I were quietly walking along the path next to the golf course, all of us enjoying the early morning cool (relative since it has hit 118 F here the past couple of days so cool mornings mean about 88 F), when suddenly the grey cat darted out of a hedge and ran right for the dogs.

I started yelling (profanity of course, what else?) and tried to drag the dogs away. Quite predictably I tripped on the leashes and fell down hard. When I fell, I dropped Azza’s leash but she only moved a few feet away from the squalling mess that was Mimi and the cat and warily watched the proceedings from a safe distance. Harry was sort of milling around the edge but he never got involved. He may not have figured out what was happening until it was over; his sight and hearing are not what they used to be. I pulled Mimi away but that fucking enraged cat charged at her again. I finally screamed and scrambled and dragged Mimi and Harry off the path where I could grab rocks and throw them at the cat who finally gave up the attack. Azza came right to me when I called her (thank god for lots of positive reinforcement).

I picked up Mimi and carried her nearly all the way back home. She had another ear bite, on the other ear as (bad) luck would have it, and was flinging blood all over the place with every shake of her head. This bite was more serious and required a liberal application of KwikStop (after a bath and cleaning of wounds of course).

I’m pretty sure the cat was not rabid (rabies is mostly confined to the fox population here and they have also been decimated or chased out by the wild dogs). The cat was stressed and very angry but not sick. Certainly his behavior was aggressive but logical given the situation.

Mimi was truly defending herself as we were all taken by surprise by the cat. But she is a tough little terrier and jumped into the fray without hesitation. I love her for that essential terrier-ness. But even if Azza's behavior was driven by fear, the fact that she chose discretion certainly is a point in her favor as well.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Training Azza (7)

The careful readers amongst you might recall my statement a couple of posts ago that Azza isn’t allowed in the bedroom. I thought I’d expand on that a bit. The actual rule is that Azza and Kinky aren’t allowed in the bedroom at the same time unattended. When those two get together, chaos follows. They can strip my bed of all pillows, bedding, dog blankets, and Tshirts in less than a minute. It took me a few days to catch them in the act to figure out how in the hell they managed this feat.

It goes like this. Kinky burrows under something, a sheet, let’s say, and Azza can’t resist the hunt so grabs the sheet and yanks. Cat comes rolling out only to dive under something else. Their efficiency is frightening.

Like tornadoes, everything in their path is fair game. Kinky likes to dive under the bed but Azza doesn’t fit under there anymore so in frustration one morning Azza chewed a hunk out of the leg of the bed frame!

Kinky regularly trolls horizontal elevated surfaces looking for things to knock on the floor, which really means into Azza’s mouth. Kinky decided my asthma inhaler made a good toy, and Azza did too, that is until she punctured the canister with a tooth and the contents shot into her face. Good thing it was nearly empty or she’d still be high from that shot.

I’m glad that Kinky and Azza get along so well. But it’s almost a full time job going along behind them picking up the mess!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Training Azza (6)

Training Azza is an exercise in one step forward, one step back. A lot of treading water, in other words. She is about six months old now and still gangly as a new-born fawn. I call her the noodle dog since I'm not sure she actually has solid bones, only partially cooked pasta in there.

I walk the dogs daily for at least 20 minutes in the morning and at least 30-45 minutes in the evening; weekend walks can be as long as an hour. That's a lot of loose lead practice and a lot of time being exposed to the environment. Azza will now walk past most parked cars with hardly an ear flick. Parking lots don't seem to be places of terror anymore. She will also walk past most of the centralized garbage can pens without dropping to the ground in fear first. She will now walk across metal grates on the sidewalk albeit extremely reluctantly (still, no more dragging her across them). She will walk past groups of small brown, jumpsuit-clad workers without growling (but she has to be a good distance from them). She is only about 50% reliable when walking past other people; she still lunges across my path and toward them at the last minute. This isn't done in fear but as a preemptive submissive gesture. Unfortunately, Saudis and Asians interpret her movement as aggressive so this is behavior that absolutely must be eliminated. I've returned to making her sit next to me whenever anyone is coming towards us.

I can get her to sit in cardboard box but I can't get her to sit on a small wooden stool. She is so terrified of the stool that if I even look at it while doing a training session with her, she shuts down completely. So I despaired of her doing anything with the agility table. Still, I figured today was the day to give it a try. This afternoon I built a PVC frame for the table that puts it up to 12". The frame and the table are quite stable. Of course Harry and Mimi were enthusiastically jumping on and off like terrier popcorn (yes, old man Harry still has quite a bit of pep in him!). I had to pick Azza up and put her on the table several times (she was on lead because at the sight of the table, she ran and hid in the kitchen). Her pupils enormous, her ears pasted back on her head, she glued her belly to the table each time I dumped her up there. But a tiny little light bulb went off in her tiny little brain after about the fourth drag and dump onto the table (I was not being terribly gentle) and she actually put a front paw on the table, then jumped up on it all by herself! Jackpot!

I fooled around with all three dogs on the table for a bit, then put Harry and Mimi away (to their great disappointment). With some work and lots of treats, I was able to get Azza to drive to the table on her own from about four or five feet.

I then decided to make it a bit harder. A few days ago I had introduced her to an orange cone. She was terrified of it. If she brushed it by accident, she dropped to the ground in fear. If I bumped and it made a sound as it scooted on the floor, she dropped to the ground in fear. But at that first session, I was finally able to get her to walk past the cone with me on one side and her on the other. My objective was to teach her a wrap and an out. I never got that far of course. With Azza, the first few training sessions are always spent dealing with her fear of new objects. You can't actually do any mechanical training (over, under, through, around, etc.) until she gets past that fear.

But back to this afternoon. I put the cone about 10 feet from the table and started to play a new game: I stood in the middle of these objects and sent her to the table for a sit or a down then release from the table to run to and then out and around the cone, finally returning to my hand for a treat. I worked her on both left and right sides and was able to keep her moving pretty fast. It was extremely successful and was the first time she showed a lot of drive in a training session. She was starting to get the out concept too but I decided to finish on a high note and not push that.

Restrained recalls are a method of building drive in a dog. You gently hold them by the chest or neck, rev them up, then release them to a toy or an object or an obstacle. I discovered that since Azza was already pretty stressed from dealing with the objects (table and cone), any contact I made with her caused her to shut down (drop to the ground in a submissive posture at my feet). But during our daily toy play times, she's been playing tug with me and letting me slap her sides and get a bit rough (she growls and gets excited) so I think she will eventually learn that my touching her can be fun and exciting in other contexts as well.

I did a very quick and not very thorough search for stats on salukis doing AKC agility and turned up information on...only one! Azza is only part saluki but she is very much a desert-type sight hound. Clearly these types of dogs present a huge training challenge to others as well. I've heard anecdotally that they are usually not strongly toy motivated. But Azza plays tug with me and is learning to fetch. She is learning to drive away and return to me. She can respond to both verbal and hand signals only. For a six-month old puppy who is almost certainly wired all wrong in the head, I think she is coming along very well, despite our treading water most days!

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Living By the Sword*

I got back from a holiday to Scotland over a week ago and have barely had time to do more than download my pictures from my camera to my computer. So I had pretty high hopes for this three-day weekend with an entire extra day and no excuses to get some posts up about the trip.

So you can imagine my disgruntlement when I had to leave work early on Wednesday because of what turned out to be food poisoning. I lost about 30 hours of my anticipated long weekend, most of it spent laying in bed waiting for my guts to calm down.

On top of that, I smacked my head on the front door, leaving a red mark that is still there two days later, and Azza peed on my bed (she snuck up there to play with the cat, a forbidden activity, and got too wound up).

With an already bad attitude and a reputation for being a curmudgeon, you might not be surprised at my reaction to news reports of the NFL player suit against the league accusing them of "turning a blind eye" to the risks of head injuries.

I know that football players are not chosen for their intelligence. But even for really stupid people, it should be a pretty strong clue that when participation in a "sport" requires nearly every surface of one's body to be covered in plastic and steel and foam (all of which is tested for its impact resistance), that participation is probably going to be harmful to one or more parts of said body, including your brain.

Football and boxing are two of the most pointlessly violent "sports" that are commonly (and endlessly) discussed on sports shows. It is also utterly and sadly predictable that these "sports" are most popular in the U.S.

America's sports "heroes" are idiots who get the shit knocked out of themselves on a regular basis, for money, willingly lining up and signing up year after year, who then come whining back years later complaining that they "had no idea" there would be any consequences.

I have no sympathy.


Saturday, June 02, 2012

Not A Terrier

I've been pondering this topic for some time now. Azza is most definitely, most emphatically not a terrier.

Azza modeling her new ModDog collar. And yes, she can get decent satellite reception with those ears.

 I am still not sure that this non-terrier is a good dog for me. But while I continue to work on that problem, I've been making some observations re the states of terrier- and non-terrierness.

Fox terriers walk on their toes. The large pads on their feet rarely touch the ground completely, even when they run flat out or make tight turns.

In contrast, Azza the non-terrier moves her front paw like giant paint brushes. For the first time, I can examine the function of dewclaws up close. Fox terriers have their dewclaws removed when they are just a couple of days old, and now I understand why. They don't need them. Their wrists simply never bend enough to allow this sixth digit to come into play. Azza slaps her big old paws back and forth on the concrete and even at a normal walking speed her dewclaw can come into contact with the ground.

Fox terriers have front wheel drive. Their motion can be almost mechanical as their stiff legs swing far forward of their upright heads, pulling the rest of the dog forward. Azza has rear wheel drive, as her hind legs, seemingly proportioned for a rabbit instead of a dog, propel her forward.

Besides these interesting mechanical differences, I discovered tonight that Azza apparently lacks another characteristic terrier feature: blood lust for small furry creatures.

I was walking Azza and Mimi tonight with a friend and her dog (Boodle from agility class). We decided to duck into the yard of an empty house to let the dogs off leash.

I released the dogs and turned to latch the gate when I realized that Mimi and Boodle were in a serious fight with an animal. It turned out to be an extremely pissed off feral cat. MW pulled Boodle off the cat right away (he wasn't that committed to the fight, only following the leader) but Mimi had what would certainly have been a death grip on it so I had to slam her and the cat into the wall to get her to let go. There was blood everywhere, from whom I had no idea but Boodle had an ear bite (a nice bleeder) and Mimi was ripped up on her face and throat (some good spurters there too). She also had a giant mouthful of fur. The cat was very much alive when we left it.

And where was Azza during these adrenaline-filled few seconds? Sensibly crouched 15 feet away then hiding behind MW and Boodle, waiting for the drama to subside. Once we got both dogs off the cat and dragged them a few feet away to catch our breath, Azza gave the cat a few barks, as if to say, "Yeah, that'll show ya!"

At least Mimi comes by her terrier feistiness honestly. (The tale of The Incident and A Series of Unfortunate Events are worth a read at this point.)

Sigh. I'm afraid I'm a bit too used to cleaning up bloody terriers.

I'm pretty sure the cat was not rabid but I was worried about infection since Mimi got a number of deep bites, so I doused her wounds fairly liberally with betadine solution. I have not seen that for sale here so thank goodness I had some I brought with me on the original move out.

And Azza? She might yet turn into Cujo but she is not a terrier.

Friday, June 01, 2012

More Agility in KSA

I managed to sneak in some agility in April. Even though the Community Education-sanctioned agility classes ended in March, I ran a handful of informal agility classes in the back yard of one of the handlers.

Our informal agility was scaled back too. SS has a nice yard, which none of the single female handlers have, including me. While large by Aramco standards, we only had room for a couple of jumps and a tunnel.

Nellie driving out. Yes, that is indeed a bunny fur tug in PM's hand! Quite a few of the handlers bought one after I showed them what a great training tool it was.

SS and Abby showing off a very nice start to a serpentine. The tunnel, which I used as the third object in the serpentine, is just out of the photo to the right. All of my intermediate handlers can execute serpentine handling.

Boodle reluctantly going through the 2x2s. He likes to bluster at Nellie so he's on lead for this exercise.
Since we don’t have yards or a safe outdoor place to practice or access to an appropriately floored indoor space or extra equipment, most of the handlers don’t get any opportunity to work with their dogs outside of class. The extra classes were a great opportunity for them to return to fundamentals, working front crosses and rear crosses with a single jump, working on sends to the jumps (I’ve got some handler-focused dogs that often will not cross the plane of the jump unless the handler does too). To help with those sends and to ease the handlers off of babysitting the jumps, I introduced them to the out command. I’ve been getting them to think about their bodies more: which hand they use to signal an obstacle, which hand the dog receives the reward from, where their feet are pointing.
It quickly became too hot even though we started at 6:30 in the morning so agility in KSA is over for the summer. I can't wait for September!

Nellie showing mastery of this level of the 2x2 weave training.

I had some real weave pole bases made: two sets of six poles, each with a hinge in the middle so they will fit in my car. Mimi was thrilled to do real weaves again!

Upul Is Back!

He called me this afternoon to let me know that he was back from his repat. Domestic helpers are usually allowed to go home for a couple of months every two years. However, those who are sponsored by westerners often get to go home yearly. This year, Upul took his repat in April and May.

I was also planning a trip in May (I just got back a few days ago myself) so his absence required quite a bit of planning on both our parts.

Due to a combination of my pack being rather high maintenance and Upul being extremely competent, it took THREE helpers to replace him. John walked the dogs every weekday at lunch time. Vilo washed my car every Friday morning. And Jing (a woman) stayed at my place while I was out for the last two weeks of May.

I made it easier on her by boarding Azza at the kennel but that still left her with four crazy beasts to feed and clean up after and entertain. I think she was more than ready to end this assignment!

It is important to me that my dogs are well socialized and they certainly seem to like John well enough but I know they will be ecstatic to see Upul tomorrow at lunch time. I told him that I would tell them that he was coming and he laughed.