Tuesday, September 25, 2012

French Immersion

Despite the obvious pleasures of drinking wine and eating pork daily, my primary reason for going to Sancerre was to spend two weeks in a French language immersion program at Coeur de France language school.

The reviews for the school on tripadvisor.com were uniformly positive and while CdF could accommodate families, it seemed that they mainly catered to adult learners. I took an online test that helped determine my level of proficiency (intermediate, no surprise there). And after a bit of emailing back and forth with Gerard, an American who is co-owner of the school with his French wife Marianne, I was able to coordinate my travel schedule with a suitable course schedule.

I was also able to arrange rental of an apartment directly above the school which was quite convenient. Although the apartment was certainly atmospheric and charming, some of the other apartments in the village maintained by the school were nicer. But those will have to wait for the next visit!

The view from my apartment window at dusk.
Literally upon our arrival at the train station in nearby Cosne (pronounce "cone"), we were asked not to speak English during our stay. It was difficult to comply with this 100% of the time because there were people at all proficiency levels attending the school, some of whom had no French at all, so every so often we found ourselves quickly whispering important information to each other in corners.

The school has around 10 instructors, including Marianne. Marianne was the instructor for the two weeks of my class. I was in a class of 5 other adults, with four of them in the same class as me for both weeks: John and May from England, Nennia from the US, and Jean from the US. Being together for two weeks brought a lot of continuity to our learning and our ability to understand each other.

Our group met for four hours each day, alternating mornings and afternoons. I spent an additional four to six hours each day working on homework and readings and grammar exercises (I carefully read three TinTin adventures during the two weeks; they are excellent because they present short sentences, colloquial expressions, multiple verb tenses, and a rather advanced vocabulary, all accompanied by pictures to help with meaning). It sounds like a lot of work and it really was. I’ve never worked so hard on a holiday. But despite being serious business, it was also a lot of fun. 

My first dinner in my tiny kitchen (thank goodness I am completely used to tiny kitchens from living for three years in my hovel in Dhahran): pork chop pan fried with shallots and garlic and salt and served on a bed of greens, crottin du chevre, a bottle of Sancerre blanc, fresh bread.
I discovered too late that I could have also signed up for a couple of hours of one-on-one instruction each day. I think my speaking skills would have improved much more if I had done this. Another useful bit of information for the next visit!

Four hours is a long time to sit in a class and Marianne used a variety of different activities to break things up. One activity that we did each meeting was to have group conversation. Marianne would usually initiate it by asking each of us to speak on a topic (what did you do on the weekend, tell us about your best vacation, describe situations where you’ve experienced French customs different from your own, etc.) then allow the others to ask each speaker questions. This free-form activity often led us into surprising conversational territory which sometimes we had trouble negotiating when our French wasn’t quite up to what we were trying to say.

By the second week, the five of us were getting pretty comfortable with each other and the jokes, made mostly at our own expense, were flying fast and furious. You know you are making progress in another language when you can make a joke and everyone gets it. After our group of five spent the weekend together drinking wine and gossiping, learning a lot about each others' lives outside of France in the process, we started teasing each other in class. Sometimes I think our teasing was maybe a bit too “English” for Marianne (even though it was all in French) but she remained calm when we started acting up.

We even established a few memes in our short time together. Jean watched "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone" five times in one day, all in French of course. So watching or reading something five times became our new standard, a true measure of learning. I created a meme for “rolling the dice” because I was always getting confused about grammatical choices which appear on the surface to be similar and small but which actually affect the meaning in big ways, such as que/qui, tout/tous, le/la, a/de/nothing with infinitive verbs, whether the "c" at the end of parc and porc is pronounced (yes in the first one, no in the second) and so forth. I’d invariably make the wrong choice and be corrected by Marianne so I’d shake my hand and open it like I was throwing out a pair of dice. (I also managed to successfully explain the related 50/50/90 rule to John entirely in French!)*

Freshly made crottins set out on wire racks in a cool room to begin aging.
One of the most interesting group conversations we had was prompted by Marianne asking each of us to select, read, then discuss an article with the class. We could choose the article  in any media or language that we wanted but we had to give our recap of it in French. Jean talked about the recent suicide death of a film director which spiraled off into a discussion of euthanasia and why people might choose suicide. Another woman talked about a study of the incidence of autism. From those two topics we spiraled off into a discussion about Lance Armstrong having his titles stripped from him, doping in sports, and whether immoral people can do truly good deeds or not. After all this serious stuff, I felt a bit bad about presenting the article I had chosen about the new model of Barbie that will come out in December of this year. But I only felt bad for a little while because I had invested a lot of energy into this assignment. What’s special about this particular Barbie? She was created by a transvestite fashion designer (Phillip Blonde) and looks eerily like him. How exactly does one know that a Barbie doll is a transvestite? You can't use the presence or absence of secondary sexual characteristics since Barbie dolls only have breasts. But you can use as evidence her extremely heavily made up face, her wildly spangled gown, and the words of Mattel itself. I used my iPad to show photos of this socially radical doll. And it turns out that there have been other bizarre Barbies: a pregnant one (with suspiciously Latina skin and hair coloring) and a Barbie with an accompanying yellow labrador doll, a pail, a scoop, and little plastic dog poops (crottes du chien). (Marianne commented dryly, <<Évidemment elle n’est pas française>> which nearly dropped us to the floor with laughter; even in a small village like Sancerre, dog shit is everywhere on the streets). Nennia continued the hilarity with her discussion of the naked Prince Harry photos from his Las Vegas excesses.

We had role-playing activities each class meeting as well. One of the more amusing assignments required us to confront our partner who was playing the role of an upstairs neighbor who was having parties every night and making too much noise. Marianne asked us to not script these conversations out but to try to deliver them spontaneously. Much silliness ensued since beyond agreeing on the general outline of our skit, we had no idea what the other was going to say!

Here are some of my favorite vocabulary words: gonflier, to inflate; noyer, to drown; une fourmi, ant (ants produce formic acid, dontcha know!); une chauve-souris, bat ("bald mouse"); il fait loup, it's humid; se balader, to take oneself out for a walk; les draps, sheets, bedding; parier, to bet or gamble; se tromper, to be mistaken (tromper without the reflexive pronoun means to fall)...well, I filled two notebooks with interesting words and grammar bits and I could bore you for quite a while. I'll just leave you with this gem, a very difficult French tongue twister: Les grenouilles fouillent sous les feuilles à Marseilles (the toads rummage under the leaves of Marseilles, which just doesn't have quite the same ring as the French version).

In fact, I would have to say that we spent a good part of each class laughing uproariously. I didn't expect this at all but I think that we got lucky and had a pretty good mix of people. I was quite shocked to find out that the others thought after that first week that I was too serious (maybe even a bit scary serious) so I tried to be more relaxed about everything the second week. I even managed to figure out how to use an idiom with an incredibly obscure meaning (it involved prunes which were entirely metaphorical). And John, May, Jean: I still most firmly maintain that the act of dreaming (rêver) is expressing an emotion, i.e., c'est un verbe de <> donc ce n'est pas suivi de préposition avec un verbe infinitif.

Bottles of Sancerre blanc from the mid-80s stored in a cave. They keep a few bottles from important vintages to see how they age and keep. It is unlikely that this wine is still any good but the bottles looked pretty cool.
The school brings in a decent amount of money to the village and the shopkeepers are certainly aware of this. A two week stay like mine was common; some people even stay for four weeks! During this time, we do a lot of shopping and eating in Sancerre. In fact, we were instructed to tell shop owners and servers in restaurants that we were students at the school. Not only was this a flag that we wanted to try to practice our French but it was also a more subtle communication that we were not fly-by-afternoon tourists.

The woman who ran the charcuterie in particular was most charming to me (she saw me almost every other day), answering my questions about her terrines once I got a bit bolder and more confident that I could understand her.

One evening when I was out for a walk, I ran into Yvette. Imagine a typical little old French woman and you’ve got Yvette: small-floral-print dress, stockings, sturdy shoes. She was walking uphill and I was walking downhill. She stopped to rest on a bench and when I passed, I said “bonsoir, madame” because to pass by without speaking would have been considered quite rude, especially as we were the only people on that road at the time. Well, that was the only opening she needed. Yvette was off, chattering away to me about all sorts of things, only about half of which I understood. But I did get these bits from her: she was turning 85 in September, she has lived in Sancerre all her life, and during the war (the second one) when she was a girl, she was sent away with the other children to farms in the country. She also told me that there was a very large sweet pea vine at the end of a vineyard down the hill that I should be sure to stop at and get some wildflowers (les fleurs sauvages) for my kitchen table. When I told her I was a student at the school, her next question was to ask who my instructor was (I found this was the most often-asked question by the folks in the village). When I told her my instructor was Marianne and added that she was “tres formidable,” Yvette laughed knowingly then told me that Marianne had grown up in Sancerre and that her family was still in the area. It turns out that both Yvette and Marianne are well known throughout the village, each formidable in her own way!

This was a great holiday in many ways. I was kept busy every day learning and thinking and practicing French but I had ample time to enjoy the atmosphere and pleasures one would expect from a holiday in a village in the middle of France. I would recommend the Coeur de France school without hesitation...but you must be prepared to work hard!

Looking towards Chavignol village from the surrounding vineyards.

* The 50/50/90 rules states that given a choice between two equal (or equally likely) things or events, 90% of the time you will chose the wrong one.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Sancerre: Geology, Wine, and Crottins de Chavignol

After spending a couple of weeks in the U.S., I flew home, did some laundry, played with the dogs, made a batch of dog meatloaf, repacked my suitcase, and in about 48 hours was boarding another plane, this time to France. My ultimate destination was Sancerre, located in the eastern (upper) end of the Loire Valley, south of Paris and almost in the center of France. My goal: attend two weeks of French language immersion at the Coeur de France school. Because this was another amazing adventure, I’m going to have to spread it across a couple of posts. In this one, I’m going to talk about Sancerre itself. If you couldn’t care less about history, geology, wine or cheese, then you’ll have to wait a bit for my post about the language school experience!

Sancerre is an unbelievably charming medieval walled village located on the top of a hill overlooking the Loire River. It isn’t the highest hill in the area but it clearly has major strategic value by virtue of its many clear sightlines across the river floodplain and back into the hills. The older settlement in the area is located down on the river itself but it apparently was abandoned several times due to flooding and warfare; the river is broad and shallow and the floodplain is  flat although bordered by low hills, and the riverside settlement would have been difficult to defend.


Looking east towards Sancerre from the vineyards.

Looking NNE towards the Loire River in the upper left distance. You can see the broad river floodplain and the gentle hills that surround it. Sancerre village is directly behind me.
The hill is a distinct topographic feature (more on this below) that was probably used for thousands of years by Neanderthals and other early humans for a variety of purposes, even if for nothing else but the views! Native Celts probably used the hill for scouting (they established settlements in the area though apparently not on top of the hill) and the Romans certainly liked it, building roads up it, several successive churches on it, and a fortification on the top. Foundations of the village wall date from this time. Things really began cooking in the 10th century as the growing middle class of landowners and merchants started building larger, more elaborate homes, establishing Sancerre as an important center of commerce, trade, and power. There is a mostly intact (it’s been thoroughly repaired) tower dating from around 1150 that is all that is left of a larger, multi-tower castle. And there are buildings in the village, some occupied now as private homes, that date from the 1380’s or so. The fortified village was involved in a dizzying array of wars and local power struggles because of its geographic position and the wealth of its residents. Still, it has managed to survive and thrive.


View of the 12th century tower (far upper left) from my window. The other towers that you can see in the middle background are much younger.

I climbed to the top of the tower on a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon. The tower is at a topographic knob at the top Sancerre, roughly in the middle of the "back side" of the hill. Here I'm looking southwest. In town, you can see the main church in the middle left. At the west end of the small plaza in front if it is the charcuterie. This photo really shows the topography of the gently rolling hills within the Sancerre AOC and the topographic isolation of Sancerre village.

I'm looking south from the top of the tower. In the middle of the village at my feet you can see an L-shaped, grey-colored, grey-roofed building with white window casements. That is the Coeur de France school. My apartment was on the right side of the L on the second floor.
The Sancerre hill is the result of a fault that runs at its foot (see the map below). The fault juxtaposes different rock types (older rocks to the west of the fault, younger ones to the east). Because the section of older rocks is tilted, different types of rocks are exposed at the surface. This soil variation is the source of the world-famous Sancerre wines. There is verified documentation of wine making in the area dating from 582 AD but as with most things of this nature, it is likely that the people in the area were making wine for centuries before that.

The blue colors are for older rocks of Jurassic age, say 150 Ma, and the greens are for younger Cretaceous rocks, say 90 Ma. The orange blob north of Sancerre is Eocene age, around 35 Ma. The tan color at the top of the Sancerre hill is also Eocene produced by weathering of the Eocene rocks. This map is a reproduction of an old hand-colored map and unfortunately the colors in the legend don't match up too well with the colors in the map. The linear fault runs N-S at the foot of the Sancerre hill (on the west side of the hill). To my great annoyance, there is no scale on the map but I estimate that one inch at the full-size of the scan is about 1 mile. Put another way, the crow-flight distance from the center of Sancerre to Saint-Satur is about a mile.

If you drink wine, then you have heard of Sancerre white wine, which is made using sauvignon grapes. You may not know that in the same area they also make small volumes of rosé and red wines using pinot noir grapes. The small wine region around Sancerre has a coveted AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée) designation, and the land and the vines are very tightly controlled indeed. Many of the larger vineyards have storefronts in Sancerre or in nearby villages and I did two formal and several informal tastings. One of my favorite wines was a rosé from the Alphonse Mellot Domaine Moussiere vineyard which has obtained a rare “biologique” (organic) labeling from various European and French agencies (they don't make much of this rosé and don't export it; I was lucky to be there at the source). I also really liked the white wine called “Les Chasseignes” made by Domaine Fouassier. It is a beautiful example of a Sancerre white: light, dry, low acidity, slight fruit aromas and flavors but not fruity tasting (nor terribly sweet), and smooth to drink.

(For you wine buffs, Pouilly Fume whites are cousins to Sancerre whites. They come from similar soil types and also have their own AOC, but the vineyards are located on the other side of the Loire River. This constitutes an enormous difference in the world of AOC.)

There is a museum in town called “La Maison de Sancerre” which has to be one of the more interesting museums I’ve visited in a while. They don’t have art. Instead, all of the displays address some aspect of the history, anthropology, manufacture, cultivation, science, even the geology, of the local wine industry. And the displays utilize an amazing array of technology, lighting, and color. It was professional and scientifically thorough. I know that might put some of you off but I found it fascinating! There were bizarre 3D models, examined under a magnifying glass, of the various parasites and insects that can infest grape vines. There were panels describing in fair geologic detail the four main types of soil present in the Sancerre AOC (variations on chalky, chalky-clay, and chalky-flint). There is quite an obsession with the different taste that each soil type gives to the wines. There were movies that contained long and rather humorous interviews with local winemakers that you watch on Macs in small alcoves or projected onto large screens placed at the back of a diorama of an underground storage cave. The movies were in French, of course, but there were English subtitles and they were a great opportunity to practice listening to “common” French (which is different than written French or formal spoken French). In the movies you could watch multiple generations of winemakers, fathers and sons, brothers and cousins, talk about their work making Sancerre wines. There are even a couple of women winemakers. Traditionally, many farmwives maintained a few vines and made their own wine, but commercial wine making ventures are not often run by women in France. The museum is housed in a mid-17th century building that was originally built as a meeting place for the guild of Sancerre winemakers. Out back was an herb and flower garden in full, magnificent summer display. I gained a much deeper appreciation for the history of winemaking in Sancerre from the afternoon I spent in the museum.

A description of one of the important soil types from La Maison de Sancerre (the wine museum).

These soil profiles are not in La Maison de Sancerre but in the tasting room of one of the largest vineyards in the area, Henri Bourgeois. This was an activity arranged by the school. We got to taste 10 Sancerre wines, a real treat. I bought a bottle of 2002 Jadis, an unfiltered wine made using old fashioned techniques on grapes grown on chalky caillottes soil (the word "jadis" means "in times gone by"). This wine was incredible! It had an almost powdery texture and was very flowery without being at all sweet. It is unusual for a Sancerre blanc to be aged for so long but it was a wonderful bottle of wine.

Like most decently sized villages in France, there was a small number of local food shops: a couple of patisseries and boulangeries, quite a few fromageries (see next paragraph for more on this), a tiny marché with a lot of canned foods and a few fresh vegetables. There was also a charcuterie around the corner from the school, facing the small plaza in front of the old church (the structure of which is only three hundred years old or so). Madame made pork and duck terrines using local ingredients, stuffed the sausages by hand, and of course she sold beautiful chops from local, free-range pigs. You might not be surprised to learn that I ate pork in some form and drank wine every single day I was in Sancerre. Every. Single. Day. (Lardons on top of greens with shaved goat cheese and a dash of olive oil most definitely count as a form of pork.) It was sublime.

The local goat cheese industry was also a surprise. They call the individual cheeses, little round wheels about 2” (5 cm) in diameter, crottins de Chavignol (this link is definitely worth a visit!) (Chavignol is a tiny village west of Sancerre). They have a rather silly story to explain the origin of the word, something to do with impractically small oil lamps roughly the same size and shape as a crottin. But most suspiciously, the word for poop is crotte or crottin. It sure makes a lot of sense if you imagine the little cheeses to be the droppings of a rather giant goat. But that doesn’t make for a very palatable tourist sell, does it?

 
Anyway, crottins de Chavignol also have a coveted AOC designation; the area of this AOC overlaps closely with the Sancerre wine AOC area. It’s hard to imagine how they find room to fit in pastured goats when so much of the land space is covered with grape vines, but they do. There are three or four kinds of crottin which are all the same cheese prepared the same way but progressively aged. The young crottin is very soft and smooth, brilliant white inside with only a tiny bit of yellowish rind. It tastes a bit too much of goat pee for my taste. I liked the demi-sec, aged about a month, the perfect texture and firmness for cutting up and serving on a small plate with a glass or two of Sancerre white wine (I didn’t even need guests for dinner to do this; I often made this little treat for myself after class was over for the day). The sec crottins, aged 3-4 months, are perfect for shaving over sautéed veggies or a fresh salad or fresh melon or peaches (the latter were in season and I stocked up). The sec crottins can look horrendous: covered with a thick, grey or brown, wrinkled rind that looks like a fungal infection gone very wrong. The hard cheese inside is a pale yellow color.

Sec crottin at top, aged 4 months. The two on the lower left are demi-sec, aged two months, and the one on the lower right is the young one, aged just a couple of weeks.

You already know that I love to cook and I particularly love to cook when in France, so I was able to indulge myself almost every day. Besides eating pork and drinking wine, I managed to eat some crottin de Chavignol every day as well! It was sublime!

I stayed in an apartment above the school, which is located in a 17th century house built by a local semi-demi-nobleman. My apartment had a small but decently stocked kitchen and a tiny washer and dryer. And utterly fabulous views of that mid-12th century tower that looks over the town! I never tired of watching the sun rise and set each day out my windows.

The tourist industry hums along in Sancerre. It has more hotels and hostels and BandBs and apartments for short-term rent than most French villages of its size. I saw many French families on holiday but there were plenty of Brits and Dutch, a random German or two, and a scattering of Americans. Most were making day trips into the village as part of their chateau-viewing adventures farther west along the valley but plenty of people stayed overnight.

I took early morning jogs through town, exploring the streets in the pre-dawn grey when everything was quiet and it was just me, the cats, the bats, and the guys who go around town each morning to water the hundreds of flower pots maintained by the town. Apparently there was live music in the main square in the evenings but I don’t go out much after dark no matter where I am and stuck to my early-morning habits. Even though none of the street surfaces are original (houses have plumbing and municipal water; all the original streets were ripped up to lay mains and sewers, although some were resurfaced with cobblestones to give an air of authenticity), I could easily imagine myself in another time when walking along the curving, narrow streets, some no more than alleys, far too narrow for modern cars, overhung with crumbling buildings.

On the Sunday in the middle of my stay, I made a long morning hike of about 15-16 kilometers, following a designated randonnée that I researched on the internet. Randonnées are formal walking routes, often with a bit of signage here and there. It took me 5 hours to make the round trip from Sancerre through the villages of Amigny, Chavignol, and Verdigny, skirting a bit of Saint-Satur on the river, then back up the hill to Sancerre. Except in the villages, the route was through the vineyards covering the hills. There is a maze of roads and paths up there so I used the GPS on my iPad to make sure I didn’t miss a turn and end up too far from home.You can see all of these villages on the geologic map.

View of vineyards that I took during my hike. Every so often you see a brightly colored flowering plant at the end of a row of vines. The plant type may vary (roses are most common) but the flowers are usually red or deep pink. What is the purpose of these flowers? Decoration? That seems pretty frivolous for the serious business of making wine. We discussed this in class and thought it might be a sort of "canary in the coal mine" thing whereby if the flower wasn't doing well, perhaps the vines needed some attention too. But there were far too few of these flowering plants for them to be a broad measure of something like soil health or fungus or something (this site agrees that the roses don't serve this purpose in the modern vineyard). Another suggestion is that the flowers are used to attract flying pollinators (bees, moths, etc.) to the vines. But most grape types don't need flying pollinators (see this link and this one for TMI). So this explanation doesn't work too well either. I guess we'll just enjoy the spots of color and not worry any more about it!
Although I could have rented a car on the weekends, the idea of trying to see a chateau or two along with the hordes of other tourists just didn't seem very pleasant. Except for a couple of trips down to the Carrefour in Saint-Satur and my Sunday randonnée, I stayed close to home in Sancerre.

It was almost like having two separate vacations in one: the quotidian routines of life alternating with the intense atmosphere in the language classes. With four hours of instruction each day and hours of homework and extra study each night, I was working very hard. Excursions to buy bread and cheese and wine were a welcome break from that.

We have a four-day weekend in KSA so I have no excuse to finish the second post in this set on my language school adventures. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Marking Time

I realized tonight that I started this blog just over four years ago in August of 2008. Its beginning is linked with Iz dying, which is a sad thing. I know that I'm not the most prolific of posters and I certainly have my dry spells, but CircusK9 has covered a lot of ground in the past four years. Thanks for hanging in there with us.

Training Azza 9

Azza is still too young to begin any jump training (with larger breeds and especially with fast-growing leggy breeds like her, the cartilage growth plates at the ends of their long bones usually don’t close until 12-24 months of age; such dogs shouldn’t be doing repetitive jump drills until then because it can damage their joints) but that doesn’t mean that I can’t start some agility-flavored training with her.

Since she is so scared of everything new or different (simply moving furniture around can cause her to freak out for a couple of days), the big challenge is to find ways to reward her for any interaction with agility equipment. Actually doing the obstacle is a secondary objective right now. While it has been extremely successful for her, the “what is that?” command only takes us so far. Set up a jump or the tippy board in the living room and she won’t go near it. She drops to the floor, tries to slink away (hide in her crate or the kitchen), whines or growls, hackles up, and usually pees all over everything. I tried her with the tippy board back in April and it was a complete disaster. Panic doesn’t even begin to describe her reaction.

But I’m just as stubborn as she is so I decided that it had been a long quiet summer and it was now time to try her again. I started with a jump since I happened to have one out. And this time, rather than try to create a separate training session as I normally would, I thought I would ask her to work for her dinner. The dinner routine is a sacred one at CircusK9. The cats and the dogs make sure that I don’t ever forget what time it is (half an hour to dinner, 10 minutes to dinner, 5 minutes to dinner, feed us NOW!). Maybe you think it isn’t quite fair to mess with dinner time but I am convinced it is the only way to get through to dogs like Azza in a positive way.

I set up the jump, put a collar and leash on Azza, prepared their meal, and blocked the terriers in the kitchen with a baby gate. The first time I set up the gate blocking her from the kitchen, I had to physically restrain Azza from running away…to where, I don’t know, but she wanted to run and hide somewhere. Even with the bar on the ground, it was extremely difficult to convince her to approach the jump then pass through the uprights. I fed her the dinner meal by hand, one handful each time she walked over the jump bar.  

I continued this routine for the next several days for both morning and evening meals (except that I stopped feeding her by hand [too messy] and starting letting her take a mouthful or two directly from her bowl). I even used the bowl on the ground as a target.

And after four days of this new routine, I am happy to report that she will now clear a 12” bar when I am on the same side of the jump as her and when I am on the opposite side of the jump (a send over the jump versus a call over the jump). And she will do it with me on either side of her. And she will now do it off leash (which implies that she will hold her position in front of the jump and not try to run away). She doesn’t “know” a jump command or what jumping really is or even what the point of this activity is yet, but the bigger victory is that she showed willingness to work with me for a food reward. Most super stressed dogs won’t take food in that state so this suggests that even though she shows hesitation and signs of stress (ears back, panic if she ticks the bar, god forbid that she knocks it down), she still does what I’m asking her to do. (She’s not stupid; I think she knows that I wouldn’t feed her at all if she didn’t give it a try, and she’s right.)

Encouraged by this, I dragged the dreaded tippy board out. To give her credit, she showed a lot of ingenuity by jumping over the board (it is long and rectangular because that is the shape of the piece of wood that I had; it isn’t like I can pop down to a Home Depot and buy more) instead of stepping on it. After all, I’d just spent four days rewarding her for jumping over that progressively higher bar. So it is perfectly logical that she’d try to jump over this thing too. I rewarded her for jumping over it (because in the world of “you need to interact with this thing,” jumping over it certainly counts for at least the first few times) but then insisted that she had to put a paw on it. I had to use her food bowl to lure her close to it but at last she did put a paw on the board, making it move and causing her to drop to the ground in a panic. No matter! Huge praise party and she got to eat the rest of her brekkies in peace.

It took me two more days and Azza missing two dinners (both times she crouched on the floor next to the board, only close to it because I had her on lead and she had no choice, and kept her head turned away from it; wouldn't look at the board, her bowl, or me) before I discovered a remarkable trick. She is terrified of the tippy board but she is less terrified of it if I put a light blanket on it. She paws at the blanket, in the process putting a paw on the board, and is fairly willing to step onto the board with two paws (I'm stepping on one side of it to keep it from moving).

With a fearful dog like this that can fall into a panic/flight mode so quickly and display unpredictable and aggressive responses, I have to redefine the meaning of training success. But on the other hand, the breadth of possible successes is quite large. It isn’t just about jumping the jump. It is about approaching the jump without fear. It's about not slinking away when I pull the tippy board out.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Tired Dog is a Good Dog

PM got back from her summer leave on Wednesday, and the first thing on her mind was scheduling a walk/play date with her yellow lab Nellie and my dogs.

We usually let Nellie and Azza race around in an empty yard but I suggested that we meet very early this morning and take all of the dogs to a nice big yard. It took us a bit to find one. I had spied out two very nice empty houses in anticipation of PM's return but their yards turned out to be less than desirable: one had a massive sprinkler leak and standing water at one end and the other had a pool. It would have been so easy to let the dogs loose in the pool but we like slipping into the yards of empty houses and messing up a very nice pool with dog hair is one way to jeopardize our ability to continue to do that. So we marched on to my third choice. And as they say, third time's the charm.

This house is being readied to put on the bid list and a worker had turned on a sprinkler at one end of the yard (which surprisingly didn't have an underground system already installed). We decided to leave it on, a good decision since it turned out that the sprinkler became a focal point for the dogs' play. PM made a quick recon of the yard looking for feral cats (too many bad experiences have made us a bit cautious, right, Mimi?).

Nellie immediately pounded Azza to the ground and then they were off! Mimi tried to start some shit a couple of times but she eventually calmed down and joined in the chase but not the pounding. The dogs were running huge, looping arcs down and back, swooping in and out of the sprinkler. Even Azza is starting to appreciate the joys of spraying water (due in large part to the persistence of PM in getting her to drink from a hose). When it came time to catch their breath, they'd take a roll in the wet grass (Nellie also like to walk over the sprinkler so that it sprayed directly on her belly) followed by a nice, long roll in the dry, sandy grass at the other end of the yard. Chase and wrestle, get hot and out of breath, roll under the sprinkler, roll in the sand, repeat (for this post, I decided to use the "roll in the grass" label which I have only used once before in what is truly a different lifetime).

After half an hour, the girls (Nellie, Mimi, Azza) looked like they'd been living on the street for weeks: white parts smeared grey, bits of dry grass and sand stuck to their fur alternating with patches where they were soaked to the skin.

PM and I stood in the shade, drinking coffee and gossiping (she brought the coffee, two bananas, and a prezzie: dog cookies from Harrod's!). I had to laugh! I don't need a bribe to meet up with her and Nellie for dog walks and play dates. On the other hand, it's nice to be looked after!

Where was old man Harry during all this ruckus? I was a bit concerned about turning him loose with the crazed beasts but it turns out he is far more sensible than I gave him credit for. He's getting a bit fragile and if they were to run into him at full speed, he could really get hurt. But he never strayed more than a few feet from me and PM. He nosed around in the sand and grass for bits to nibble, came over for pets now and then, and more or less occupied his time quietly hanging out.

I mentioned to PM that it looked like his frisky days were over. And she said, well, he doesn't seem to be fretting that he can't go run about with the others. And that is exactly true. Harry was as wild as any terrier can be in his flyball heyday but he appears to be happy now simply being around his people and letting the young'uns have their play time. 

Cue Circus Music....


Today in ring one, we have Azza, half desert dog, half beaver! Having decided that reducing dog toys to a pile of slobbery lumps each exactly two square centimeters in size was becoming too pedestrian, too every day, Azza graduated herself to a new level of destruction: chewing a melon-sized hole in a treasured, handmade bed cover that I got in Indonesia almost 20 years ago and a companion hole in the brand new sheets below it. Azza now gets to sit in her crate when I take a shower in the mornings, a crate which no longer contains any bedding since she chews that up too.

In ring two, we have the little fookin’ orange devil known as Kinky! Kinky is fascinated with counters, or to be more specific, with the ease with which he can move things off of them. For his latest accomplishment, this morning he fished two hardboiled eggs out of a bowl on the counter where I had left them to cool, and rapidly moved one of them onto the kitchen floor! The other rolled out of his reach behind the cutting boards, thankfully preserving it for its intended end as my lunch.

In ring three, we have Mimi! Mimi’s trick today was to bring upstairs the last few scraps of eggshell and egg white in order to show me her treasure, which almost certainly fell like manna from heaven directly on top of her head since she knows about the orange devil’s counter surfing techniques. If she hadn’t preserved those last bits to show me, I would have never known what happened to that egg since she hoovered up every scrap of it! At least eggs are digestible and nutritious.

If I wasn’t laughing, well, I’d probably be laughing anyway. The fun and excitement never stops at CircusK9.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Portland: Mountain, Ocean, and Agility

As part of my long leave that spanned nearly all of August, I spent six days in Portland catching up with an old friend. She was quite the host, cramming non-stop fun into my visit.

One of the many highlights was a hike that A, I, and her two terriers made to Burnt Lake located near the foot of Mount Hood. It was a rather warm sunny day even by Portland standards and even though I was just a bit disappointed by the weather (I can get hot and sunny any time here), the blue sky and the bright sun made for a great walk in the woods.

Too bad those terriers couldn't pack their own poop bags back to the trail head!

We saw this little guy on our way down: a flying squirrel perched on the side of a dead (burned) tree.
Ironically, we almost missed the stupendous view of Mount Hood! We didn’t even realize it was looming over us the entire time until we stopped on our way back down above a small group of hikers on the trail in front of us taking pictures. What were they looking at? Oh, at that gigantic snow-covered volcano up there! The fabulous view was over our shoulders the entire way up, and even though we stopped in that very same clearing to admire some dead trees, we never looked behind us! We stopped at the lake and didn't go all the way up to the saddle at "Zigzag Mountain" from which the view of Mount Hood would have been a lot more obvious. 

Mount Hood.
The next day we headed the other direction to the ocean for a leisurely stroll in the surf. The fog and mist and surf (the tide was low when we arrived then coming in so the waves got bigger with time) combined with the nearly empty beach and sunny, clear sky made it an extremely restful morning. And of course, for a couple of terriers, a beach is an endless source of things to sniff, put in one’s mouth, or pee on.

A and Skeeter in the surf and Forrest with me attached at the other end.

Forrest with real treasure: a deliciously crunchy but very dead starfish.

Mist. Wet sand. Reflections of the trees. And a clear blue sky over it all.

Me with Skeeter and Forrest.

A generously indulged my pork and wine needs. We managed to eat brats (first boiled in beer with sweet Walla Walla onions then grilled with more of those fab onions; apparently a northern/midwestern recipe) three nights in a row (although the middle night was leftovers from the first night but it still counts)! And homemade berry jam on very good, locally made, whole grain bread. Decent bread is nearly impossible to find here in KSA. I refuse to eat that soft, mushy, sugary stuff they call bread and do without until I head to some place that isn't KSA. 

A is rather crafty. She knits and crochets and felts and makes dog tugs and leashes from fleece. I had no idea she had such skills. I don't do those sorts of things. Oh, sure, I can make jumps and pause tables and such but that's more engineering and less crafting. A makes cute purses and totes and even small bowls out of felted wool. We were in a pet store and I pointed out these catnip-laced body pillows for cats made of fleece. They look fun, I said, but not for 7 bucks each. Oh, A said, we can make those in no time at all! And so later that week we did just that using fleece scraps and some catnip that I bought for the purpose. I left one of the body pillows with Bhumi, the Siamese mix that I rehomed with my mother, and brought three home for my two feline beasts. I can't leave them out all the time since fleece equals dog toy in Azza's head and all she wants to do is eat them.

My mother's ancient cat Freckles (he may be 18 or 19 years old) curled up with Bhumi. They became BFF nearly upon sight. I always suspected that Bhumi was gay. Sorry, A, no pics of Bhumi slobbering on his catnip body pillow! I owe you a pic of Kinky and Tsingy slobbering on theirs.
A particularly memorable part of my visit was the Saturday we spent at a local agility trial. When I was corresponding with A to arrange the trip, she casually mentioned this local trial was going to be held the weekend I was there, and said, oh, would you like to run Forrest at the trial?

I know I have some non-dog-sport readers so let me take a moment to elaborate on this. Very few dog sport people are willing to let someone else run their dog. The reasons usually come down to “you might break my dog” and “you might make me look stupid.” Yeah, I know, not logical or even particularly sporting but that’s how it is.

But I guess I’m pretty lucky. I’ve got some amazing dog friends who don’t let that kind of thing get in the way of a good time. For example, there’s DW who let me run his beautiful red BC Eris last year for the entire weekend of a flyball tournament. And now A offered me her PRT for a full day of agility!

The second point to be made explicit here is that I am blessed with amazing dog friends who say, hmm, what would make CircusK9 happy? Oh, I know, how about having her run my dog! Friends like that are treasures indeed.

The amusing part of the agility affair is how many hours A and I spent trying to get into Forrest’s fuzzy little brain. We set up a course in her backyard and during the week I ran him through it several times as well as working tricky sequences such as dogwalk/tunnel discrimination and sending to the back side of a jump. He worked fairly well for me in her yard, and whenever we went out and about, A handed me his leash and said, you’re in charge of him! She coached me on her routines at the crate and at the start line, at contacts and even for the end of the run (she taught Forrest to jump into her arms). I practiced them all.

The trial was held outdoors in a covered horse barn. It was hot and dusty...just like most other horse barns that I've done agility in. When it came time to actually do agility in the ring, Forrest wasn’t particularly sure he liked his new handler. For the first run, he did six obstacles before leaving the ring. On the second run, we managed to get to the 10th obstacle before he shut down. A said that he had ring nerves and used to do the same with her so this wasn't new behavior. Before the second run, I bought him super special treats (dried lamb lung, mm!) in a shameless attempt to bribe him, but even that wasn't enough to convince him that I was worth the trouble. 

The time for our third run was approaching and we had tried just about everything we could think of. That left only the unexpected. I asked her if she had ever done a “drop and run” with him. Yes, she said, when he was very green she did that a few times. Drop and run is when the handler holds the dog in her arms at the start line, then drops the dog to the ground and both take off at the same time. It is often used by handlers when their dog doesn't have any control at the start line. It can also be hugely motivating for some dogs--it's really just a chase game. She also felt that I was being too soft with him. Me, a soft handler? "But, but, but," I sputtered, "he’s not my dog!" It’s really hard to get tough with someone else's dog! In the end, though, that is exactly what I did, drop and run at the start and became the drill sergeant handler. I badgered him all the way, staying in his face, clapping annoyingly, doing front crosses way, way late, but by god, we completed that third course. In the video, which I present with no editing, you’ll see that I bailed on the weave poles. Forrest has lovely, fast weave poles but he simply wasn’t prepared to do them with me that day. Pfft, no matter, it was all for fun. And at the end, he jumped into my arms like he'd been running with me for years.

video

A note on this video: because I am now using a wireless internet connection instead of fatter, faster DSL, I couldn't push the original video through. I had to cut way back on the resolution to get it to load. Still, I think that you'll get the idea. 

What's the message here? Well, Forrest is a fast, happy dog who enjoys agility (especially at his new jump height of only 12") and while he wasn't too thrilled to be out there with me, he's still gave it a decent try. And A generously allowed me to fumble my way around the ring all day long with her dog...because she thought I'd enjoy it. And I did.

Coming here to KSA has been a lesson in what is truly important in life. I lost many things...and in the end discovered that I could live pretty well without them. They were just things after all. I instead gained some perspective on what you can't live without. Pork, good wine, good friends, and happy dogs all go on that list (perhaps not quite in that order). It's a good holiday when I can combine all of those things together.

Simple Basil Lamb Curry

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After my pork fest in France (posts are in the works, be patient!), I thought it might be a nice change to have a bit of lamb.

The local lamb is pretty gristly (and grisly too when you walk past the butcher shops and see headless sheep and goats, dappled with flies, hanging in the unrefrigerated storefront windows). A couple of the local supermarkets carry imported lamb and I suppose there has been some pressure on the commissary to get with the program because they have started putting New Zealand lamb on their shelves. I bought a very lovely NZ lamb steak, bone in, cut from the thigh.

I cut the meat into chunks, discarding the bone (only one tiny one, not enough for three dogs to share), and tossed them into a large pot with coarsely chopped, organic, two small red organic onions (yes, organic Saudi onions!), chopped garlic, olive oil, salt, and a generous amount of red pepper flakes. I also added one large sweet potato, cleaned and cut into coarse chunks. I stirred the meat, potato, and spices well then put on medium heat.

While the meat was browning, I mixed 1/2 cup of coconut milk powder with 1 cup of water. Even with a whisk, you have to stir this often to get the powder to completely dissolve. I use the powder because it keeps for a long time and doesn’t take up as much room as the cans.

When the meat was still pink on the inside but nice and brown on the outside and the onions were starting to turn clear, I added about 3/4s of the cup of coconut milk slurry and a large handful of fresh chopped basil. I gave it all a good stir then let it simmer for about 15 minutes until the potato chunks were cooked through.

For a side dish, I cut up a beautiful fresh mango.

No rice is needed since the potato is in there.

That’s all it takes for a simple basil lamb curry.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Be Happy, Be Healthy


As part of my continuing efforts to keep myself occupied, I joined a Beginning Running class sponsored by the Dhahran Road Runners Club. I paid a small fee to join the club and a small fee for the class, which meets for two nights a week for eight weeks. The class is based on interval training, building up longer periods of running in between increasingly shorter periods of resting (walking). This was something of a spur of the moment decision. I want to drop some weight but I’m not having much success. My diet is under control (for example, I eat vegetarian at least three days a week) and I already walk the dogs (briskly) for about an hour and a half each day between their morning and evening walks. I take the stairs at work. By all standards, I eat better and get far more exercise than most people. But I just can’t seem to lose more than a pound or two.

Last night was the first meeting of the class. I showed up on time, quarter to the hour, and was amazed to see an enormous crowd already gathered at the bleachers next to the running track at the school. There were well over a hundred people who had signed up for this class! It was quite a sight: people of all colors and ages and sizes, even kids. There were a few enormous Saudi guys inevitably drenched in perfume. (I will never be able to clear my head of the cloying, nauseating scent of Arabs wafting perfume at every step. It’s everywhere: at work, in the shops, on the running track, it sticks to door handles and seat belts in taxis, even the money reeks of perfume. They reapply it throughout the day and when they get in groups, the combined effect ends up smelling very much like a dumpster in the summer. Last year, I measured the distance between lamp posts on the path around the golf course by pacing it out [40 feet] and discovered that I can smell the perfume of some of those guys over a distance of more than 120 feet while outdoors—it’s that strong! They are continually surrounded by a fug of it.) But back to the beginning runner horde.

As all of you know, being successful at something like a running class often requires an exercise partner. I scanned the crowd to see if I knew anyone, and recognized a few faces from work and dog classes, but decided to get on the track and see what happened.

To my surprise, I was sort of adopted by a Kiwi who is an executive secretary to a manager in the power unit (she’s rather dark skinned, looks kind of Asian, and might be part Maori, which is interesting). She commented on my spiffy neon yellow shoes (you probably saw many examples of these if you watched any of the track events from the Olympics; I told her I bought them because I hoped that they would help me run faster) and then we simply continued the rest of the class side by side.

With our focus on running and walking and setting a good but reasonable pace and a bit of chatting in between, the knowledge that we were on the track with more than a hundred other people sort of faded away. Even though it was work, it was relaxing to engage in such a simple activity. I am looking forward to giving this a go.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Puppy Class

Here's some really old news but I'm in the process of catching up on the blog so I thought that I would start here.

Back in April, after the regular obedience and agility classes had ended, I was pressured by some acquaintances to offer a puppy class. Because I was going out on leave in May and because a puppy class was something new for me, I decided to limit it to four weeks.

The puppy class was certainly an experiment. It isn’t something I can run on a regular basis since it will be uncommon to have a sufficient number of sufficiently young pups available at a given time here in Dhahran (I found out that the camp vet only has about 800 dogs registered, which is fewer than I expected). Still, I wanted to try my hand at working with younger dogs. Most of the dogs were around 16 weeks old, which is much older than you'd see in puppy classes in the U.S. But I have to work with the dogs that are here.

Azza and three golden littermates, two males and a female (the female is also on the ground next to Azza). I certainly wouldn't have chosen to have three littermates in the same class, but it worked out okay.

 I did a fair bit of research to figure out how best to structure the puppy classes. For example, I don’t allow the dogs in my basic obedience class to interact before, during, or after class (while they are on school grounds, at least). But this rule clearly had to be relaxed a bit in the case of young dogs that need to play with other dogs in order to learn proper play habits and signals, bite inhibition, and so forth. We started each class with a free "play time" in which the pups were allowed to be off leash so they could explore some of these signals.
 
I came up with at least four “what is that?” stations each week for the first three weeks of class. This stretched me a bit in terms of resources, but I managed to drag in plastic bags, a hair dryer, a cardboard box, plastic mesh that I taped to the floor, metal cookie sheets, orange cones, hats and abayas, an agility tunnel, a tippy board…you get the idea. For about 15 minutes of each class, I had the handlers take their dogs through/across the stations. It was a bit chaotic and noisy but that was also part of the exercise. I wanted to encourage all the puppies to explore and be rewarded for it. I also wanted the handlers to learn how to reward their puppies for all types of behaviors, not just the standard sit and come.

I included a short activity on grooming (cleaning ears, clipping nails, brushing coats) which turned out to be revelatory for one handler. She complained to me that her dog resisted all attempts at grooming. Turns out the woman was using a wire slicker brush! I'd resist that to if you tried to drag it through my hair! When I had her use a boar bristle brush on her dog, the pup stretched out on the ground, totally limp. She was so happy to learn this one new thing!

As I mentioned in a previous post, I also had the class play “pass the puppy." This is a great game to get the young dogs used to calmly interacting with other humans. Everyone sits in a circle and passes their puppy to the person to the right. After about 30 seconds of petting and treats, the dogs get passed to the next person, and so on until the pups end up back with their owner. It's another chaotic and noisy game but everyone really enjoyed it.

I brought Azza each week and even though she peed on the floor every time someone approached her to pet here or when she met a new dog, I think it was a reasonably good experience for her.

I have become much more comfortable working with kids and their dogs and now encourage parents to bring their kids as long as the kids are actually doing training, not sitting around doing nothing or even worse, being disruptive. I don't run a day care, right?

Because I only had four weeks, I decided to scale back the formal commands that I introduced to just the basics: hand touch, sit, stay, and come. But I am happy at how many activities I was able to include in just four one-hour sessions. I certainly kept those pups and handlers moving!

This has to be my favorite shot from the class. This is one heck of a dedicated owner. And yes, that chichi did go through the curved tunnel eventually! The chichi was a real hoot, a classic "giant dog trapped in tiny dog body" dog.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Training Azza 8

I was worried that a month with Upul would set Azza back in her training. He is really good about following my instructions (he doesn't let her jump on him too much and he makes her sit at doorways). Still, he lets her get away with a lot more than I do.

Her leash behavior did degrade a bit but this will probably be an ongoing training project just like it is for Mimi. Otherwise, she didn't seem to develop too many bad habits while I was gone. (The cats are another problem altogether. It turns out that Upul gives them dog treats too each time he leaves. Now the annoying beasts expect them from me as well!)

So I'm really excited to report a huge breakthrough in Azza's training. I have been seeing signs of her new learning for the past week or so as the dogs and I re-establish our routines at home but this morning she was putting it all together in a way that tells me that she truly has learned some new skills.

I make an effort to play with the dogs regularly and they have begun to expect, even to anticipate, when I am going to start a game of "baby." I generically call all dog toys "baby" (it's either creepy or sad, take your pick) and I refer to a game of fetch as "let's play baby!" I usually speak to my dogs in short but complete sentences using more or less adult language so I don't know where this came from. Nonetheless, the word "baby" has become a trigger for displays of extreme excitement from all three dogs that includes bouncing, pulling random babies from the various storage baskets, whining, etc.

The baby game itself is simple. I sit on a low stool at one end of my living room and I throw a toy to the other end for one dog at a time. To avoid collisions, I time each throw carefully. The game works best if each dog brings his toy back directly to me. There is always a mass of dogs and toys at my feet. They seem to handle this very well since one rule of the game is that no stealing is allowed!

Harry and Mimi have always had strong toy preferences. They will play with any toy I give them but they prefer specific, individual toys. When I say the magic word, if they haven't already done so, they run to get their favorites from the baskets.

All my terriers have had mad toy drive that I only had to shape a bit. With Azza, it's been a different experience. I've had to shape her interest in toys as well as the behaviors. I never formally made a lesson plan to teach Azza these behaviors. Instead, I gradually introduced them and repeated them over many, many sessions of play that always includes the other two dogs. The behaviors include chasing a thrown toy, returning a thrown toy to me, dropping a toy on command, and tugging on command. There is one more behavior that is somewhat secondary to toy play but that is pretty important in my opinion: the dog needs to learn to move in the direction that I point.

Let me explain this one a bit more. Thrown toys don't always land where I intend them to. They might fall behind something. Dogs can get distracted and not see me throw the toy or fail to see where it lands. It disrupts the flow of the game if I have to get up to retrieve a lost toy. I teach all my dogs to find their toys by moving in the direction that I point. I also teach them a verbal "out" command which means keep moving farther away in that direction. This is a very complex behavior that includes a willingness on the dog's part to move away from me without an obvious reward in the offing (the toy is initially hidden although they learn that it is out there somewhere). It also requires the dog to observe my body position and movement (outstretched arm, pointing finger) and read meaning and intent into this very non-canine action. Many dogs have to be taught this behavior.

There is no doubt that Azza is learning partly by watching the other two dogs and imitating them. But she is also learning directly through the mechanisms of conditional reinforcement. If she does something I like, I reward it. If she does something I don't like, I either ignore it or I let her know I don't like that, but in either case I don't reward it. And from the beginning, Azza's rewards have only been a continuation of play with me. I had to first shape playing with me so that she found it rewarding before I could expand the game and start throwing toys for her. In this way she learned the rules of tug. She is happy to tug with me even while the other two dogs are chasing thrown toys. But I wanted her to be able to retrieve toys too.

This morning, as usual, I selected a toy for Azza to use in the baby game. To my complete surprise, after a couple of throws, she selected a different toy to continue the game. That's a huge leap forward for her. I'm not talking about refusing to play with a toy, or changing toys with every throw. She chose a toy that she has played with before and stuck with her choice for the rest of the game. She now knows that she has the freedom to make those kinds of choices for herself, and that I will honor them.

Usually, she brings the toys back halfway, flops down on a dog bed or the floor to chew on them, and only comes to me when I call her. The first hundred times, she came to me but left the toy behind. I had to teach her the command "bring it" which I use with Mimi too. This week, Azza has been enthusiastically running all the way back to me, slamming her body into my leg, and pressing the toy towards my face or my hand. Another huge leap forward! I have become the source of rewards for her! Both Harry and Mimi do this and I'm sure Azza noticed how much praise I give them when they do.

She flings herself after her toy, giant paws flapping, and flings herself back. Enthusiasm all the way, and for the duration of the game. When I first introduced her to the baby game, she'd chase the toy a couple of times and then stop. Now, she will do it 20 or 30 times, just like the terriers.

Finally, near the end of the game this morning, I threw her toy and she didn't see me do it. She was looking around my feet for her toy so I showed her my empty hands then I pointed to where her toy had landed and said "get it!" She stopped, looked in the direction I was pointing, and launched herself for her toy. Another huge success! This was a deliberate behavior on her part, not random.

I suppose that I am most pleased at the fact that all of this has happened entirely within the context of play. I probably did make a formal plan in my head but I never set out with a goal along the lines of "today I will teach her to drop toys on command." I of course knew the behaviors I wanted her to learn and I have managed to be patient enough to let her discover them in her own time.