Monday, October 29, 2012


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

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

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

Friday, October 26, 2012

Agility Season in KSA! Weeks 1-4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 15, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Training Azza 11

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

Mimi chomping on Azza's head during play.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 05, 2012

I Should've Taken Pope's Advice

I set my alarm for 4 a.m. Thursday morning to watch the first presidential debate live on TV.

I'm rather sorry that I bothered.

Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.
--Alexander Pope, 1727, personal letter.

But Is It Necessary?

A couple of weeks ago, my shopping buddy MG emailed to see if I wanted to go to Bahrain that weekend. I said sure. I didn’t really need anything except some bacon but an outing sounded like a fine idea. The next day, my dog friend PM emailed to see if I wanted to go to Bahrain with her and a friend that weekend. I said, sounds great, perhaps we can all go together! Our respective errands weren’t that different.

PM wasn’t sure that her friend’s car would hold four people plus all the stuff she planned to buy in Bahrain. I said, well, that’s not a problem, we can take my car, plenty of room for all.

No, that wouldn’t work, she told me. She had heard that I had to have a letter from Saudi Government Affairs in order to let someone drive my car. It wasn’t an issue of my being a woman but more an issue that the driver wasn’t the same person that the car was registered to. This didn’t make any sense since lots of Saudis have drivers that drive their (the Saudis’) cars. But the Magic Kingdom is also the logic-free zone. It was entirely possible that she was right. Of course, there had been no official announcement of such a policy change but around here that means nothing. Rules are changed arbitrarily and often with little to no announcement. I had heard nothing about this from my other "rumor" sources. But still, there was definitely a non-zero chance that this was a new rule that we had to navigate.

So I hied off to Al Midra, a new Aramco office building which contains HR, Personnel, Payroll, and Government Affairs. This was not a casual errand because Al Midra is located on the far western edge of Dhahran and is accessed only by an amazingly convoluted set of roads. Getting there is just the first step. You then must find a parking place that is hopefully within half a mile of the building. The parking lots are designed in a most fiendish way with hidden entrances, curbs that block lateral access from one part of a lot to another, and a general lack of signage. It can take more than half an hour to drive three miles, park, and walk to the building.

The main room for the HR services is a large bullpen ringed with counters. It often isn’t clear which counter you need to get to; even if you can clearly state your business, there is nobody to ask for advice. Sometimes there is a machine dispensing numbered paper tickets, sometimes there isn’t, and sometimes the counter you need to get to isn’t using those particular tickets but some other utterly impenetrable system to determine who is next. Queuing would be far too easy and logical.

I made my way to the right counter only to confront a fully veiled Saudi woman who spoke about two words of English, despite the fact that the official language of Aramco is English. I hate dealing with Saudi women who work in these types of jobs because they rarely know the rules or have the information you need, and they always, always, 100% of the time, have to ask their male supervisor what to do. Why not put him at the fucking desk and be done with it?

After a stumbling exchange, she said that such a letter could be produced. I would need a copy of the iqama, driver’s license, Aramco ID, and passport page of the driver, and a copy of my iqama, istmarrah, Aramco ID, and car insurance card. (The iqama is the residence permit and the istmarrah is the car registration.) She said that she could perhaps have the letter done by Wednesday (in time for our planned weekend trip on Thursday) if I could get these items to her by Tuesday morning. It was clear that she was not writing the letter herself but simply passing all this stuff on to her supervisor.

I also tried to get her to clarify whether such a letter was actually necessary. She just looked at me. I repeated my question: is the letter necessary? She continued to look at me, tilted her head a bit, and said, nec…e…ssary? Hmm, clearly I wasn’t going to get anywhere with this one.

Back in my office, I called PM who called her friend who gathered all of his stuff, scanned it, and emailed it to me. I made a copy of all my items then made the tortuous return journey to Al Midra the next morning. I passed the scans over to the woman who passed them to her supervisor standing right behind her. He looked them over then said that it would not be possible to make such a letter. He then said, it wasn’t necessary to have such a letter within the Kingdom, that my friend could drive my car anywhere in Saudi. I was rather stunned (why in hell didn’t that stupid woman tell me this the day before) but I asked him, okay, did I have to be in the car with my friend? He did that weird Arab/Asian thing where he moved his head in a way that was neither yes nor no. I then said, well, what about Bahrain? Can he drive my car in Bahrain? He said that he didn’t know about that (which was probably the truest thing either of those two had told me so far).

I called PM and told her this tale of woe, then said, I think we should go for it, be adventurous, and take my car anyway. She was convinced that we had to have a letter and said that she wasn’t going to risk it, that she and her friend would go in his car. I called MG and said, you and I are going to go in my new(ish), spacious, comfortable car. Come by at 7:30 on Thursday.

Crossing the causeway into Bahrain is a fairly convoluted affair (you should not be surprised). There are five chokepoints in each direction at which you are required to stop and hand over money or passport, or take a slip of paper to hand off to another booth down the line. This sounds far more organized than it actually is.

At some of these chokepoints there may only be 4 out of 20 booths open. Twenty lines of cars, most of which are driven by Saudis, mind you, are gunning to get into whichever line they think is moving. They do not hesitate to try and cross all twenty lanes to get from one side to the other. Booths can randomly open and close for prayer breaks, tea breaks, smoke breaks, shift changes (which are not predictable; if you complain about the wait, invariably you are told that it is due to a shift change), breaks to kiss their friends (Saudi men do a lot of kissing) and there is always a mad crush of cars trying to zoom into a newly opened lane. If this wasn’t frustrating enough, as you move from chokepoint to chokepoint, the booths that are open are randomly positioned. At the first stop, two on the far left and two in the middle might be open. At the next one, three on the far right might be open. Therefore your path through this mess is highly nonlinear. You might be thinking to yourself, why don’t they simply open more booths during easily predicted times of peak traffic? That would be far too logical and imply that the Saudi government had an attitude of “customer service.” (Ostensibly, the Bahraini government runs its side of the causeway but since the ruling family is a puppet propped up by the Saudis, we really only need to blame the Saudis.)

One of the chokepoints is literally designed to be a chokepoint. Twenty lanes go down to one. There isn’t even a guy in the booth. The only purpose is to restrict traffic. The entire causeway can be shut down at this point. They in fact did this several times during the disturbances in Bahrain of this year and last.

The second chokepoint is the one that PM was worried about. At this checkpoint, cameras read your license plate and a machine inside the booth prints a slip of paper with the car registration info on it. The guy in the booth hands it over to you and down the line you hand it to the guy in the booth at chokepoint five. PM predicted that MG and I would not get through the second chokepoint. She called me several times that morning and ended up saying, well, if you get through, I’ll buy you a glass of wine at Trader Vic’s! MG piped up and said, she has to buy me one too because I’m the driver!

To be honest, I was a bit worried too. Technically you are still on the Saudi side of the causeway at chokepoint two (you don’t cross into Bahrain officially until the last chokepoint) and if the guy at Government Affairs in Al Midra was right (that’s the weak link in the chain, isn’t it) then MG should be able to drive my car without any special letter or permission at least up to Bahrain; what happened then was anybody’s guess. But rules do change without any warning and PM knows her way around since she’s been here for almost 20 years.

I had my phone up to my ear as soon as the guy in the booth handed us a slip of paper with my istmarrah number and my name printed on it. PM, I said, we’ll see you at Trader Vic’s! Have the wine chilled and waiting!

Dry Spice Rub

A couple of weeks ago I thawed out a couple of sirloin strip steaks that needed to be eaten. After staring at them for a while, I decided to cover them with a dry spice rub.

Here is what I used: coarse sea salt, cumin, cinnamon, finely chopped garlic, and brown sugar. I rarely measure spices when I’m cooking like this but you’ll want to use a fair bit of the cumin and cinnamon, perhaps 2-3 tablespoons, but only a teaspoon of salt and a couple of teaspoons of sugar.

Yep, it’s that simple. Mix the spices together in a flat bowl.

Wash and dry the steaks. Swirl them around in the spice mix until they are well coated on both sides and on the edges. Leave them in the bowl, cover, and put in the fridge for a couple of hours. The cumin and cinnamon combine to give the meat a warm smoky flavor.

Cut up some fresh veggies for the steamer. Grill the steaks and enjoy!

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Training Azza 10

It’s the humid season here in Dhahran. Temperatures are topping out around 102F or so but the humidity is brutal (it was more than 80% this morning, and yet it still wasn't raining). The water in the air mixes with the ever-present dust to create a hazy brownish soup. I don’t have to do anything outside to break a sweat; simply walking out the door is enough.

Still, the dogs need their daily walks. So the other morning, we set out on our usual morning stroll. Harry and Mimi were walking shoulder to shoulder as they often do. They are well matched in size and gait and I think they look very, very cute. Other people must think so as well because I often get comments and smiles from passersby (sometimes even Saudis smile at them). To my great surprise, after I let Azza have a bit more leash than usual, she decided to walk right next to them. It was quite a sight to have the three dogs arrayed perfectly in front of me, calmly strolling along the sidewalk, heads up, tails up, happy to be together in the here and now.

This is a fairly big achievement for Azza. For the past few months she’s only had about 12-18” of leash to use which keeps her right by my side. I do this so that I can control her head better. One of her fear behaviors is an obsessive checking on people coming up behind us. She will get so caught up in this loop that she will forget to walk and try to turn herself completely around so she can stare and worry and hackle and growl at whatever is behind us. If not checked, she will escalate until she lunges or barks at the threat. Azza’s fear behaviors are myriad but all show escalation patterns. I’ve learned that if I can redirect her as soon as she shows the first signs of fear, I can often prevent the escalation. One of those redirects is a verbal “leave it” command. This means “turn your head back around to the front and quit obsessing about whatever is behind us.” I use “leave it” for Mimi and Harry too but for them this command means “don’t eat that pill/piece of cheese/earring/object that I just dropped on the floor” or it could mean "don't even think about eating that berry/stick/worm/bird poop/cat poop that you just discovered on the ground" (there is poison all over the place because that is the only way that Aramco knows how to keep down the rat and mice populations; thus what may look like a stick or a berry might actually be a bit of rat poison).

I have to physically turn Azza's head forward about half the time now (she wears a head halter whenever she goes out so this task is fairly easy); the other half of the time I only have to say “leave it” and she’ll face forward again on her own and keep moving.

Making the leap from walking on a very short leash by my side to walking on a loose lead ahead of me is a big deal. There are always people and feral cats and bits on flotsam on the ground that could be eaten and she has to maintain a lot of self-control to earn this privilege. But at least on this particular morning, she decided to pull on her big girl panties and take a walk like a regular dog.