Tuesday, 26 December 2006

Skipping Christmas

No, not skip it completely because we had a wonderful day. My mother-in-law knitted me the perfect sweater in bamboo (this is not a joke), people remembered to give me books, there were lots of DVDs, a great Christmas dinner and too much to drink. What more could I ask? Considering that I'm not even Christian?

But here's the best present of all. Since 2002 and maybe before (memory is dimming), the government, the regional governement, France Telecom, satellite services, Wi-Fi services and the world have been promising us broadband here in the (officially) deprived rural areas. Last week it arrived. Sort of.

Today, the France Telecom engineers arrived, took away our digital modem and set the line for ADSL. Unfortunately, the new modem, which should have arrived in the post two weeks ago, has not, and a call to the "service" (as we fondly call it) line at FT confirmed that it has not been sent and, in any case, is the one that we expressly said -- three times -- that we did not want. Fully realising that it would be a fruitless journey, we drove to Nyons to try to get a modem from the local office. Fruitless because they probably wouldn't have one in stock and because the Nyons office appears to have a policy of hiring the technologically other-enabled. Almost any conversation with the staff there can reduce a customer to tears within minutes.

In order to maintain the advantage of surprise, we decided not to telephone first. The French in shops or offices ( government or private), will tell you anything -- the most bold-faced, outrageous, unbelievable lies (they don't expect you to believe them) -- to put you off, get rid of you, transfer your problem to someone else, or whatever it takes so as not to be inconvenienced during their working hours. It is best not to give them extra time to prepare.

As it turned out, the twin miracles (a customer view) of deregulation and competition have recently come to France and Nyons have abandonned their "hire the incompetent" policy. There was someone, nay! three employees, capable of checking our line and selling us the correct modem.

In any normal country, we would now have broadband. In France, we are waiting for someone, somewhere, to push a computer button to activate the damned thing. In any other country, they would have pushed the button -- if a button were necessary -- before they got here. So, not only do we not have broadband, we have lost our higher-speed dial-up and are back on a sl-o-o-o-w modem for three days, a week, 10 days, months, years, eons. . .

I don't sound crabby, do I?

Saturday, 23 December 2006

'Tis the Season. . .

. . . to try to work in at least 10 minutes a day of training. You'd think that people who do their Christmas shopping throughout the year -- and, therefore, do not do Christmas shopping -- and who had their presents distributed and mailed in early November, would have more time on their hands. Somehow, no. But Coach has been heard to mutter that one of us is not trying hard enough and I don't think she means Van-Ly. So, Thursday, in the hospital grounds in Avignon, we took a little time out for training.

Who is sick? No one. Time for the yearly mammogram, which, as a member the high-risk group, I generally get at the cancer institute in Avignon. When I went for my appointment last Friday, the doctor hadn't shown up. There used to be 3. Then there were 2. Evidently, there was only to be one that day -- and then there were none. Since we have to leave the house early for the 100 kilometer journey, I didn't get notified. I didn't get notified when I got there, either. The secretary told me to sit down, then she went to lunch and it took me 50 minutes to realise that there was no activity in the vicinity. France, unlike England, has excellent medical care. It is catching up fast, however, in the lack of availability.

So they rescheduled me for Thursday at 2P.M. This is good, I thought; first appointment after lunch. When I got there, the waiting room was so full, there wasn't room for everyone and they were spilling out into the foyer. Evidently, the mammogram unit is only working half days now, too. "Why do you schedule everyone for the same time?" I asked. "Well, first we give you the mammogram, then we develop the pictures, then you see the doctor." "I know all that. Why do you schedule everyone for the same time?" I asked. She stared. "How long will I have to wait to get started?" An hour and a half? No way! "I'm sorry," said the tech, "we were supposed to have 2 doctors today and we only have one." Pause. I'm thinking: I've done 400 km this week; I don't want to hear it." "And (this is so French, I can't begin to tell you) -- and the other one won't be back." Pause. "Ever." Pause. "He died yesterday." Pause. "34 years old."

I felt las if ike she were reading me a story. Have I mentioned that in the French version of the tortoise and the hare, the hare doesn't just lose; he dies? And I vividly remember the first lesson in my second year course at the French Institute in London. Two university students are hitchhiking (making the autostop) to go see a friend who is in the hospital with a broken leg. Car accident. But, of course! Easy to see how film noir developped.

Where was I? Oh, yes. So I said the hell with the mammogram; I'll go the reasonably local facility. Then I went outside into the grounds where I retrieved Van-Ly from Nick, who was walking both dogs. And we did a bit of training.

Yesterday we did another bit on the place, a noisy little dog providing distraction.

Today we did another bit along our normal route. And Van-Ly did a whole happy dance, not just half.

From the 20th of November until now, we've progressed to Day 4 in the book. Almost.

Deciding that she still needed exercise, I gave her the tennis-ball sized rubber hedgehog we bought her to replace the lost tennis balls. No use in saving it for Christmas. Nala isn't getting anything and the wind-up mouse we bought for the cats doesn't work. Anyway, Van-Ly is no better at retrieving the hedgehog than the tennis balls, but it did provoke the zoomies and we have a happy, tired dog.

Wednesday, 20 December 2006

Unhappy Dance

Training has not been going well. More like, it hasn't been going. What with exhibitions, illness, bad backs, doctor's appointments, and a hundred other things, Van-Ly hasn't been getting out much. Yesterday, she got a short walk around a field while I drove looking for Nala.

Today, we went to the village to train on the place and it was like starting over. Then, after five minutes Nick and Nala reappeared because Nala was, unsurprisingly, tired after her two-hour walkabout yesterday. Then a neighbour arrived to ask if we know anyone in England who might take his son in for a week to practice his English. Then the white Lab, who runs loose to play and poop as he will arrived. (Why those people have a dog is beyond me. He was a cute puppy, true, but he's still cute.) So we gave it up and came home. Two days with no walk for Van-Ly.

Feeling guilty, I left Nick with the dishes and the sink to repair, got my coat and gloves (winter comes to Provence) and went outside to dig Van-Ly's collar and lead out of the car. She was sitting in the sun, just looking. Didn't move when she saw me. But then I shut the car door and she saw that I had the (non-training) collar and (normal) lead in my hands.

And she got up and did half a happy dance.

So sad. When Nala arrived here, she had been living in a van for I don't know how long. I believe she was let out once or twice a day to eliminate and then put back. It couldn't have been much fun to walk her; by the time we got her fifteen months ago, she was mostly blind from entropion and eye infections and could barely walk. But from the first time she realised we were going to take her for a walk, she did the happy dance. (Kinda wore her out for the walk.) And to this day she does the happy dance.

Van-Ly does not dance. So, today, when she did, she almost broke my heart. Lately, it must seem to her that she always has to go training or nothing and Nala gets all the walks. It isn't quite true, but close enough for her line of thinking. I guess she thought if she did the happy dance, she'd get a walk, too.

Maybe she'd like steak and lobster for dinner.

Nala Gains Confidence

19 December 2006.

We went to lunch with friends today. They have a fair amount of land, a tiny house and many cats. The dogs go in and out, mostly in search of the cats, and the cats hide. We don't bother to lock the gates because the property is open at the other end, anyway, and the dogs come back after a few minutes.

Speaking of which, I remember how proud I was the first time we went for a walk and Nala wouldn't come at the end of it. "Oh, goody!" I thought. "Her spirit is returning." But, having realised that walks are forever, she comes now.

I mean, wouldn't you be happy?

On one wander yesterday, Nala disappeared for half an hour , but then she then came back. On her next promenade, we noticed it had been an awfully long time since we'd seen her. The agony I underwent and the promises I made to God or Whoever Would Listen are easily imagined without my pouring it on. And it was my own stupidity. Shutting the gates would have worked for her, who wouldn't have climbed the hill or the steps in the other direction. Nala goes with the flow (downhill). Anyway, I did find her two hours later -- on the main road, returning from the next hamlet. And, yes, she is grounded: inside or leashed or tied. Whew!

Thursday, 14 December 2006

Around the Place

Today we went to the village and trained on the place ("plass"). I was hoping that there would be some dogs around to act as distractions, but no one, including a dog, goes out when it gets winter cold -- except mad dogs and Englishmen. (If you speak English, you're English. QED)

It turned out, however, to be a great place to train. There just weren't enough flower pots and lamp posts for Van-Ly to tangle herself in. It was like before Day 1. After 15 minutes we were interrupted by Nick and Nala and had to take a break. It was then that I discovered I had the line attached to the wrong ring. Sigh.

Sent Nick and Nala off in another direction, fixed the line, and we did two clean rounds. Then Nick and Nala came back. DQ.

Great training ground, though. We'll do it, again.

But not tomorrow. Back to the exhibition in Avignon to look like an artist -- or, at least, an artist's wife.

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

The Boar Poop Distraction

Finally out for a training session. What with my husband appearing to have a heart attack on Sunday, dog training has not been Top of the Pops. As it turned out, he didn't have a heart attack, but it took a full day to find that out and then some GP visits to get him sorted. Anyhoo. . .

Our last two outings were on a straight line (Van-Ly's and mine; not Nick's and mine). It took two for me to realise why you work in a diamond or a square pattern, so today we went to the field, where I picked a smaller diamond to work than previously. At the start, the wild boar poop proved too much of an attraction, so we moved to another part of the field. After 15 minutes, Van-Ly appeared to be doing well (I'm still not sure how perfect she has to be),so we went back to the boar poop areas. Several turns weren't great, but then she seemed to get it. I did have to stop and untangle the line one time. It was not only tangled; she had managed to get it in a square knot around her leg. Misplaced talent.

We'll try, again, tomorrow. Unfortunately, we have to miss Friday and Sunday due to the exhibition. And Monday because of the accountant.

We'll get there.

Sunday, 10 December 2006

Nala, Nala

(l) 21 September 2005
(r) 21 December 2005

She just lov-v-v-es to go walkies! She does her happy dance. (And I cannot begin to tell you how happy it made me when she was able to do that.) My dogs have to sit and stay at the gates before they are opened to go for a walk. After 15 months, Nala has got the sit part, only she thinks it means touch bum to ground and rise. Once the gates are open, she tears out. Bad precedent; I started letting her run after the first time she did it. I was so happy that my crippled dog could actually run, not just trot, I was almost in tears. I think the leg weakness came from neglect and lack of exercise. She'd been living in a van.

The nitty gritty: she'll walk for an hour, but if she wants to go to the river, she pulls to go to the river. I she wants to stop and sniff, she stops and sniffs. When we turn around to come home, I have to walk behind her pushing my shins against her butt to get her to keep moving because she doesn't want to go home. It's best to take her in the car somewhere and walk her so she doesn't know she's on her way home. When she *really* doesn't want to go, she just lies down. Which is also what she does when she gets tired, so I know it, but I can also tell the two states apart. If we go into town she wants to stop and sniff every brick, rock and blade of grass and wanders from side to side on the sidewalk. I could handle her, but it's tiresome and it's almost impossible with two of them.

I think that because she couldn't see before we got her (we've had her operated on for entropion and are managing the infections and the dry eye), her previous owners just took her out of the van once a day, let her snuffle around a bit,pee, poop, and then put her back. So, when we got her she was in a state that might be called wild if she wasn't so gentle.

Someone has recommended "Second Hand Dog" so I ordered it today.

Summer 2006

Saturday, 9 December 2006

Teaching An Old Dog. . . anything

1) The question. Does anyone know of a book devoted to training old dogs that they could recommend? I can't seem to find anything between Koehler and reward-based methods.

2) My plan. To have Nala walk reasonably well where I want her to go.

3) Why I am concerned about my plan. You know where Koehler says don't worry if your dog sits on her haunches in imitation of a cartoon donkey -- just drag her along? It's really hard to do this to an old dog who has never had any training at all, has weak legs (but strong enough for this behaviour), bad eyes and a lot of vet bills.

4) Vitals of the animal. (Age, breed, sex, fixed, etc) She started out as 13 a year or so ago, backed up to 10 and may now even be the 8 the rescue claimed she was, purebred (badly) Chow, female, not spayed -- I'm not spaying a bitch whose (advanced) age and full medical history I don't know.

5) As much temperament information as I have. . . including whether this
information is giving to me from the client or information I have through my
interactions with the dog. She's a Chow; that says it all. Independent, stubborn, marches to her own drummer. Her idea of a reward is to do what she likes. When you're at least eight, and probably older, and no one has ever given you a treat, even after 15 months you don't know how to take food from a hand. Top that with bad sight and not much of a sense of smell and treats aren't in it.

6) Anything else I can think of. I don't want much out of this one: just to be able to walk in town reasonably well and not bark at passersby. (It's O.K. if I bark.) I'm going to give Koehler one more shot, but I don't hold out much hope.

8/11/2006 Van-Ly failed her "don't chase the cat" test on Friday. Granted, she wasn't on her line, she was with Nick and not me, and I'm not fast enough to head her off at the pass, anyway. But I do know what her Koehler test will be.

Monday, 4 December 2006

How Am I Doing, Coach?

We reverted to our normal walk today: a short stretch down the road and a sidestep to the right to gain the path along the river. And we went with Nick and Nala.

First, we sat at the gate. We sat for the usual ever, trying to get Nala to understand that sit does not mean touch your bum to the ground and pop right back up. Nick opened the gate, said "Voila!" to Nala and off they went. Van-Ly did not move. Is this a wonderful Chow or what? She didn't move until I said, "Voila."

We walked down the road and -- this is a true miracle -- as a car came up behind us, Van-Ly moved to my right (the inside) and stayed next to me. I didn't even have to ask.

She's still not with me all the time, though. I had to step on the line twice because she was getting too far ahead of me, maybe to catch Nala, maybe just because I don't walk all that fast. That was on the road.

On the path, she got several running jerks. On the last one, I looked back, which I normally don't do, and saw that I had jerked her off her front feet. No doubt I've been doing this without realising it. At least I won't feel so bad about the heeling routine, should we ever get that far.

In the middle of the walk, I took her to the entrance of the field where she normally runs and sniffs, took her collar off, and said, "Voila"! The poor thing never gets to run and sniff, so I thought if I took her training collar off, she'd be able to distinguish play from work. Seemed to work.

At this point, I'm becoming confused. Was letting her play O.K.? Is the fact that we can't train every day a big problem? Should she be more advanced? Should I be grateful she's this far advanced, being a Chow and all?

She's infinitely better behaved since we started all this. If I just wanted loose lead walking and stopping when I stop, we'd be there. Somehow, I suspect this isn't good enough.

My inclination is to continue this walk and the walk we did yesterday until she is always looking at me. I think she needs to be absolutely perfect before trying the big test: town.

Sunday, 3 December 2006

Oogah Chukka

During a conversation about training and showing, a friend, who uses reward-based training methods, asked me why I have reverted to the Neanderthal methods of the past. At least she only asked; others have been more aggressive. So, for benefit of all my friends -- former and otherwise -- here's why:

I'll probably never compete, but I'd like walking my dogs to be more togetherness than tug of war. I'd like to be able to call them and have them come because I said so, not because they're tired, anyway, and have run out of things to do. I'd like to be able to walk in town without the general population having to make way for my dogs's "quickest point from A to B" trajectory and their sudden lunges sideways to follow up on a good scent.

I've got Chows: the original hard-to-train dogs. Almost any breeder will tell you they are untrainable. I mean how many Chows do you see competing in shows? To quote Betty Fisher (So Your Dog Isn't Lassie): their mental well-being is not dependent on my happiness. Unfortunately, the conclusion she draws from this (treats as payment) doesn't work for a dog that isn't interested in food. Their interest in treats, when it exists at all, exists only as far as the nose will reach; we do not move for food. (And, even if we accept the food, we spit it on the ground, examine it for several minutes, sniff, push it with our nose, pick it up, lick, spit. . . We have to check carefully for poison, all of which is a considerable interruption of the training process.)

Now, after 13 years of Chow ownership, voices at the edge of the training universe have begun to suggest to me that my main problem in achieving even a modicum of obedience from my dogs is that I've been going about it the wrong way. Chows are motivated by self-preservation and physical comfort more than anything currently popular in the training world. In other words, the clicker isn't doing it. In a sally around the internet, I happened upon the respected trainer and competitor, Margot Woods. She started out with Chows. She gave them up for Dobermans when she decided on horses for courses, so to speak.

Well, I love my Chows more than I love obedience, so I'm going to try it the old-fashioned way. Since my dogs are so difficult, I'm going to do it according to Koehler (with one or two minor exceptions: It wasn't Van-Ly's fault she got tangled around the tree; it was mine and I untangled her) and I'm doing it according to the book. So I read the chapters over and over until I've got them straight in my head and then we do them as specified. I figure it's like music: you don't go off into flights of fancy composing 32 Variations for Piano in C Minor, until you understand what C-minor is, can play the piano, understand musical forms, and can work yourself back to the harmonic denouement. Of course, it helps to be Beethoven.

In Games Your Mother Never Taught You: Corporate Gamesmanship For Women, Betty Lehan Harragan said that if you weren't aiming to be Chairman of the Board, you'd never know what next move should be. You may never make Chairman of the Board, but you'll get a lot further than with a lesser goal. When Van-Ly knows how to heel properly, she won't always have to do it, but I hope she'll do it if I want her to. If I can't teach her to heel, how will I ever teach her weave poles?

Weave polls? These dog lists have been the ruination of me.

Saturday, 2 December 2006


We didn't take the dogs to Avignon yesterday. Nick had to buy wood, so there was no room. Just as well; having Nala snoring in the second floor 17th century drawing room during the press conference might have been a tad more attention than we wanted.

Van-Ly and I started on distractions today. I couldn't use the open gate routine as, contrary to W. Koehler's expectations, I am not a complete idiot, and one of the few things our dogs learn is not to dash onto the road. Either they sit and wait for my "voila!" or there is no walkies.

So, we went on our village walk, through the trees. Van-Ly was very good. She did not try to go sideways to the river or stop for anything except, one time, to smell the wild boar poop. We didn't go as far as the field where she plays or the part of the river where she wades. Enough is enough for one time. At the end of our walk, we saw Nick and Nala and Van-Ly trotted too far ahead of me. I stepped on her line. She tried once more and then walked nicely with me.

Next we will try the field and the river. The last test will be a real dog, not Nala. Chows don't count.