December 23, 2011

Politically Correct Seasonal Message

This is my favourite of the "Christmas Greetings" doing the internet rounds at the moment. I defy anyone to take offence at this one!

"Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress , non- addictive, gender neutral celebration of the summer solstice holiday practiced with the most enjoyable traditions of religious persuasion or secular practices of your choice with respect for the religious / secular persuasions and / or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all.

I also wish you a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2012, but not without due respect for the calendar of choice of other cultures whose contributions to society have helped make our country great  (not to imply that Australia is necessarily greater than any other country) and without regard to the race, creed, colour, age, physical ability, religious faith or sexual preference of the wishee.

This greeting is subject to clarification or withdrawal. It is freely transferable with no alteration to the original greeting. It implies no promise by the wishee to actually implement any of the wishes for her/him or others and is void where prohibited by law, and is revocable at the sole discretion of the wisher. The wish is warranted to perform as expected within the usual application of good tidings for a period of one year or until the issuance of a new wish at the sole discretion of the wisher.

Name withheld per Privacy Act."

December 03, 2011

Are you like your house?

It's an old saying the some people look like their dogs, but I wonder how many people are like their houses?

I recently noticed how well my house reflects me - in summary, it is colourful and interesting, but often a bit messy.

Like me, it has a rather unusual history, despite looking pretty ordinary on the outside. It also has some entertaining quirks which are apparent only on closer acquaintance, and it has an unquestionably broad outlook.

But ... also like me, some areas are best ignored, it would certainly benefit from a lot more organisation, and there is always a long list of things which need fixing or improving, a list which never seems to get any shorter. Similarly, as with my own experiences, people either like it or scorn it, but they usually remember it.

On the other hand:

  • I know tidy, compact people who have houses with the same characteristics. Both they and their houses are neat, orderly, well-organised, clean, and well-maintained.
  • Other people and their houses are larger, rambling, slightly dishevelled, but comfortable and welcoming. They often have children all over the place.
  • Some houses and their owners are luxuriously appointed, with every modern accessory and convenience. Perhaps a little ostentatious in proclaiming their success, but frequently admired and envied.
  • Dark and mysterious houses often have similar owners - a bit threatening and possibly even dangerous. Forbidding appearances, largely hidden activities, often with lots of highly-visible protection.
  • Down-on-their-luck houses and owners frequently look unkempt, don't care about appearances, let everything just hang out, don't clean up, and are often a source of great annoyance for those nearby.
  • Houses and owners with aspirations to a better life often try too hard. Everything is just a little too well thought out, a bit false, somewhat incongruous. Perhaps even a little jarring or grating, even if we don't quite know why. They make us feel a bit uncomfortable, as if we are seeing more than they might wish.

  • A (thankfully) few people and their houses are so flamboyant, boastful and generally over-the-top that it is impossible to admire them, and very easy to ridicule. I'm sure they know and hate that, but too bad.

  • And finally, there's the reassuringly ordinary house and owner. One with no pretensions, no surprises, no fancy ideas - just solid, dependable, familiar, and safe. They don't make us feel inadequate or judgemental. They are just there, comfortable and welcoming, whenever we feel like visiting. If we know such people and houses, we are lucky.
  • November 19, 2011

    Everybody Needs a Cubby

    I'm not sure how well the term translates outside Australia, so first let me explain that a cubby house can be any sort of fully enclosed, private play area for a child, usually involving make-believe games.

    It can be as simple as a large cardboard box or an assortment of blankets draped over a table and chairs, although some parents buy astonishingly elaborate constructions which serve exactly the same purpose.

    Unfortunately, as we grow older and more cynical, many simple pleasures lose their magic, and the humble (or even grandiose) cubby house usually stops being special.
    I think that's a great shame.

    A cubby provides you with a  private, safe and secure place in which to play, relax, plan, daydream, and spend time alone or with friends (real or imaginary). Doesn't that sound appealing?
    In fact it is so appealing a concept that we have devised all sorts of more sophisticated substitutes.
    • Some of us find physical seclusion in places like the "man cave", the study, the sewing room, the garden or the workshop.
    • Others look for metaphysical seclusion through prayer, meditation, yoga, music, books or exercise.
    I am lucky enough to have a mobile cubby. 

    It was bought many years ago with the intention of taking joint holidays into remote areas, but after only a couple of such trips (although not because of them), my co-traveller became a less significant part of my life, and the idea of solitary camping was a bit daunting. However, last week on my birthday I decided to celebrate by undertaking a very non-adventurous (but therefore non-stressful) expedition ... to a coastal town less than an hour's drive away.

    Feeling unjustifiably intrepid, I loaded the dogs and a very few supplies into the car and set off with my cubby in tow. To my immense personal satisfaction I managed the drive, the reversing into the caravan park site, and the setting up without too much difficulty, despite the wind and rain. Yes, of course it was wet and windy - we seasoned campers expect such tribulations.

    After an afternoon dodging showers to walk along the beach (a rare pleasure for those of us who don't live near the sea), I prepared my birthday feast: fish 'n' chips 'n' champagne. The entertainment was provided by a UK crime show played on my laptop, the canvas proved entirely waterproof, and to put it simply, I was as happy as a clam.

    Get a cubby, or if you already have one, whatever form it takes - use it.
    It's good for the soul.

    November 08, 2011

    Slices of Life on the Midland Train

    One of the cross-town passenger rail services in Perth runs from Midland, in the east, through the city to Fremantle, on the coast. It takes about an hour, with many stops, and along the way passes through suburbs covering a very wide range of socio-economic levels. In addition, the train itself sometimes serves as temporary accommodation for the disenfranchised, who somehow manage to avoid the ticket inspectors and stay on the train for many hours. Finally, in common with all public transport services, the train carries its fair share of the drunk, the drugged and the disturbed.

    As a result of these factors, there is frequently something noteworthy to be seen or heard on a journey to or from work, and I have gathered a selection here. I have tried to maintain a non-judgemental tone, to avoid giving offence, but if I have failed in that, please accept my apologies.  Everything that follows is true and unembellished, and all happened in daylight hours in moderately crowded carriages.

    1st Slice
    A loudly drunk man (mid 30's) boarded the train, accompanied by two women of similar age, and 4 young children under 10. He proceeded to walk up and down the aisle near them, yelling obscenities and repeatedly threatening the women with the most disturbing physical and extreme sexual violence, all described in graphic detail. Upsetting though this was to watch and listen to, the passivity of the women and the complete disinterest of the children was even more shocking. Obviously the whole scene was very familiar to them, and the fact that it was happening in public did not seem to bother any of them.

    2nd Slice
    A teenage girl sitting opposite me was yapping loudly on her mobile phone about another friend of hers who had recently "lost her virginity" (I didn't even know that phrase still existed), and who had subsequently posted all the details of the occasion on Facebook. I instantly realised I needed more interesting (or at least indiscreet) Facebook friends.

    3rd Slice
    Two dishevelled men in their late 30's boarded the train and sat down together, obviously knowing each other, but not speaking. One of them had the wild-eyed appearance of someone suffering from a mental disorder or substance abuse, and he had a zipped-up sports bag which he placed carefully between his feet. In common with most regular train users, I try to avoid eye contact with anyone looking a bit "disturbed", but when he unzipped the bag a few inches and a small dog stuck its nose out, I must have looked a bit surprised, because he leaned over to talk to me. He told me that everything he owned was in the bag, and the dog was his constant companion. He was usually homeless, unless his friend (the fellow next to him) happened to be living somewhere with enough room for him. He could not stay in any of the city's homeless shelters because they didn't allow dogs, and he could not leave her. Fascinated despite myself, I asked how old the dog was, and how she coped with life in a bag. He said he'd found her on the street several years ago, and she didn't seem to mind being zipped up in the bag for most of the day. Certainly she looked to be in no distress, gazing about her with interest for a few minutes and then quietly withdrawing into the bag again. I can't imagine what their life is like, but I guess at least they have each other.

    4th Slice
    Sitting opposite me was a mid-20s man with a toddler. He chatted amiably to a younger man next to me, comparing notes on various prisons they'd recently been in. Both of them had 2 young children, all under 5, and they agreed that's the worst thing about getting caught. (!!) The fellow opposite was taking his daughter to visit an uncle who was dying in hospital after hanging himself the previous day - "they're deciding whether or not to pull the plug".

    5th Slice
    Simultaneously confronting sights: an approximately 6 months pregnant woman who smelt strongly of alcohol (mid-afternoon) and had her cigarette lighter ready to light up as soon as she got off the train, and a 20ish man in an electric wheelchair, with extremely stunted arms and legs. He managed fine, but after sitting next to the expectant "mother" for 30 minutes, I felt so sad that he had done nothing to contribute to his condition, whereas ...

    6th Slice
    Midland Train Station
    A sad and ugly scene at Midland train station. Following the aggressive robbery of an elderly passenger on the platform, the young offender was pursued by two policemen. The police finally caught the boy, but it was very disturbing to see many people yelling encouragement to the boy and very crude abuse at the police. Obviously, none of these onlookers spared a thought for the bruised, frightened and badly shaken victim.

    7th Slice brings a smile
    Something you don't often see on the train: a middle-aged man in tight lycra bike shorts (eww) with a racing bike ... and carrying an electric guitar. Good for him!

    And finally, a crumb of comfort to reassure me that all is not lost
    After an hour on the train, I arrived at my destination to find myself without my wallet, which meant I had left it on Midland station. From the above accounts you can guess how sure I was that by this time my credit card would have been put to excellent use. But no, someone getting off the train I boarded had noticed the purse and handed it in to the station guard, all intact. They did not leave their name, but I thanked them through the local paper, and the episode still gives me comfort every time I witness something distressing on the train. There are many good people.

    September 18, 2011

    "Family Fortunes" Quiz Answers

    I dislike posting purely copied material, especially when it is unattributable, but I heard about this list, and it is every bit as wonderful as I'd hoped from its description. 
    A long-running TV quiz show in the UK (recently revived) is Family Fortunes, and these are some answers given by contestants over the years. You can also find videos of some of these priceless moments, which confirm their authenticity. 
    I was honestly crying at some of them - enjoy.

    Q: Name something you take to the beach      A: Turkey sandwiches
    Q. Name something a blind person might use      A: A sword
    Q. Name a song with moon in the title      A: Blue Suede Moon
    Q. Name a bird with a long neck      A: Naomi Campbell
    Q. Name an occupation where you need a torch      A: A burglar
    Q. Name a famous brother and sister      A: Bonnie & Clyde
    Q. Name a dangerous race      A: The Arabs
    Q. Name an item of clothing worn by the Three Musketeers      A: A horse
    Q. Name something that floats in the bath      A: Water
    Q. Name something you wear on the beach      A: A deckchair
    Q. Name a famous royal      A: Mail
    Q. Name a number you have to memorise      A: 7     (My absolute favourite.)
    Q. Name something in the garden that’s green      A: Shed
    Q. Name something that flies but doesn’t have an engine      A: A bicycle with wings
    Q. Name something you might be allergic to      A: Skiing
    Q. Name a famous bridge      A: The bridge over troubled waters
    Q. Name something a cat does      A: Goes to the toilet
    Q. Name something you do in the bathroom      A: Decorate
    Q. Name an animal you might see at the zoo      A: A dog
    Q. Name something associated with the police      A:Pigs
    Q. Name a sign of the zodiac      A: April
    Q. Name something slippery      A: A conman
    Q. Name a way of cooking fish      A: Cod
    Q. Name a food that can be brown or white      A: Potato
    Q. Name a jacket potato topping      A: Jam
    Q. Name a famous Scotsman      A: Jock
    Q. Name something with a hole in it      A: Window
    Q. Name a non-living object with legs      A: Plant       (A close second.)
    Q. Name a domestic animal      A: Leopard
    Q. Name a part of the body beginning with ‘N’      A: Knee
    Q. Name something you open other than a door      A: Your bowels

    September 04, 2011

    Dad and Daughter Club

    It's Fathers Day in Australia, and although it was never celebrated much in our family, it's reminded me to think about my father, who died almost 25 years ago.

    The Dad and Daughter Club
    (about 7 years after it was created)

    He was over 40 when I was born, so I only ever knew him as a middle-aged man, and he spent his last few years lost in the heart-breaking fog of dementia, but I was lucky enough to know him well until I was about 20. 

    Physically, he was certainly someone to be noticed, standing almost 2m tall, and always very "well-covered", despite my mother's best efforts. But it was his personality and intellect which made him larger than life. He came to Australia as a child, in a somewhat sickly condition, having been born prematurely and suffering from the cold and damp of England. The family had little money, so he left school at the minimum age, and went to work as a travelling salesman for ornate glass wall lamps.

    From this inauspicious beginning he rose to become a "Captain of Industry", rubbing shoulders with the chairmen of Australia's biggest companies, while remaining modest and out of the limelight himself. As his personal wealth increased, he diverted more and more of it to charitable purposes, eventually setting up a Foundation with a huge reserve of money which is still being invested and distributed by independent trustees, even so many years after his death.
    He never publicised these philanthropic activities, and I doubt his big-business colleagues even realised where his heart lay in this regard, because in corporate circles he was renowned for his sharply analytical mind, courageous business decisions, and steadfastly confident opinions.

    He was not only a self-made man, but largely self-educated. Having had limited schooling, and with much of his early education interrupted by illness, he never wrote legibly, and throughout his life relied on printing in capitals or dictating for someone to type. His interest in reading, however, was greater than anyone else I have known, and this gave him a depth and breadth of knowledge which I have never managed to emulate, despite my best efforts.
    He could discuss almost any topic with enthusiasm and a staggering grasp of detail, but English and Australian history were, I think, his greatest love. We travelled many times to the UK when I was young, and on each trip I remember him entertainingly recounting various important events which had taken place everywhere we went, always including some fascinating trivia.

    I am forever grateful for the time he spent reading to me as a child, despite his very time-consuming business interests, and I cannot look at a copy of "Wind in the Willows" or "The Magic Pudding" or "The Water Babies" or "David Copperfield" or "Peter Pan" without hearing his voice doing the different characters and keeping me enthralled through innumerable re-readings.

    However, the greatest gift he ever gave me was his unswerving belief in my worth and abilities. Perhaps sensibly, this was not shared by my mother, and certainly not by myself, but it is indeed a precious thing to have someone who firmly believes you are special and important throughout your childhood and adolescence (despite all evidence to the contrary!)
    Whenever I have been tossed about by the all-too-frequent rough seas of adulthood, I try hard to recapture the feeling of security and confidence he created in me back then.

    He was a remarkable and memorable figure in the world of big business, to be sure, but his finest role was as Chairman of the Dad and Daughter Club, and for that he will always take pride of place in my heart.

    Thank you Daddy, God Bless, and Happy Fathers Day.

    August 13, 2011

    Patriotism, or "Caaarn Straya!" (1)

    I've never considered myself to be truly patriotic, but every now and then I feel a surge of national pride. Never during sporting events like the World Cup (which sort of football is that again?) or the Olympics, but usually in the context of a shared characteristic with other Australians.

    The following list was one of the very very few email circulars to make it through my filters, but it really struck a chord, so I thought I'd pass it on with annotations to help those for whom some of the references are particularly obscure. I hope that few Australian readers will need these explanations, but it might help them to explain some of their own characteristics to others. Unfortunately I can't give due credit for the list, because it was as anonymous as all such compilations, and is doubtless the work of many people along the way. To each of them I say "Thenk smite!"

    [UPDATE 26 January 2012, appropriately enough: the original list is by Aussie journalist and author Richard Glover, and can be found on his website, where he encourages readers to share it. Apologies to him for not knowing this before, and for making small amendments and additions to his already comprehensive work!]

    You know you're Australian if ...

    * You believe that something looking like cooked-down axle grease makes a fantastic spread. You've squeezed it through Vita Wheats to make little Vegemite worms ...
    and you can sing the song.
    [In fact I bet you sang along to that video, didn't you. Just like I did.]

    * You believe that stubbies can be either drunk or worn.

    * You think Woolloomooloo, Mooloolaba, Koolyanobbing, and Goonoo Goonoo are perfectly reasonable names for places.

    * Speaking of place names, you can recognise most of the towns in the original version of "I've Been Everywhere Man".

    * You're secretly proud of our killer wildlife.

    * You understand that "Wagga Wagga" can be abbreviated to "Wagga", but "Woy Woy" could never be called "Woy", and "Bong Bong" can't be "Bong". That would just be silly.

    * You believe all famous Kiwis are actually Australian, unless they stuff up, at which point they become Kiwis again.

    * Beetroot with your hamburger ... Of course.

    * You know that certain words must, by law, be shouted by the whole audience during any rendition of "Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again" and "Living Next Door to Alice".

    * You're liable to burst out laughing whenever you hear of Americans "rooting" for something.

    * You can translate: "Dazza and Blue went with Wozza to see Acca Dacca."

    * You have at some time worn ugg boots outside the house.

    * You understand that the phrase "women wearing black thongs" is less alluring than it sounds.

    * You know how to pronounce "Mel-bun" properly.

    * You're less likely to get caught making a bong with your garden hose than for using it illegally to water the garden.

    * You believe it makes perfect sense for a nation to decorate its highways with large fibreglass fruit, penguins, prawns and sheep.

    * You believe that most of the really important discoveries in the world were made by an Australian but then sold off to the Yanks for a pittance.

    * You believe that the more you shorten someone's name the more you like them.

    * You say "no worries" quite often, whether you realise it or not, and you understand what "no wuckers" means (without having to click on that link).

    * And you have drunk your tea/coffee/Milo through a Tim Tam. Ohhh yesss.

    To be continued ...

    July 31, 2011

    Dog Obedience 3

    This is the third in a series of articles written for the Malaysian Kennel Association, who asked for some comments on the principles of dog obedience training from a judge's perspective. Most of each article is directed at people who are simply interested in having a better behaved dog, but I hope there may also be something to interest the experienced handler and competitor.
    "Why won't my dog heel properly?"
    There is an old joke which goes "I called my dog Herpes because he never heels". Yes I know that's pretty corny, but teaching your dog to walk nicely on the lead seems to be something a great many owners have trouble with.
    I don't know what the Dog Laws are like in Malaysia, but they are very strict in Australia, and there are depressingly few places where dogs are allowed to run freely. So most people have to walk their dogs on a lead, and everywhere you look there are owners being dragged along, even by very small dogs.
    Not only must it be very tiring for the owner to walk like that, and uncomfortable for the dog, but it also means there is almost no control over what their dog does at the other end of the lead. It might suddenly lunge at another dog, or try to snatch a child's carelessly waved ice-cream or hamburger, or step suddenly onto the road, or walk right in front of a cyclist, or wrap the lead around a light pole, or someone else's legs, pram, or walking stick.
    All of these possibilities detract greatly from the enjoyment of going out with your dog, and it is for this reason that it is so important to teach your dog the basics of heeling.
    It is not the place of this article to tell you how to do that - there are many ways of doing so, and your local dog obedience club is probably the best place to start. Failing that, there are instructional videos on the internet, and countless books on the subject.

    Walking "nicely" on the lead
    There is a difference between this and the sort of "heeling" expected in Obedience activities. I think it is unrealistic to expect a dog to be working and concentrating every time you go out for a walk together, so even while you are training your dog, it is important to allow time for him to look around, sniff things, and walk along casually. This is something that all dog owners can achieve with just a little time and practice.
    The key principle here is that the lead should be loose, even if the dog is walking a little ahead or behind or out to one side.
    Consider it from the dog's viewpoint: A dog straining ahead on a tight lead cannot move any faster than one on a loose lead, so there is no advantage to the dog at all, and he can enjoy his outing even more when he is not continually being jerked here and there by an owner using the lead as a brake.
    From the owner's point of view, his arm and hand do not get tired or sore, and he can relax, without constantly having to watch what his dog is doing way ahead at the end of the lead. He knows that his dog is walking close to him, and that any change in speed or direction will be noticed by the dog without the owner having to haul on the lead.
    And for other people walking nearby (with or without dogs), there is the peace of mind that comes from seeing a dog properly under control, walking calmly along on a loose lead. A very reassuring sight, because they realise that the owner has put some effort into training the dog to behave well, and they are far less likely to have their own progress interrupted by a wayward dog.

    Formal heel-work
    By this I mean having the dog walking in the position considered optimal in Obedience work: with his shoulder about level with your left leg, close but not touching it, matching his pace to yours, and remaining in this position through turns in all directions. Needless to say, if he is on a lead, this must be completely loose and not used to keep the dog in that position or to "steer" him around corners!
    Obviously, this requires considerably more training than the casual walking described above, and as I mentioned, it is impractical to require this sort of behaviour every time you go for a walk together. But well-trained dogs should be able to adopt this walking position whenever their owner chooses, such as when passing other people or dogs. It is also a primary component of Obedience work, as well as many other dog sports such as Heeling to Music, Jumping, and Agility.
    Again, the best place for you and your dog to learn this skill is at a reputable Obedience Club, using positive training methods. The "old" method of constantly correcting the dog by sharp jerks on the lead, or through the use of "training collars", has been conclusively shown to be far less effective than positive methods like "clicker" or reward-based training. These methods teach the dog to enjoy doing the right thing, instead of fearing doing the wrong thing - a very important distinction which leads to a much better relationship between owner and dog.

    So I encourage all dog owners to spend time teaching their dogs to at least walk nicely on the lead, even if you don't go on to do any more Obedience training. That simple skill (as well as the automatic sit covered in the previous article) will make walking together a pleasure for you both, and it will avoid detracting from the enjoyment of others. Happy Dog-walking!

    July 19, 2011

    Hacking hacks under attack

    It is almost shamefully satisfying to watch the unravelling of a tabloid empire whose "journalists" and "news"papers have intruded so relentlessly into other people's lives. The fact that in many cases this intrusion was not only amoral but also (we now learn) completely illegal is more than justification for the finger-pointing and name-calling currently taking place around the world.

    But the apparent involvement of top level Scotland Yard policemen and politicians is less risible and more depressing, because their job is to uphold the law and protect the rights of individuals, whereas we all accept (however reluctantly) that tabloid hacks are unscrupulous when it comes to getting a scoop. The flood of denials continues, even as those who stoutly reject the very idea of involvement one day are rushing to fall on their swords the next. It's become a ghoulish guessing game, wondering who'll be next.

    Conspiracy theorists are having a field day, of course, especially with the as-yet unexplained death of one of the first whistleblowers. Even without the sensationalist conjecture, what faith can we place in an investigation by a police service whose own reputation has been severely tarnished by the revelations which he set in motion?

    Let us sincerely hope that when the dust finally settles, all those who should be brought to account have been exposed and suitably dealt with. It would also be satisfying if all those whose tragedies were made worse by the actions of the greedy and unprincipled receive something a little more tangible than a PR-spun apology from one of the world's richest men.
    If not, I think many of us will be seriously hacked off!

    June 11, 2011

    Dog Obedience 2

    As I explained in my last post (goodness, that was too long ago!), I've been asked by the Malaysian Kennel Association to write a series of these articles, and I'm making the most of the pencil-chewing they involve by posting them here too. They are aimed at people who are interested in understanding some of the principles of basic dog obedience training, and are absolutely not a substitute for practical assistance. Experienced handlers and competitors will find nothing new here, although each article will include some final comments from a Judge's perspective.

    Why the "Automatic Sit" Matters

    Many people wonder why Obedience Training seems to place so much importance on the dog and handler learning how to have the dog sit automatically (i.e. without any signal or command) when the handler stops.

    It is one of the exercises which determines when a dog and handler are ready to progress to the next level of training, and it is a skill which is required in even the most basic Obedience Trial.

    So what's the big deal?

    Well, for a start, it is an excellent indication of how much the dog is paying attention to the handler. If a dog is more interested in nearby sights or smells, it is unlikely that he/she will notice when the handler slows down and stops. So the automatic sit is proof that the dog is primarily focussed on his owner.

    Secondly, there are obvious safety implications, even for those owners who have no intention of entering Obedience Trials.
    When walking along with your dog beside you, you might stop for a number of reasons:
    • coming to a busy road
    • meeting a friend
    • noticing a problem up ahead
    • pausing to decide which way to go
    • wanting to look at something
    • stopping on a narrow path to let someone else go past

    In all these cases it is far more convenient if your dog quietly sits without your having to say anything, until you are ready to move on. It leaves you free to concentrate on whatever made you stop, and it reassures other people that your dog is under control and not a pest.

    So there are many practical reasons for this exercise.

    But it also indicates the strength or weakness of the bond between dog and handler, and this is the basis for all obedience work, whether for competition or not.

    Many years ago, when I was just starting out in Obedience, I had a dog who always placed her paw on my foot whenever I stopped. I thought this was a charming display of affection until an Obedience instructor suggested that she might be doing this so she could look around, smell the breeze and generally ignore me until she noticed when I moved on!!

    Those of you who do take part in Obedience Trials may be interested in what judges look for in terms of the Automatic Sit. It is a part of many exercises, but does not have any specific marks attached to it, so it is up to each judge how much importance they place on it. Obviously the dog must "sit when the handler stops, without any command or signal", as it says in the rule books, but there are many different ways this can be done, and judges differ in how much they care about the variations.
    1. Some dogs take longer to sit than others, and this can be due to all sorts of things. If the judge feels the dog is slow because he is not paying attention, or because he is waiting for a second command, then sometimes this means a deduction of points. However, most judges realise that bigger dogs, older dogs, dogs with tails, dogs with large testicles, pregnant bitches etc may all have a very good reason for being a bit slower, and it is unlikely that any points would be lost. Oh and by the way, remember that all judges used to be competitors, so don't think we won't notice that little movement or whispered command to make your dog sit. ;-)
    2. Handlers often worry about exactly where the dog sits, and they are not satisfied unless the dog is sitting precisely in line with their left leg, facing straight ahead, and often actually touching their leg. Again, this is a matter of personal preference, and some judges will deduct points for "untidy" sits, where the dog is sitting a little forwards or behind, or is facing slightly to one side, or is sitting a little apart from the handler. Other judges will not mind such minor imperfections, unless they are trying to differentiate between two almost faultless performances.
    3. And what if your dog doesn't sit automatically while you are in the ring? Well, you and the judge could stand there in anxious silence for minutes unless one of you says something, so it may as well be you! If your dog hasn't sat within about 10 seconds, it probably isn't going to, so you may as well give it a command (NEVER a correction). Sure, you might lose a few points, but if your dog doesn't do any automatic sits, you are very likely to fail the whole exercise, so at least you have reminded the dog what to do, and hopefully it will do it properly for the rest of the round.

    So in general, I would recommend all dog owners to work on the automatic sit because it is so handy in everyday life.
    And for those of you who participate in Obedience Trials, it would be a tough judge who took more than a couple of points off for poor sits, so don't fuss too much about getting a "perfect" sit unless you think that the rest of your performance will be perfect as well!

    April 11, 2011

    Dog Obedience 1

    For those who don't know (ie almost everyone who might read this!), I am a licensed Dog Obedience judge, and I was recently honoured to be invited to judge a large Obedience Trial in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It was a very interesting weekend in all sorts of ways, and I am still very grateful for the opportunity, so when I was subsequently asked to write a regular column for the Malaysian Kennel Association magazine, I naturally agreed.
    Besides, what an irresistible combination of three of my greatest interests: writing, dogs, and giving my opinion on things!

    So I might as well use the articles as occasional blog posts, getting maximum value from the minimal effort I expend. ;-) Here's my first contribution, aimed at those who are uncertain about whether or not to try Dog Obedience, and/or who know little about it.

    Dog Obedience Training 1 - Mythbusting!
    1. You have to start with a puppy. - MYTH BUSTED!
    Many people have successfully trained dogs which came to them in the dog's later life, perhaps from a shelter or another family member. Just like people, dogs are never too old to learn!

    2. You need a Working or Utility breed to train in Obedience. MYTH BUSTED!
    Border Collie and Jack Russell Terrier successfully performing "Down Stay with Handler out of Sight"
    at the top level of Obedience (in Malaysia).
    Again, just as with people, some dogs find learning easy, others need patience and a different approach. The breed or mixture of breeds is immaterial - it is the individual dog which matters, and with the right sort of training, every dog can learn. 

    3. There's no point in doing Obedience if you don't want to enter competitions. MYTH BUSTED!
    Obedience training simply means working with your dog to learn new skills. That might be as simple as teaching your dog not to jump up when people visit, or to walk calmly beside you on the lead and to sit down when you stop. These exercises form part of basic training, and make your dog more of a pleasure to be around. If you are interested, however, you and your dog can go on learning more and more. It's all up to you.

    4. You have to train your dog regularly if you want to succeed. MYTH CONFIRMED!
    Training methods vary, but most trainers agree that if you want your dog to learn something and then remember what it has learned, you will need to practice. But that might be as infrequently as once a week, or as often as twice a day - it is all up to you and the result you want to achieve.

    5. You don't need a professional trainer or a club to learn Obedience. MYTH CONFIRMED!
    It is certainly possible to teach your dog basic Obedience without any assistance, but there are many advantages to joining a club. You will get the benefit of other people's experiences, you will learn some alternative methods of training if you are having difficulty, and you and your dog will enjoy the company of others with similar interests. 

    6. Obedience Clubs are all very competitive. MYTH BUSTED!
    Most clubs have a wide range of members and interests, from those who just want a well-behaved family pet, to those who are keen to reach the highest standards in the sport. Good clubs will welcome everyone with an interest in training their dog, no matter what the reason. 

    7. Anyone can be a Dog Obedience Trainer. MYTH PLAUSIBLE.
    It is true that no special qualifications are required in order to call yourself a "Trainer", but that does not mean that anyone can be a good or helpful trainer. If you are looking for someone to help you train your dog, it is wise to do a little homework before investing your time and money. That's why it is often better to join a Dog Obedience Club so you can get to know a bit more about what makes a good trainer. You could also ask the Kennel Association for some recommendations, if you want to get a private trainer.

    8. Some training methods are cruel. MYTH CONFIRMED!
    Unfortunately there are still trainers who believe in using harsh corrections and punishment as a way of training a dog, but these days most trainers use what is known as "positive reinforcement", which means rewarding the dog for doing the right thing instead of punishing it for doing the wrong thing. This method is much kinder to the dog and gets much better results.

    9. Some dogs are impossible to train. MYTH BUSTED!
    There is no single method of training which suits every dog, and good trainers will know how to adjust their methods to allow for a particular dog or handler's personality and past experiences. Some dogs are more difficult to train than others, perhaps due to a stubborn nature, or a disability, or because of some past trauma, but a good trainer will be able to help the owner overcome these, even if it takes a bit longer.

    10. You can't do Obedience Training with a Show Dog (or vice versa). MYTH(S) BUSTED!
    Obedience Training is all about teaching your dog (and you) to work together as a team in whatever activity you choose to do. That includes going for a walk or run, taking your dog to visit friends, doing retrieving with a ball or dumbbell, jumping over obstacles, entering obedience trials … or conformation shows. Many dogs have both Conformation and Obedience titles, and it doesn't matter at all which you do first, or if you enjoy both activities at the same time. The main thing is for you and your dog to enjoy working together!

    March 24, 2011


    There have always been people who feel that the hard-won right to Freedom of Speech entitles them to be as insulting or hurtful towards others as they like. Sometimes they are sufficiently proud of their "candour" that they are happy for their identities to be known, but the more craven or cautious among them have always hidden behind anonymity.
    In previous times, the anonymous "poison pen" letter was used to attack, frighten or villify someone, and was usually rude, insulting, or downright malicious about a person's life or character.
    In the case of my own thoughts and opinions as expressed in this blog, one of the posts which has attracted the strongest response (as I expected it would) is "DMOZ Editor Corruption Shock". However, that post is now almost two years old, and has been updated twice since then (in August 2009 and July 2010), but I continue to receive nasty comments on the original post, obviously by people who have not noticed that it is now rather dated.

    I do not censor sensible comments, even if I disagree with their content, or even if the writer wishes to hide his/her identity. But in my view (and it is my blog, after all) I don't see any value to anyone in publishing anonymous rants which are usually pointless and frequently illiterate.

    Of course I have experienced my share of hurtful criticism in several areas of my life, some of which was undoubtedly justified, but I absolutely refuse to take seriously the accusations and criticisms of
    • those who abuse a position of authority to belittle people "beneath" them
    • bullies of any type 
    • those who are purely self-interested (ie with their own unacknowledged and unrelated agenda)
    • those who have shown themselves to be deceitful or manipulative
    • ... and certainly those who send anonymous "hate mail" or blind criticism  
    So, Mr/Ms "Anonymous", if you wish me to take note of your emails or publish your comments, please ensure they indicate some thought on your part, are relevant to the issue in question, contain at least one original opinion or observation, and are written with some semblance of grammar and syntax, rather than being just a string of miss-spelled invective.
    If you can't manage that, save yourself the time.

    February 27, 2011

    Deconstructive Criticism

    To my disappointment, the title is not a witty neologism, but a long-standing (if terminally obscure) literary term. I tried hard to understand the definition, really I did, but in the end I still prefer my own:
    "Deconstructive criticism is the opposite of constructive criticism"

    "But surely the opposite is 'unconstructive' or even 'non-constructive'?", you might say.
    No. In my mind those are terms for criticism which does nothing at all, neither helpful nor damaging:

    For me, construction means putting things together, so the opposite should be "deconstruction", or taking things apart. Not destruction, you understand, which means destroying, but more the dismantling of something which has been built.

    Now that we have my definitions sorted out, how does this apply to criticism? Some examples might help.

    Example 1
    Constructive criticism: "You have obviously worked hard on this, but I notice a few things which could be improved. Perhaps we can work on them together?"
    Unconstructive criticism: "I don't like the way you've done this."
    Destructive criticism: "What a mess you've made, as usual."
    Deconstructive criticism: "You've spent way too much time on this, and you still haven't got it right."
    Example 2
    Constructive criticism: "I know how much you like that colour, but I'm not sure it's the best choice this time."
    Unconstructive criticism: "I don't like that colour at all."
    Destructive criticism: "You have never had any colour sense."
    Deconstructive criticism: "What on earth makes you think that colour combination works?"
    Example 3
    Constructive criticism: "I appreciate your point of view, but I see things differently. Can we talk about it some more?"
    Unconstructive criticism: "I totally disagree."
    Destructive criticism: "You always get things wrong."
    Deconstructive criticism: "Where on earth did you get that idea? It's completely ridiculous."
    Example 4
    Constructive criticism: "You have a wonderful way with words, but I think your point might be lost in the detailed explanation you provide."
    Unconstructive criticism: "I have absolutely no idea what you mean."
    Destructive criticism: "You always bore everyone to death."
    Deconstructive criticism: "Why can't you just use simple language instead of this rubbish?"
    Example 5
    Constructive criticism: "You devote so much time and effort to this company/project/organisation, but perhaps it might be time to take a step back and re-assess priorities?"
    Unconstructive criticism: "Nobody should spend as much time as you do on this."
    Destructive criticism: "You are not nearly as useful as you seem to think you are.
    Deconstructive criticism: "Most of what you've done is completely unnecessary, and the rest has to be checked and corrected anyway."

    I hope you can get a sense of the demoralising effect of deconstructive criticism, which is a more personal attack on your own values and abilities, and therefore harder to ignore, than the obvious generalisations of the other two negative responses.
    In other words, deconstructive criticism is nothing more than a deliberate insult, and like all insults says more about the person delivering it than the one to whom it is addressed.  Criticism is an essential component of growth and development, but only if it is constructive. Accept no substitutes! 


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