Dear Dog Trainers

It has been over six months since I have been paid to help other people train their dogs.  (Luckily for Moses and Alma, they’re not off the hook, and training continues at home regularly.)

Some photo ops aren't possible without a solid training foundation.

Some photo ops aren’t possible without a solid training foundation.

Working for a dog training company part-time on some evenings and weekends was part of my life for a few years, but like all good things, it had to come to an end.

To be honest, I thought I’d miss training a lot more than I do (I’m good at keeping myself busy). Actually, there are a few things in particular I don’t miss at all.

1.  The first thing I don’t miss is the self-inflicted pressure to have perfect dogs and be a perfect handler. Whether or not it was fair or completely rational, I felt as a trainer my dogs should be beaming examples of perfection. I mean, you wouldn’t necessarily want to take fashion advice from someone in mom-jeans and Crocs, would you? So why would you take training advice from someone who has been unsuccessful themselves? Of course, despite no longer being a trainer, I still have high behaviour expectations for Alma and Moses, but I do admit it’s relieving to no longer be representing an industry or business. If we happen to have an “off” day, I feel much less crappy about it. Similarly, I also care a bit less when I see someone else’s dog behaving like a maniac.

Moses and peers in the 'classroom' - sit-stay practice.

Moses and peers in the ‘classroom’ – sit-stay practice.

2.  I don’t at all miss the requests for free advice from acquaintances and coworkers. Talking about dogs is often an easy icebreaker when you don’t know someone very well, but if it comes out that you happen to train dogs when you’re not at the “real” job, the questions start coming. Initially my know-it-all nature loved this. However, I quickly noticed a frustrating and annoying pattern: no one actually applies the advice. I mean, sure, some people would sign up for a class after a good conversation, but they would be the minority. More often, I’d just get sporadic updates about an unruly dog battling the same challenges without reprieve – efforts to help completely futile. Even the most basic help, like “start by walking your dog daily” would fall on deaf ears. And it’s not like I’m going to give up a whole curriculum to near-strangers, anyway. I’m not about to hand out free access to information others pay good money for. I suppose if those cheap (or lazy) bastards really wanted to fix things, they would just enrol in a program. People definitely listen more closely if they’ve paid for your opinion.

Alma in class - also sit-stay practice

Alma in class – also sit-stay practice

3.  Lastly – and this is the big one – I do not, at all, not even one little bit, miss the politics in dog training.

Politics in the dog training community is ri-goddamn-diculous. It’s like a civil war in the overall dog community; it severs friendships, families, and business relationships.

It doesn’t matter who you’re talking about. The vitriol spewed by either camp at any given time is insane and enough to discourage the involvement of anyone with even a miniscule sense of reason or rationality. You can find more tact in the comments section of YouTube.

anchorman

It is difficult to speak of a middle ground between the two basic sides of positive reinforcement training (R+) and more coercive training (P+) (to over-simplify the distinction).

As is the case in most divisive issues, anyone attempting to create a middle ground and apply best practices from all corners of the quadrant might not successfully build any bridges at all, but instead can find themselves alone, with everyone remaining in uncompromising disagreement. Congratulations! Instead of having just one nemesis, now you have many!

operant conditioning

Which brings me to what I would like to say to ALL dog trainers:

Whether you practice positive reinforcement or coercive training, or a varying mix of the two, everyone needs to disregard egos and emotions and enlist only positive reinforcement (R+) techniques when it comes to dealing with fellow human beings.

A handy decision tree if this seems difficult.

A handy decision tree if this seems difficult.

This means your clients and potential clients. This means other pet-related businesses, from retail stores to rescue organizations. This mean other trainers.

We live in Canada – has no one learned anything from our elections process? Negative campaigns, gossip, and slander, while memorable, don’t actually prompt people to action. Negative campaigns haven’t shown to produce results in the undecided, and can risk alienating people. Positive messaging, however, has been proven to work for everyone.

There are many clichés that apply: negative messaging says more about you than it does about your target; take the high road; you catch more flies with honey; treat others the way you wish to be treated; losing ground follows from throwing mud. You’ve heard them all before. The fact is, rage-inducing or fear-mongering messages do not change minds, and often create avoidance in your intended audience. I don’t know about you, but when that crazy guy on the street corner is ranting about the End of Days, I don’t walk up to him and ask him to tell me more; I shuffle by quickly and avoid making eye contact.

"She said it was better to be kind than to be clever or good looking, I'm not clever or good looking. But I'm kind." - Derek

“She said it was better to be kind than to be clever or good looking, I’m not clever or good looking. But I’m kind.” – Derek

I truly wish more in the dog community would simply lead by example rather than create segregation and alienation.

Speak with your actions – use dogs you’ve worked with to speak to the validity of your training abilities and methods.

Rather than a correction-based trainer calling all R+ trainers “ineffective bribers”, why not just show – with real life examples and evidence – how their methods have successfully helped dogs?  Or rather than purely positive reinforcement trainers calling for the literal imprisonment of other trainers on account of animal abuse, why not just showcase how effective and safe their methods are?

[Aside: I am aware assigning labels in dog training treads in dangerous waters, and it’s essentially impossible to be extreme or absolute in any method. The terms are used here for effective communication. If you’d like a good perspective on the various dog training camps, I recommend reading The Dog Trainer Spectrum, by TheCrossOverTrainer.com.]

It boggles my mind that people think they can speak the way they do about, or to, other human beings when it comes to dog training. It’s often reactionary, emotional, and hostile. I understand that everyone gets that way from time to time; people can speak or act on an impulse when faced with something they strongly disagree with. I get that. I sometimes do that, too.

You just need to give people the benefit of the doubt (I know, how uncharacteristically optimistic and understanding of me). Even I know that sometimes people just don’t know any better or any differently.

For instance, if I see someone with their dog wandering off the sidewalk on a flexi-leash, instead of just thinking ‘my god, what a moron, control your dog!‘, I also try to acknowledge, ‘hey, any dog walk is better than no walk at all.’ Likewise, the training community could replace ‘omg look at that idiot using technique x, collar y, or company z for dog training,’ with ‘well, at least they have the foresight to seek professional help and want to make their dog’s life better.’

½ air, ½ water - technically, the glass is always full

½ air, ½ water – technically, the glass is always full

Sure, complete and total convictions in your methods and practices is admirable, if not a little impossible to execute in every facet of your life (see my post on hypocrisy here). Rigid fundamentalism at its core is, after all, unflinching, close-minded, and ultimately dangerous. A lack of empathy is a near requirement, regardless of what it’s about. Of course it is important that you and your business stand up for your principles and avoid unnecessary compromises, but it’s also crucial to acknowledge that no debate is about absolutes, and often there are indirect and subtle ways to effectively promote your perspective.

It is extremely frustrating that this Training War seeps into the rest of the pet world – affecting retail businesses, groomers, kennels, dog walkers, and rescue organizations. And the effect is damaging.

I never really understood how unwavering these convictions were until a few years ago when we were getting ASLC off the ground and this very thing caused me no end of frustration and befuddlement. We called Company X to ask if they would support the cause and host the petition, and much to my surprise, Company X immediately came back with a firm “No”. No, they would not support ASLC. Not because of the merits of ASLC or its founders – they absolutely did support the ban on a retail sale of dogs and cats and were glad to see us take on the cause. They did not want to get on board because they’d heard a rumour that Company Y was also going to be a supporter. And, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, companies X and Y train dogs differently.

This struck me as ludicrous.

"A dog is the most enthusiastic thing on the planet, if you go - do you wanna do this? It goes - definitely, that's my best thing." - Derek

“A dog is the most enthusiastic thing on the planet, if you go – do you wanna do this? It goes – definitely, that’s my best thing.” – Derek

Yes, the companies practiced business differently. But they also both strongly believed that breeding dogs and cats for sale in a pet store was categorically wrong. It did not matter, though, that the ASLC initiative is specifically focussed to one issue and purposely silent on other such matters. Simply because a perceived enemy or competitor also supported the good cause, they could not.

Are the issues connected? Sure, getting a pet and training it are pieces to the same puzzle; however, they are not so directly related that the positions of these training-only companies made any logical sense to me. They both ultimately want to improve the lives of pets, do they not?

Sometimes I wonder if the refusal to work with those who conduct themselves differently is a convenient excuse to avoid things that might be challenging, but then I remember to give the benefit of the doubt and think maybe just sometimes people let their piety get the best of them.

This divisive nature does a lot more harm than good. Emotional decisions are becoming a roadblock to taking action in the best interests of dogs – and of the pet community as a whole. Advocacy messages and rescue efforts are actually being harmed when the community can’t come together as a unified voice to support even simple causes they all actually agree on. Great opportunities for collaboration, promotion, and change are being refused.

How does that look to the public and to politicians when consensus cannot be reached due to unrelated issues?

Perhaps the segregation is the worst/dumbest part. Individuals and organizations decline to interact together on one thing because they disagree another. Well, you’ll never influence or educate anyone if you alienate or shame them.

If you’re trying to convince someone to abandon one training technique, or to see another within some context, you’ll never get anywhere with ridicule or avoidance. The best way to teach others – and to learn from them – is to spend time with people who see things differently than you. Otherwise, you also risk putting yourself in a bubble, and limiting your own knowledge and experience.

Bill-Nye

Bill Nye is a wise dude.

Insults don’t change minds. Leading by example does. Your training results will speak for themselves. Being a kind person who is pleasant to be around also helps a great deal. If you have common ground to converse over – rescue efforts, spay/neuter campaigns – the door opens for a bigger conversation. What happens when communication stalemates? Nothing. Exactly. So where’s the progress?

I know treating each person with respect can be a struggle from time to time – no one is more frustrated with stupidity and ignorance than yours truly – but it really comes down to representing the community in a dignified way.

Besides, I can guarantee average dog owners don’t know about the Training War that wages. Or if they do, they are more confused than ever, as companies now campaign to create suspicion around terms like “balanced”. Most clients aren’t, or don’t know to be, concerned with what philosophies a training company subscribes to as long as they can be helped with teaching their pups to walk nicely, to stop barking and chewing their stuff, and to not use the house as a bathroom – all while using a manner they’re comfortable with (whatever that may be). If they’re happy and get results, you have a client for life.

Not being an asshole definitely helps.

Not being an asshole definitely helps.

In Calgary alone there are dozens of companies offering a variety of training techniques – all competing for the same clients. Yes, competition among businesses makes sense and is ultimately good for the consumer. And as a working professional, you’re probably in it to make money just as much as you are to help dogs and dog owners (maybe more? or less? I don’t know. If I was in it for the money, I was doing it wrong). So, yes, please, go advertise that you’re the top local expert. Demonstrate why you’re better, more effective, and the best value for the price. But you can do all of this while rising above the slander and mudslinging with grace. You can make a strong business case without resorting to insults and without ostracizing others.

And if you’re going to engage in other parts of the pet community – rescue efforts, lobby campaigns – put the politics aside and do it for the animals directly. If your company demonstrates that it gives back without strings attached, you might even attract new clients and make some unexpected connections.

Remember when WWF Canada received flack for partnering with Coca Cola on environmental campaigns?

Coke & WWF

One example of apparent enemies collaborating for the greater good.

But who am I to say? I left the dog training world altogether – and not for any of the reasons described above. Any future role I might have from now on will be as a client, not an employee.

whatido

The Canine Good Behaviour-Exercise Correlation

Brace yourself. I made you something, valued reader.

I think charts and graphs are a fun way to share information.  Perhaps I have too much time on my hands.  Perhaps I need a break from the xkcd.  Whatever the case, I made you one anyway.

The inspiration for the dazzling visualization below stems from a discussion in the comments of this post by fellow blogger, The Dog Park, of whom I am a fan.  Although, admittedly my glorious Paint creation comes nowhere near the beauty of some recent graphs and charts done by According to Gus.  But I’m okay with that.

The information is simple: based on personal experience and an abundance of anecdotal evidence from others, the graph illustrates how a properly exercised dog results in a well-behaved dog.  No exceptions.

A dog who is walked regularly is less likely to engage in destructive behaviours at home, and is more likely to pay attention to you while you work on training, whether it be obedience, agility or what have you. 

Though, do note the sharp drop-off at the end.  Yes, you can over-exercise your dog.  A dehydrated, exhausted dog is not going to be interesting in sitting or coming to you any more than a dog with a severe case of cabin fever.  After a long hike on a hot day, it’s not uncommon for Moses to lay down and do no more than raise a “make me” eyebrow to any requests made of him.

The moral of the story: Walk your dog.  It will be good for both of you.

You’re welcome.

Don’t Let TV Train Your Dog

When we decided our household needed a dog – long before we actually got one – I started an All Things Dog project.  I researched breeds and breeders, read books about dogs, and started watching television shows on dogs and dog training.

Puppy Moses

And then when Puppy Moses came along, what did we do?  Obviously, we signed up for training classes and professional help.

…Or maybe it’s not so obvious.

There is a growing population of television personalities who will teach you about your dog, from He Whose Name Shall Not Be Whispered, to Some British Lady, to a Canadian with a Receding Hairline.

On the face of it, I suppose I am generally happy for a number of reasons that these people are out there doing what they do.  The increasing popularity of these dog-related “reality” shows brings an added emphasis to dog training, and I hope the result has been that more people have an interest in training and properly exercising their pets.  These shows also acknowledge that those with “problem dogs” can seek and receive help, and all of the people mentioned above emphasize that issues can be resolved, also noting that they often originate with (or at least are exacerbated by) the owners.  In addition, these TV trainers often use their increasing profiles to bring more widespread awareness to a lot of animal issues, including promoting rescue organizations and adoption, proper pet health, and drawing attention to the problem of puppy mills.  So yes, there are definite benefits.

On the other hand, there are also draw backs.

Just like I can’t expect School of Golf to teach me all I need to know to achieve a handicap under 10, these dog-related television programs should not be considered substitutes for real life, hands-on help and training.  On-course lessons with a golf pro will be time better spent improving your game than hours sitting on the couch watching the experts do their thing.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these shows can be highly entertaining, and I still watch them myself.  It’s a very satisfying formula:

  1. Montage of frustrated owners with “dog from hell” who have “tried everything”;
  2. Enter Guru;
  3. Guru works magic on dog;
  4. Guru works magic on owners;
  5. Owners attempt to apply learned magic to dog;
  6. Guru improves technique, assigns homework;
  7. Relative degree of success;
  8. Happy, optimistic owners;
  9. Happy dog.

Almost without exception, there’s a feel-good happy ending.

However, to take a 30 or 60 minute program as a realistic representation of any dog training process is a mistake.

The producers of these shows know the formula and they know what gets ratings and how to get the series renewed.  A lot of information about the hows and whys of what goes on is left out for both time constraints and to appeal to a broader audience; we are never given the complete picture.  Instead, we are shown the “best TV”, which emphasizes the dog’s bad behavior in the beginning, the improvements at the end, and a small, simplified version of how they got there.  Often, it’s not explicit that sometimes the Guru visits several times of the course of a week or month, and a lot of the work is done off-camera through the homework assignments the owners have been given.

Yes, when asked, each Guru emphasizes that consistent, hard work and dedication on behalf of the owner is the ultimate key to success, but all of the televised representations reinforce a “quick fix” ideal.

And this is the problem.

Despite any “seek local, professional help”-type warnings, people (likely always) will still try it at home.  This is how the holiday season a few years back ended in so many house fires; people decided they wanted to deep fry their turkeys, too.

Problems arise when dog owners take techniques or information they see on TV, apply them partially, incorrectly and sporadically without knowing why, subsequently fail or maybe even make things worse, and then assume that this counts as a legitimate training attempt.  Now they’ve “tried everything” with their dog and then become frustrated and even more despondent.

The other problem is that the Super Fans grow to consider themselves experts.  They’ve watched every episode, read a book, maybe even attended a seminar.  They grow to believe that what they’ve learned from television is good enough, and that seeking professional help from a local trainer is extraneous.

And, fine, I will concede that if you’ve got your dog where you want them behaviourally without help, that’s great, but believe me, you’re either the exception to the rule or have way lower standards.  Most often, owners have incorrectly diagnosed their dogs (perceived “aggression” or “stupidity” are personal favourites), so not only are they trying the wrong thing or worrying about the wrong behaviours, it’s an extra obstacle to get them to let go of these preconceived notions when they do seek professional help.

At the end of it all, I guess I’m just complaining about something that will never change.  Though I suppose the benefits of the popularity of the TV dog trainers probably outweigh the negatives, there will always be these significant drawbacks.  People will always mimic the actions of celebrities (Kanye’s Venetian-blind-like sunglasses? Really?), and will always try to save a buck by watching some TV instead of paying for a course (I’m still waiting for the History Channel to award me my viewer-earned Bachelor’s Degree).  And it sure is easier to sit down on the couch for an hour than to go out, interact hands-on, and be accountable to a trainer or instructor.

I get it; I just don’t like it.

2011 Resolutions

I was initially going to forego resolutions for the New Year for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that they’re mostly arbitrary and rarely kept past the first week back to work after the holidays.

But then I started to get excited about making a huge list of potential resolutions I would impose on the masses provided I were bequeathed with omnipotence.  It would’ve turned into something akin to “2011 Changes for 2011”.  I had a lot of ideas.  The list included things like a mass revolt against flexi-leashes, retail pet sellers, and grain-filled pet foods.  I would’ve demanded complete nutritional assessments and overhauls for all of our pets.  Extended and upgraded training in obedience, as well as trying new skill categories such as herding, agility, or water rescue as the case may be.  Regular volunteer time spent at local shelters and large and frequent donations to charities.  Biodegradable poop bags only.

However, these are the kinds of lofty goals that require major changes (and time and money commitments) we like to think we’re all capable of but that are also inevitably doomed to fail.  Although resolutions are often made with the best intentions, “life” (whatever that is) gets in the way, and even our pet-related resolutions can go the way of the latest New Year’s diet, workout regime, or utterance of “I will never drink again”.

And this is why I have determined the key to success is small, workable changes – and not many of them.  One or two, max.

So, while you can decide for yourself what needs resolving, I’ll share with you my idea for an easy resolution for all.

In our household, the dog gets a minimum 60 minutes of walking per day (we’re lucky to be part of the minority that require only an hour).  On weekends when we have the opportunity to break routine, it’s often more than an hour at a nice location, but during the week when we have jobs and domestic duties to attend to, the usual is 60 minutes is met by taking one of a number of routes around the neighbourhood.

So looking at this routine, I resolve to add simply 5 minutes on to every walk.  The minimum will now be 65 minutes.  And the 5 minutes doesn’t have to be just adding an extra couple of blocks to the route.  I can alternatively choose to use it working on skills, patience, or focus with the dog, or bonding through play – fetch, hide and seek, etcetera.

It’s a seemingly small change, but I think it will be well worth it.  An extra 5 minutes per day adds up to 35 minutes more of quality time each week; over 30 hours over the course of the year.  That’s 30+ more hours spending time focused solely on your furry family member, something that can do nothing but benefit the pair of you.

So that’s it.  Five extra minutes.  8% more dog walking per day.  It’s simple enough and part of a pre-existing routine making it easy and not so life changing.  Status as a “resolution” alone can possibly doom it to fail, but I’m willing to give it a shot and welcome you to do the same.

Oh, and a final note to anyone who may not already have a minimum 60 minute per day dog walking routine:  get on it, slacker.  That is officially your new mandate.  Not a resolution – a mandate.  You owe it to your dog.

Terminating Baby Talk

I’m not sure what it is about newborns or cute furry animals that routinely turn seemingly normal people into incomprehensible squeaky babblers, but it just happens.  All the time.  Without explanation.  We’ve all seen it:  a completely anonymous passerby will lock eyes on one of our furry companions and the ensuing behaviour makes it downright difficult to retain any lasting respect that person.

Those who baby talk – to anything, but lets say dogs and puppies specifically for the present purposes – have got to be one of my absolute top pet peeves when it comes to human-pet behaviour.

Or is that flexi-leash use?  Or people who never walk their dogs?  Or don’t pick up after their dogs?  Or people who carry their dogs around (rant forthcoming)?  Okay, yes, I am a cranky old curmudgeon on the inside who has a lot of pet peeves.  And while it’s hard to know which might be my number one annoyance, suffice it to say that baby talk definitely makes the top 5 list.

Why, you ask?  Have you never encountered it?  It’s ridiculous and irritating whether aimed at dogs, babies, toys, clothing, anything.  Nope, I’m certainly no baby-talker.  I’m not immune to inherent cuteness, either; I just have self-control (and self-respect?).  Sure, I have been known to utter an “aww” from time to time, but nothing even close to – and I’m just paraphrasing here – “ohhhlookathimisn’thejustthecutestwutestpuppywuppyeverawwlookatthathelovesmedon’tyouwuvme
awwIwuvyoutoo”.

And perhaps the worst part is that these squealing offenders usually completely disregard the owner at the end of the leash, and rush in all hands and kisses without even checking to see if it might be okay or a good idea.

I also don’t petition for a cease and desist on the baby talk simply because you sound ridiculous; I also recommend an end to it to help propel your own success with your dog.

It’s very simple: the more you talk to them generally, the less your words have meaning.  If you use verbal commands with your dog (who doesn’t?), but you are also nattering away at them all the time, telling them how adorable they are, how your day was, what you’re planning to make for dinner, etcetera, eventually they’re going to start to tune you out altogether.

The sad truth is, dogs don’t speak English.  Or French.  Or Japanese.  In fact, when dogs communicate with each other, it’s very largely through body language.  So the fact that they obey verbal commands from us at all is because we have taught them to using repetition.  But then if they learn – also through repetition – that many of the words you say to them don’t have any relevance to them specifically, then they will stop listening.  To anything.

So while talking of any kind can essentially have a detrimental effect on your verbal commands with your dog, think of what baby talk can do.

Baby talk: squealing, high pitched, excitable, annoying as all heck.  Do dogs themselves ever make those kinds of noises?  Sure, maybe when they are in pain, but not in the normal course, anyway.  Does anything else in a dog’s natural life make those kinds of noises?  Well, just prey animals and our substitutive squeaky toys.

Before you say it, NO, I am not saying baby talk will incite your dog to attack your face.  But I am saying that high-pitched baby talk – and any associated groping – sure can get them excited, which means focus and general good manners and behaviour declines.  It’s an inverse relationship.

I know that when strangers approach my dog, all handsy with the baby talk, he quickly gets too excited and you see that glimmer in his eye, indicating his thoughts:  “I know I could hump you… I’m just looking for my opportunity”.  As an observant owner, I certainly try my best to make sure he doesn’t get that opportunity (because if he does, it could only be my fault, right?), but he’s more likely to go for it the more excited and high pitched his new acquaintance is.  [And, of course, whenever possible I do try to direct calm, quiet greetings, but that’s not always possible in the face of a baby talk sneak attack.]

So there you have it:  excitement level up = focus down.  And baby talk and the standard accompanying behaviour is very exciting for dogs.  The dog doesn’t know you’re telling him he’s cute, he just responds to the hysteria accordingly.  “Is it crazy frenzy fun time?  I’m in!”

In sum, baby talk reaches the high echelons of nonsensical human behaviour.  The dogs don’t get it.  I don’t get it.  It often results in an excited dog the owner now has to manage.  And it makes you look silly.  No one benefits.  Can’t we legislate it or something?  If the island of Capri can ban wearing wooden clogs….

Kidding, of course.

Just cut it out.

NILIF

“Nothing in life is free.”  NILIF.

Sounds like a rather cynical – albeit accurate – worldview, doesn’t it?

And while that may be one instance of the phrase, another is actually a dog training philosophy: when it comes to our relationship with the dog, nothing in life is free.

When first considering the concept, I realised that it’s a principle I’d often been employing without using that specific term.  My dog has to wait patiently for his food.  He has to perfectly execute a long-distance sit-stay to receive praise.  He has to be calm to receive affection.  He has to sit nicely at the door while I get ready before we go for a walk.  He has to be calm and obedient and walk nicely before he gets free “go play” time.

No, things are certainly not free for my dog, but I really don’t think he’s that distressed about it.  (Admittedly, the cats are governed by something much closer to EILIF – everything in life is free – and I suspect implementing otherwise would result in a revolt of epic proportions.)

At the base of it, NILIF is all about setting clear rules, guidelines, and expectations, and then following through with them.  Happily, my dog caught on quickly as a puppy, and very well knows that he’s going to do a sit-stay in the kitchen for a few minutes while we prepare his food and before he can eat.

Of course, provided my dog thinks about things the same way, he might be of the opinion that nothing in life is free for me, either; I don’t get the good behaviour out of him that I prefer unless I have consistently proved that I will make it worth his while.  So perhaps nothing in life is free for either of us and it’s a symbiotic give and take.

And the same may also be true with respect to undesired behaviour.  If my dog acts like a jerk, he will not get away with it – it will not be free.  Say, for example, he breaks a sit-stay.  I will then replace him and usually restart the clock if I’m going for a specific duration.  As far as my dog is concerned, this is a bad consequence, because he’s already shown me he’d rather be doing something else.  On the other hand, say I am practising recall with him, and fail to give praise when he comes into me – then maybe he will determine that the next time he’s not going to come when I call because I failed on my end of the bargain in the past.

Neither good nor bad behaviour is free for either of us: the good is earned and rewarded, and the bad comes with a negative follow-up of some sort.

The general principle NILIF works around is that we’re asking the dog to do something that is not rewarding in itself (i.e. a sit-stay), but then we follow up with offering something with a higher value as a reward (i.e. praise, food, play time, or even just more favourable body language).[1]

For those in the know, this is similar to the Premack Principle, which is the idea that we’re withholding access to something the dog views as inherently good in order to get the dog to follow our commands.  My dog learns that when I begin to prepare his food, that’s a cue for him to sit politely and calmly in the kitchen, rather than get in my way and try to get to the food as soon as possible.  He gets what he wants because of me, not in spite of me.  In return, I get desired behaviour.

Of course, even though NILIF fans stress it’s a “way of life” and not a training technique, I think we can all see the immediate benefits it will provide when it is applied to training.  And, like anyone discussing dog training and behaviour, there are critics.

Those opposed to NILIF simply say it’s cruel: it doesn’t allow a dog to just “be a dog”, because we are controlling every aspect.  Nothing is free for the dog to do or determine on its own.  They suggest this is stressful for the dog and basically creates a prisoner with Stockholm syndrome.

I disagree with the critics and agree with Kelly Gorman Dunbar’s response:

…NILIF makes life extremely predictable and controlled, which a dog’s mind craves and understands; that’s why it works so well. And while it’s true that a NILIF dog doesn’t have free control over his life (really, what pet dog does?) it does afford the dog clarity of consequences and consistency in the form of control over access to resources via his behavior; and that’s the point really.

As for the idea that NILIF causes stress, well, not all stress is bad. I’m not of the mindset that stress should be avoided at all costs. Just abuse. Some amount of stress is not only good, but also unavoidable in life. Ultimately, clarity and consistency actually reduce stress and makes a dog’s life easier, so it’s better than an environment of no rules, unpredictability, and lack of clear communication that many dogs live with due to human foible.

No form of training to fluency is stress-free. The truth is most science-based or so-called “positive trainers” (how I hate that term!) do use some degree of withholding in order to manipulate the dog’s environment, but mainly by using life rewards over food to enhance training and proof distractions. Most dogs still get free belly rubs and runs in the park too.[2]

On the Stockholm comment, I would also argue that NILIF does not make you the jailor and your dog the prisoner.  Leader and follower, perhaps.  Aside from my previous note that it does seem to involve compromise on both halves, NILIF teaches dogs to look to us for the things they want and need:  food, exercise, affection, play.  This is not unrealistic or cruel, because as a dog owner, you actually are in charge of all of these things, among many others.  Bringing your dog’s attention to this fact is not a bad thing.

Say, on a walk, your canine sees other dogs having play time in a park across the street.  Perhaps in a non-NILIF household where the dog has not been taught expectations, the dog would just make a beeline across the road enthusiastically, exercising its desire to go play.  Dangerous?  Absolutely.  And not just because of the road, but also because the owner isn’t given the opportunity to assess the other dogs and their owners, and make a safe call about the situation.

Using the same hypothetical in a NILIF context, it is possible that your dog will see the others playing and then check in with you, their leader, first, before simply bolting across the street.  The dog knows play time comes from the owner, and may fully expect to have to walk over there calmly and practice some patience before being allowed to play.  The owner is also given the opportunity to control the dog across the roadway, and assess the dog’s future playmates and the environment generally.

After exercising a NILIF-type routine, the dog will learn that the things he or she wants (and could previously have taken for “free”) come from you, the leader and guardian.

Of course, it is important to note that anything taken to the extreme is dangerous, and it is possible that someone could take a skewed, fundamentalist view of NILIF and turn it into a restrictive policy that borders on abuse.  The same can be said about almost anything, but it’s important to include these disclaimers even if just to give pause.  NILIF does not intend to create dictator-like dog owners who have an iron fist gripping all of the resources, but rather a benevolent leader who has the means to look out for the dog’s best interests and is able to draw out favourable behaviours in all sorts of situations.  You can implement NILIF and still shower your dog with affection, treats, toys, and playtime.  It’s all about balance.  The added NILIF element – that the dog has to do some work first – can ensure your dog is not spoiled and unruly.

And as the benevolent leader, it’s up to you to make sure the dog knows where the expectations lie, and never withhold necessary resources that are essential to your dog’s health and wellbeing.  Yes, a calm sit-stay is perfectly acceptable before allowing your dog to eat, but as the owner you have to be realistic.  If you are just starting out, perhaps all you will get is one minute (or less) of patience from your dog as he stares hungrily at his food.  Consider that a starting point for the both of you to build from, and don’t starve your dog because he can’t hold his stay indefinitely.

Returning again to Ms. Dunbar, who I think says it best:

I think what’s important is to keep in mind the dog’s physical and mental well being and to train as kindly and clearly as possible while still efficiently getting the job done; because good training is what keeps dogs happy, safe, and in their homes and that is the ultimate goal.[3]

The starting point for Moses’ solid sit-stay was ensuring him that he’d be adequately praised for a job well done.

[1] http://www.dogstardaily.com/blogs/nilif-nasty
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

Flexi-Leash Fury

Flexi-Leash Fury

Visualize for a moment with me, now will you?

I am walking my dog down a familiar suburban sidewalk.  On the horizon I spot an oncoming pedestrian.  Like any alert dog owner, I scan for the silhouette of a dog, just to prepare for any possible meetings, greetings, or altercations.  I see nothing and proceed as normal.

Then, as the figure approaches, I notice something in her hand.  It appears that she’s holding something – about the size of your averaged paperback – by its handle.  Ahh, the all too familiar flexi-leash.  Since her accompanying dog is not readily noticed, I scan once again for her canine companion until I spot him:  a small Scottish Terrier who is a good 20 feet away from his owner, sniffing and marking his way along the neighbourhood lawns.  He is far ahead of her as she marches down the sidewalk towards me completely oblivious and unprepared.

As we get closer, Mr. Scottish Terrier finally notices us approaching and is not okay with our presence.  Barking and lunging ensue.  My usual recourse for interactions such as these is to pull over to the grass with my dog on the inside and calmly keep going, paying no mind to the temper tantrum that is occurring on the sidewalk.  I give the other owner a wide berth, allowing him or her to take as much control over the reacting dog as is possible.  We have worked on this a lot and happily Moses rarely perks an ear to these types of encounters any more.

However, in this particular case, that is not an option.  With his owner as the pivot point, the terrier now has a 20 foot radius to patrol as we pass by, necessitating our move onto the curb among parked cars and close to residential traffic to keep out of the little mongrel’s way.  The terrier proceeds to bark and lunge at the end of his leash, and even gains a few extra feet of leash since his owner is too slow on the brake.  I can hear the flexi-leash click as it either becomes totally extended or the brake mechanism has broken.  With the long distance from his owner to gain momentum, this 20 lb little dog is actually able to nearly pull his average-sized middle-aged female owner over with his efforts to get closer to us.  She tries backing on to someone’s lawn in a weak effort pull him out of our way, since she cannot reel him in without any slack in the line.

Once we pass and are safely back on the sidewalk, it takes everything in my power not to shout back to her “lose the flexi-leash!”

Sure, there really are several problems working in tandem here: a less than stellar dog owner, poorly trained dog, and a crappy, but all too common, piece of equipment.  My target here is the ever-infuriating flexi-leash.

Nothing during the course of an average dog walk irritates me more than encounters similar to the above.  Or seeing any dog at any time being walked on a flexi-leash for that matter.  As a motorist or pedestrian it is far too common a sight to see a dog walking along, or even crossing the street, 20 feet ahead of or behind its owner.  The safety concerns seem obvious, yet stores keep selling these leashes, and people keep buying them.  Yes, I immediately and harshly judge the flexi-leash user.  And not just because incidents like the aforementioned are frequent and put a damper on my own dog walks, but because there are legitimate reasons why the flexi-leash should never be considered a useful tool to the responsible dog owner.

Quite frankly, flexi-leashes are an abomination, and their popularity is based on completely false and irrational myths believed by naïve buyers.  Despite by-laws in many municipalities setting the maximum appropriate leash length at 6 feet/2 metres (e.g. Calgary, Alberta), these little devices are as popular as ever.

The ads will tell you that these retractable leashes give your dog more “freedom” while you maintain control.  This is very simply false.  Any added distance between you and your dog means less control.  Just ask the owner of the Scottish Terrier from the story above; she had no control over her dog whatsoever, and the look on her face at the time suggested to me that she was quite aware of it.  Was it enough to prompt her to ditch the flexi-leash for a sensible 6 foot one?  Well, unfortunately probably not, but there’s no accounting for common sense.

And all too often we see the unbalanced, under-exercised little lap dog yapping away at the end of the flexi-leash.  But how about when it’s the other way around?  Now imagine that a calm, friendly dog is on the end, still 20 feet away from its owner, and going in for a greeting with an unfamiliar dog – and said greeting just happens to turn south for one of a myriad of possible reasons.  The owner of the dog has no immediate recourse to protect their dog from the aggressor when the altercation is going down so far away.  A dog truly intent on harming another can and will do so in a split second.  Now imagine both dogs are on flexi-leashes and neither owner is able to respond quickly enough.  Mon Dieu!

Your dog’s health and safety is your number one responsibility as a dog owner, so how is it that the flexi-leash keeps slipping through the cracks?  The flexi-leash poses a safety risk to your dog, and that’s all there is to it.  Your dog can encounter any number of things during a walk (other dogs, other people, bikes, vehicles, porcupines, skunks, etc.), and when they are 20 or more feet away you are less likely to be able to anticipate it, prevent it, or help them quickly in a serious situation.  Yes, people actually have stood helplessly by while their dog – at the end of a flexi-leash – wandered onto the road and got hit by a car.

In addition to being a hazard to your dog, the flexi-leash also poses hazards to the human user, including tripping and tangling which are obvious risks associated with that much lead.  More serious hazards actually include reported cases of abrasions, rope burn, and even finger amputations (for those who believe a visualization of these hazards is helpful, visit http://www.flexiusa.com/operation/safety-advice.php ).  The flexi-leash comes with a bonafide owner’s manual when purchased, with the least of precautions being that they’re only to be used with obedient, well-mannered dogs.  Experience, of course, shows us that is rarely the case.

Some actually suggest that having a dog on a flexi-leash has made the need for teaching them to “heel” or “come” unnecessary.  Opting to forego some basic obedience because of sheer ignorance, stupidity, or indifference?  Really?

And while we’re at it, no, allowing your dog to zig-zag around does not “give her more exercise” or let her “enjoy” the walk more.  Are you truly so lazy that you are looking for shortcuts and cannot take your dog on a proper daily walk?

Flexi-leashes also do not prevent your dog from pulling, as many claim; they just mask the problem.  Put the same dog on a proper leash, and the owner will complain of pulling – why?  Because the dog always pulls.  When using a flexi-leash, the dog actually learns to pull, since they must pull forward to get more lead.  Additionally, flexi-leashes self-retract when not locked, so there is always tension on the leash.  Because the reel of the leash is the only part that monitors the tension and slack, the owner is oblivious.  But all you have to do is look:  no slack in the line means the leash is tight; tension means the dog is pulling.  Just because you can’t feel it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

And, finally, for those who will inevitably respond that the flexi-leash is a great tool for training your dog at a distance, I pose this question: if your dog isn’t perfectly behaved at the end of a 6 foot leash, how can you expect them to be just as good from 20 feet away?  If you properly practice building up distance when training, making slow, gradual increases in distance will ensure you’ll never need to make use of a long-line or flexi-leash.  Your dog will learn to pay attention and respond from 5, 10, even 50 or more feet way.  From a training perspective, the ever-tight flexi-leash also does not provide any method to send our dogs clear messages or follow-up.  Sure, from a distance we expect our verbal commands to do the work, but if they are spot-on and built up gradually, a flexi-leash should never be required.  Controlling our urge to push our dogs too far too fast will make the seemingly most legitimate use of the flexi-leash obsolete altogether.

The bottom line:  the flexi-leash is an awful contraption that should never be used.  The use of a flexi-leash simply signifies to me an untrained dog accompanied by an uneducated owner.  And fewer things are more infuriating than that.

Dog Owning 101

Dog Ownership 101: The Basics
The things I wish all dog owners knew, or knew to consider.

1.  What type of dog is best for you?

Granted, it might be too late, but this is something that should be given huge consideration for someone getting a (or another) dog.

Becoming a dog owner is not just adding a cute, furry addition to your daily routine; dogs are a commitment of your time and money, and becoming a good dog owner requires a life-style change.  Different breeds have different needs and will provide you with different challenges, and you have to be very honest about what will be best for both you and your dog.  Sure, Australian Shepherds are darn cute, but do you actually have 2-3 hours per day (every day, for the next 12-15 years) to dedicate to providing your dog with the physical and mental stimulation it needs?

Make a frank assessment of your lifestyle and what kind of companion you’re looking for.  In addition to how cute the dog is, consider energy levels, size, type of coat (shedding), etc.  Great Danes make very cute puppies, but shelters and rescue organizations frequently see them surrendered once they are full grown and the previous owner decided they couldn’t handle a dog that size.  But with a little foresight, these and similar situations are entirely preventable.  Do your research; know what you’re getting yourself into.

2.  Where to get your dog from?

I am not going to go into detail, and I honestly don’t think I should have to in any event, because information concerning the horrors of puppy mills abound.  Everyone considering a puppy should do their best to ensure their money is not funding these organizations.  Yes, puppies sold in pet stores are often from puppy mills.  Stay away.

Also beware of the notorious “backyard breeder”.  These are breeders who are trying to turn a profit, and who treat the dogs akin to livestock.  They do not pay attention to breeding lines, hereditary diseases, or cases of inbreeding, and often have one female giving birth to multiple litters per year.  Watch out.

And if you are seeking a dog from a breeder, do your homework and ask lots of questions.  A good breeder will ask you lots of questions, too.  Make a visit to see the puppies and any other dogs they may have in advance and check out the living conditions.  If you’re not comfortable, don’t support them.

If you want to rescue a dog, research is again very important – both into your potential new dog, and into the organization itself.  Have a lengthy conversation with the people at the organization who have spent the most time with the dog you have in mind, since they should be able to give you good insights about your chosen dog.  And remember, when adopting a rescue – whether adult or puppy – you may be also adopting a variety of potential mental or physical problems (also possible when getting a dog from a breeder, too, of course), so ensure you are prepared (mentally, physically, financially) to deal with what may arise.

3.  Exercise!

First, lets be clear on what I mean by “exercise”:  I mean a proper WALK.  I do not mean running around the backyard, playing fetch, or going to an off-leash park.  I mean walking with your dog heeled next to you.  The other aforementioned activities are play-time perks you dog can certainly enjoy after his or her daily walk.

A proper dog walk is important for several reasons.  Some are:

a)  Physical exercise.  Obviously.  Many pet dogs are overweight, and lack of physical exercise is half the problem (being over-fed would be the other).  Our dogs need exercise to build muscle and be physically fit, just like we do.  At minimum, your dog needs an hour walk per day.  Every day.  For his or her entire life.  This is a responsibility you agreed to when you decided to get a dog.

b)  Release of pent-up energy.  In addition to the physical health benefits of walking, there are mental benefits as well.  Dogs that have pent-up energy from lack of physical and mental stimulation tend to take it out at home, and chewing and digging are great indicators of this – they’re just trying to keep themselves busy.  A daily walk will help alleviate boredom and keeps them mentally and physically engaged.

c)  Bonding.  An hour or more of walking per day is a great opportunity to build a bond with your dog.  With them heeled next to you, they have to pay attention to you when you turn, stop, and change pace.  Their attention is focused on you, and they look to you for leadership.  This can actually improve other aspects of your relationship with your dog, such as their obedience to commands and rules and your other expectations of them.

d)  Socialization.  Getting your dog out daily to see, and possibly meet, people and other dogs along the way is a great way to ensure they’re polite when greeting new people and other dogs.  Getting out regularly to new locations and on different routes also helps them to be relaxed and confident in all sorts of situations.  Our dogs are our companions, so the more places we can take them with us, the better.

e)  Gives your dog a job.  While dogs are believed to have been domesticated since as early as 10,000 BCE, dogs have only been urban, household pets for the last 100 years or so, a trend that developed as a status symbol, together with the modern kennel club institutions.  All breeds of dogs were engineered for one type of job or another: herding, hunting, drafting, tracking, guarding, etc.  And yes, even Fido, as he sleeps on your couch, has instincts associated with his intended “job”.  So even if you’re not able to take your dog to herding trials or tracking classes, at the very least his or her job can be to walk nicely next to you for an hour or two per day.  It’s not asking a lot, and they are receiving a much more luxurious lifestyle than the working dog of centuries past as it is.

4.  Training

All I am simply going to say here is: train your dog! I am going to try to remain uncontroversial here and avoid commenting on the different schools of thought, but the importance of training your dog in general is huge.  All dog owners represent the whole dog owning community when they’re out in public (which should be daily, if you’re exercising your dog regularly), so just as it’s important to pick up after them, it’s also important to ensure you don’t have a crazy furry monster at the end of your leash.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that there’s probably not one style of training that will work for every single dog and every single owner, so it’s important to look into local training organizations and pick one you agree with and think will work for both you and your dog.  And once you’ve picked it, for the love of Zeus, try it!  Give it 100% for the duration of the class.  Do what your trainer tells you, and if you don’t see drastic results immediately, be patient and consistent and practice at home.  While one method probably won’t work for everyone, no method will work unless you actually give it an honest effort.  Because, yes, what they say is true and it’s more like people training anyway.

I’d also like to take this moment to say that training isn’t a one-time fix for anything.  Just because you signed up for a 6 week course, doesn’t mean you can throw it all out after the class is over and will have the perfect dog for life.  Training, and maintaining rules and boundaries, continues throughout the lifetime of your dog, and is just another responsibility you accepted upon getting a dog.

5.  Diet

If you can purchase your dog’s food at the grocery store, simply put, you’re probably feeding them garbage.  Information on the perils of feeding cheap, poor-quality dog food can easily be found once one looks for it, so I invite you to do so.  There have been lots of pet food recalls in the recent years among those “grocery store brands”, and as a responsible dog owner, it’s up to you to educate yourself on what exactly is in that kibble and what it means for your dog.

A dog fed a proper, healthy diet has fewer medical issues, a healthier body weight, and a longer life-span.  Look into raw diets or quality dried foods that aren’t full of grains and unnecessary ingredients.  Your dog will like them better and be healthier for it.

And that’s it: the very basics of dog ownership as I see it.  While there is really a lot more to it than that, these are the big-picture concerns, which, if addressed, would lead to more fulfilled dogs and happier owners alike.

Perfecting “Go Pee”

Setting Pace at the Dog Run:
How to Give Fido a Designated Backyard Bathroom Location

Saving your lawn and teaching your dogs to do their “business” in a particular location is extremely easy – in theory.  But as we all know, if there is any sort of grey area or inconsistency, our dogs usually can find it and will exploit it.  Here’s how you can start the process and deal with potential struggles.

First, I recommend beginning in the spring/summer to encourage your own dedication to the process, since no one really wants to accompany their dog for every bathroom break in -20°C weather.  It will also provide many months of habit-forming before snow covers your yard.

Next, pick a bathroom command for your dog.  This command will refer to all bathroom activities.  It will also help to ensure all family members are using the same command and helping with the training.  The process will take a few weeks of dedication and consistency from everyone, but once the habit is learned your lawn is always safe.

And, of course, once you have your designated bathroom location decided upon and set up, make sure you clean all of the dog waste out of the rest of the backyard before starting the training process.  Give your lawn a thorough soaking, focusing on the areas your dog used to go to the bathroom, in order to eliminate the scent from those areas.  It is also recommended to place some of your dog’s waste in the dog run area so the scent is there.  Scent is what triggers a dog to release his or her bladder or bowels, and can be very helpful in the training process (remembering that dogs can only learn through instinct and repetition – and here we will use both).

Once you are ready to begin (and barring any particular medical issues your dog may have which could affect success), the training is a simple matter of accompanying your dog to the designated location – on leash – for every bathroom break for the next two weeks.  There are no exceptions; consistency is important.

Keeping Fido on leash at first is key so he doesn’t wander from the dog run and so you don’t have to catch him and bring him back.  Instead, you will simply walk your dog out to the dog run, give the bathroom command, and wait.  A standard six foot leash is plenty to provide your dog with personal space while ensuring he or she doesn’t stray to the grass.

Like initial house training, once Fido has completed the task perfectly, a little praise (such as a nice, slow chest rub or some go-play time in the yard) can be helpful.

Of course, because we’re trying to teach something new, this means Fido should not get unsupervised play time in the yard during these initial weeks lest do his business elsewhere while no one is watching.  In the event Fido does sneak away and leave his mark outside of the designated dog run area, don’t punish him for it.  Instead, your two weeks starts over and you now know you need to keep a better watch.

Once you’ve completed two weeks of consistent bathroom breaks in the designated area, you can lose the leash and move on to unaccompanied – but still supervised – bathroom breaks.  You will still need to monitor Fido in the backyard, and if you see him begin to wander to or sniff around an unauthorized location (by now you should be very familiar with your dog’s pre-bathroom routine), try a simple verbal interruption such as “hey!” to get his attention.  This alone could be enough to make him aware that he’s in the wrong spot.  If that’s not enough, personally bring him over to the dog run, give him his bathroom command, and wait nearby to make sure he uses it.  If you find yourself repeating this process, you may have to try another week of on-leash bathroom breaks before the habit sticks.

However, if Fido successfully and consistently uses his dog run, and you’ve got confidence that he’s learned this new habit, you can begin to slowly decreased your supervision; for example, from nearby in the yard, to on the deck, to at the doorway, to monitoring from inside, to no supervision at all.  At the final stage, you’ve got to trust that Fido is using his dog run 100% of the time without any help from you.  You can also begin to let your dog have his usual free time in the backyard, but remember to supervise him at first to ensure he keeps on track.  For those who have a dog who is prone to marking his territory, extra supervision will be required to ensure he’s not marking all over the yard, which can spread the scent and slowly lead to him using the whole yard as a bathroom area once again.

Of course, as simple as this sounds, dogs always seem to find the loopholes, and you may face challenges.

Some dogs may not readily take to the idea of going to the bathroom on gravel – or another surface – instead of grass.  As a result, to avoid using the dog run, you may find that your dog “holds it” until it’s time for the daily walk.  There are a couple of ways to get around this while still ensuring your dog gets his necessary exercise regime.

Knowing your dog’s typical bathroom routine can help.  If your dog usually goes to the bathroom near the beginning of the walk, you can try walking around the block and then returning to the dog run for a bathroom break.  Repeat as necessary.  If your dog usually goes to the bathroom near the middle or end of the walk, try breaking the daily one hour walk into two half-hour walks, finishing each with a supervised stop at the dog run.  Don’t forget to use your bathroom command.  If you’ve got to use these techniques, ensure your dog is only spending time in the yard during on-leash bathroom breaks.

If this still doesn’t work, try spacing out your walks (but maintain your typical feeding schedules).  For example, if you walk your dog from 7:00-8:00am on Tuesday, and then again at 9:00pm on Wednesday, your dog has still received an hour long walk each day, but now there is 37 hours between them – odds are your dog is going to need to go to the bathroom at least once during that time.  You just need to make sure you provide ample on-leash bathroom opportunities in the dog run during those 37 hours.

Of course, in the event your dog does do his business during the walk, don’t worry about it and certainly don’t punish him.  We don’t want to train our dogs into thinking there’s only one place in the entire world where they can go to the bathroom – just one specific place within in the confines of the yard.

If you’re worried about your dog opting to go to the bathroom inside the house in favour of the dog run, make sure he/she is supervised while in the house (perhaps by keeping him/her on hands-free/umbilical) and in a crate when unsupervised.

As your dog becomes comfortable and consistent with using his or her assigned bathroom area, ensure that the dog run is cleaned regularly, so your dog never thinks to look for a different, cleaner spot.  While scent is important to encourage dogs to use a specific bathroom area, an area that is too messy will discourage them from using it altogether.  It is also important to thoroughly rinse off the dog run once or twice per year to help control excessive odours.

Finally, as winter comes, ensure your dog still uses the same location even once it is snow-covered.  This will save you from having to re-train him or her every spring.

And of course, once you’ve trained your dog once, you can easily use the same process again to train him or her to go in another new location in the event you’re moving, going out of town, or simply relocating the dog run.

Happy training!

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