Communication Matters

I have long admired Leslie McDevitt, MLA, CDBC, CPDT, and have read her book, Control Unleashed, several times. The first time being early in my career, and it had a lot of influence on me. Leslie teaches how to use games and communication to affect behavior change, and build confidence, trust and focus in the learner. I love that.

How do you and your pet communicate? How you answer that question will go a long way toward helping train your dog or bird (or other pet) in the most positive way. It is that kind of approach to teaching that I am continually striving to improve upon because I see learning in a positive way as discovery and enrichment and empowerment. It is an ongoing process that has huge capacity for improving the quality of life for every student and teacher.

There are so many factors that contribute to dog and parrot training effectiveness; one of those is the nonverbal conversation between both the giver and receiver of information. At any given moment in our relationship, our pets are giving us feedback as to how they are feeling about their environment. They may turn or move away, lick their lips or yawn, stare straight at a stimulus or avoid eye contact, growl or play bow, walk slowly or pull forward or sit and plant their feet stationary when on leash, take food gently or grab it quickly.

If we, as their caretakers, their protectors and their trainers, do not ‘listen to’ and heed what they are trying to tell us, that confidence, trust, focus, and discovery can all break down. Their capacity to learn what it is we are trying to teach breaks down. And our relationship can break down as well.

Earlier this summer I completed IAABC’s two-month Control Unleashed Mentorship with Leslie. In the first week, she shared with us how she has always seen her CU Program as being about that conversation about the environment between itself and its handler, allowing the dog to process information while remaining in a calm and handler-focused (think and learn) state. The dog is empowered by being able to ask to work more or less, to move closer or farther away from something; and to have those requests listened to.

What does this mean? Here are a few personal examples of conversations with a few animals I either have or have trained.

My conversation with a bird

When Dreyfuss, my pionus, is on a window perch, she will either stretch a leg or a wing, stand still, or spread her wings if I come near and she does not want to step up in that moment. On the other hand, if she does want to step up, she may shift her body weight back and forth, lean slightly forward, come closer to me, and even hold one leg up.

If I didn’t understand her body language, and moved my arm in to her body (putting it in a place where she was clearly trying to indicate non-aggressively that she didn’t want there) she would lunge. If that didn’t work, she would escalate her behavior to a bite.

When this happens with other bird owners, often the unknowing person may define their as being dominate, territorial or mean; but as you can see above, really it was just a case of a bird trying to communicate non-aggressively that she wanted to stay where she was at. Unfortunately, with repeated experience, that bird may come to realize the ONLY effective way to communicate with humans is to lunge at or bite them to get them to back off.

Learning how to have that conversation with Dreyfuss, to understand how she communicates, has helped me to modify her behavior in the most humane and positive way. I never force her to step up. I teach her that stepping up gets her good things and we practice it.  When she is on a perch and she does her ‘want to step up’ behaviors, I walk over to her and offer my arm. In this two-way conversation, we are both listening to each other. Dreyfuss is being empowered by having an effective, non-aggressive way to tell me what she wants. And, as a result, she wants to step up more.

A conversation with a dog

The other day, I was at the house of a new client and demonstrating how to teach a reliable sit behavior. We were in a room of their house and before beginning to train, this was a dog that was interacting with me and soliciting attention. However, when I stood there, still and facing him, waiting for him to sit, he would not stop moving.

Was this a case of a dumb or obstinate dog? Nope. This was a dog that was feeling uncomfortable with that pressure. As soon as I turned away and focused in another direction, he came up and sat at my feet. I was able to click and toss a treat away, and he came back and repeated his sit. We had a great game going. And, very quickly as his confidence grew, I was able to face him and he sat.

Without that two-way conversation, a trainer may have felt the need to increase pressure on him instead of decreasing pressure, which ultimately helped both of us succeed.

How do you and your pet communicate? How you answer that question will go a long way toward helping you change behavior in the most positive way.

 

Can I be of more help to you and your pet? Please get in touch!

Understanding Reinforcers

If you have been around me long enough, you have more than likely heard me talk about using clickers, verbal markers like ‘YES’, treats, toys and games in dog training. When used to strengthen behaviors we want to see, by definition those are all reinforcers because a reinforcer is a consequence that increases the rate of behavior.

understanding primary and secondary reinforcers in dog trainingBut, do you know the difference between secondary (also known as conditioned) and primary (also known as unconditioned) reinforcers?

Understanding Reinforcers

A primary reinforcer is something that automatically causes an animal to increase the rate of behavior. Its value does not need to be learned and is not dependent on other reinforcers. Food, water, sleep, and sex are examples because they fulfill biological needs for survival. When you are giving your dog a piece of food to increase the frequency of a behavior, you are using a primary reinforcer.

A secondary reinforcer is something that acquires its value after repeated associations with primary reinforcers. The word ‘YES’ or sound of a click are both secondary reinforcers. When presented to a learner without any prior history of hearing them, those sounds do not have meaning. They come to elicit an accelerated heart rate, alertness, salivation or other response after repetitions of those sounds coming just before the presentation of other valued stimulus.

It’s important to understand that timing matters. The less time there is between two stimulus, or a behavior and a consequence, the quicker and easier it is for the learner to build a relationship between those two. In other words, after you click or say YES, that treat should be delivered quickly afterwards.

Okay, so another logical question to ask then is if those secondary reinforcers can eventually be used without being paired with another reinforcer. The answer is yes…at least some of the time. If you stop pairing a secondary reinforcer with another reinforcer all together, eventually it may come to lose value.

But here is the awesome thing. You can (and should) continually create new reinforcers by pairing different valued stimulus together. The more variety you have to choose from in reinforcers, the more fun and enriching you make the lesson for your student. I wrote about how to create new reinforcers here.

Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please be in touch

 

 

Practicing Behavior Fluency

When you teach using positive consequences to behavior, you get a student who wants to engage, learn and listen.

Even Older Dogs Can Learn

learning and enrichment add to your dog's quality of life, no matter the age

 

This weekend, I was with my aunt’s 13 year old sheltie who has cataracts, has lost much hearing, and doesn’t move around like she did. I see learning as enrichment and I love teaching so I wanted to give Molly something constructive to do. I went to my car and brought in an orange cone and some dog treats, and began teaching her that when she touched her nose to the tip of the cone, she would get a piece of food. Soon, this dog who had been wandering through us aimlessly, not fully engaging with anyone, began wagging her tail and was intently interested in bumping her nose to the cone. After a few minutes, I took the cone up and came back to it later. Her just seeing it caused her tail to begin wagging again and she did about a dozen more repetitions of touching the cone’s tip. By the way…Molly is a dog who has had very little formal training in her life. It is just a reminder that learning and enrichment is important for all ages.

Teaching A Novel Behavior

Our dog, Sam, and I were looking for something to do on a gloomy day, and so I taught him to unroll a towel using shaping and clicker training, just for the fun of it. I video taped it to give you some thought in working with your own dog. There are so many benefits to teaching novel behaviors, or teaching any behavior in a positive way. Just some of the benefits include: success can build both your pet and your self confidence, it builds value for listening and being around you, is exercise for your dog, increases your dog’s (and your) problem solving skills, and more.

A pre-requisite to teaching this behavior is teaching nose targeting. Please click here to read how to teach that.

 

Can I be of help to you and your pet? Please contact me

What If Your Dog Will Not Budge On A Walk?

When you share your home and your life with a dog, there are so many activities your will be doing together. One of those that is pretty much universal is walking together joined by a leash.

And one of the most common issues people have with their puppy and dog is walking with their dog or puppy on a leash, a loose leash that is.

dog training tips for a stubborn dog or puppy that will not budge on leashI’ve addressed some of the reasons why that activity may break down.  I thought I’d specifically write about tips for solving an issue of a dog or puppy who plants his feet (or rear end) down on the ground and will not budge, as I have seen this happen time and again. I will refer to this as ‘no-budge behavior’.

Before talking about the behavioral modifications, you may first want to consider if there is an underlying medical issue that is giving your dog reason to stop in his tracks – especially if this is a sudden behavior change. Watch your dog or puppy carefully to see if he is favoring one leg over another; or if he seems uncomfortable in any way. If you touch a spot on his body, including his legs, does he wince or growl? If so, you should talk to your veterinarian to see if there is a physical or medical issue going on.

Additionally, take into consideration the outside temperature and the walking surface. Black surfaces can be extremely hot to a dog’s sensitive paws. Also keep in mind, dogs don’t sweat as humans do (much of their heat is released through their paws and panting). Certain dogs – especially those with short noses, thick coats and heavy muscle mass may be more sensitive to heat. And, some dog are more sensitive to the cold as well. Therefore, weather could be a reason for your dog’s unwillingness to walk with you. If weather may be the culprit, you may want to choose a different time a day, a different surface, give your dog more rest time (and bring plenty of water); or choose to find another activity that can give your dog an outlet for his mental and physical exercise needs. (which is a great idea even with walks)

And also, listen to your dog by watching his body language and paying attention to the surrounding environment. It could be that you are walking toward something that is aversive to your dog in some way (maybe he had a negative encounter with another dog or person in the past, in that area before – or a similar area, as an example). If that could be what is going on, then you may want to either avoid that situation or work with your dog to build a positive association with that environment instead.

These are some ways that I have worked through this issue with dogs and puppies.

Keep in mind, my focus is on using the most positive strategies for modifying behavior; and so, I focus on teaching wanted behaviors and building value for those behaviors while trying to avoid situations where my student will practice unwanted behaviors.

So begin by taking account of those situations when your dog or puppy is likely to stop cold in his tracks and not budge. What is the environment, the time of day, your dog or puppy’s previous activity been (maybe he is tired, for example)? Keep a record of this. Sometimes the most simple solution is modifying the environment (called antecedent arrangement) so as to not set that unwanted behavior into motion to begin with. And you definitely do not want your student to be practicing that no-budging behavior.

Practice building value for your dog or puppy walking next to you, following you, and paying attention to you off leash. Here is a link to a game for building value at being by your side. Watch for the criteria you are looking for, mark it with a click or verbal marker, and then give your student a reinforcer (I have used any combination of food, games, or the opportunity to chase me as reinforcers.)

Now, practice this with a leash attached to your student’s flat collar. If needed, you can begin this in a space free of danger of the leash snagging on something and let the leash drag on the ground – or you can hold the leash. If you are holding the leash, ensure that the leash is loose and there is not pressure on your student’s neck.

Practice walking and marking (with a verbal marker or clicker) when your student is walking with you where you want him to be (with a loose leash). Do this first in an environment that DOES NOT have the history associated with your dog or puppy’s no-budge behavior. You may want to begin by standing stationary and building value for your student being at your side, and then take a single step and continuing the process.

Gradually you can add more steps, continuing to mark and reinforce your student for walking on a loose leash. Since you will have kept a record of where and when the no-budge behaviors are likely to occur, you can pay special attention to practicing with a high rate of reinforcement BEFORE you get to that spot; and then walk away from the spot and continue to get closer and closer with each repetition. NOTE that you also should be watchful for any body language your student is using to indicate uneasiness and do not push your student beyond that comfort zone. If there is a fear or other reactivity issue, you may want to work with a trainer who uses positive strategies.

While I work to try to avoid the leash/neck pressure, there are times where it may happen and so teaching your student positive association with that – and to move toward the source of pressure instead of away is also a good idea. Similar to the collar grab game, practice a slight tug on the leash (not so much pressure as to cause discomfort) and follow that with a treat. Then practice waiting for your dog to shift his body weight toward the pressure, then making a small movement toward it, and more movement toward it. (This is called shaping.) Practice this numerous times through the day and you can gradually add a little more pressure.

What you do not want to do is continue to pull on your dog or puppy’s leash while he is practicing that no-budge behavior. When you are both pulling against each other, neither one of you is going to win; and there is the potential to inflict harm.

I can tell you that recently several puppies who had a history of the no-budge behavior, eagerly walked by my side after my spending time working through these steps.

And always remember – to have fun!

 

Stopping Puppies From Nipping At Ankles

The other day I was overhearing a woman giving advice to another woman on her puppy’s naughty and very irritating behavior of biting at her ankles and pants when she walks. The advice was to yell at the puppy (take pants out of the puppy’s mouth) and tell the puppy to sit when it happens.

tips for stopping your puppy from nipping at your ankles by Cincinnati certified dog trainer Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KAHmm, here is the thing. Usually when I hear people talk about ‘trying’ to solve that behavior problem in that way, they keep having to yell at their puppy because the puppy does not stop doing the behavior.

Why? Well, remember, animals are always using behavior as a tool to get a consequence of value to them. If a behavior is reoccurring, then that behavior is working for the animal. In this case, the potential list of valued consequences for the puppy or dog could be among other things attention, mental and physical stimulation, or sensory stimulation (having pants in his mouth).

Generally speaking, although each dog is an individual, herding dogs are more genetically wired to do this but any dog or puppy can. Among the many dogs in which I have seen the nipping at ankles and pants behavior were a puppy vizsla, german shepherd, labradoodle, great dane, and just this past weekend, a puppy King Charles.

In each situation, I was able to stop the unwanted behavior by focusing on teaching the puppy more acceptable behavior choices instead.

Why isn’t punishment enough to stop behavior?

Before I write about what I did to modify behavior, I wanted to address why scolding a puppy for this (or any unacceptable behavior) is not your best solution. For one, if you have tried that in the past and your puppy is continuing the behavior (meaning, later on will go back to doing the unwanted behavior) then the yelling, attention and perhaps moving of your body may actually be of value to your puppy instead of an aversive. Or it could be that in the scheme of things, the nipping at your ankle is SO valuable to your puppy that it trumps any negative association with your yelling at him.  Another possibility from my example above is that, if you have taught ‘sit’ as a behavior that gets your dog lots of positive reinforcement, then asking your dog to sit immediately after your yelling and removing his mouth from your pants, can become a reinforcer for nipping at your ankles.

On the other hand, if your yelling at him does work to reduce the frequency and/or intensity of your puppy’s unwanted behavior, then I’d have to ask, at what cost? It most certainly does not teach your pet what he should do instead. Just a few of the potential negative ramifications of using an aversive teaching strategy are that it can cause apathy, generalized fear, counter aggression and escape/avoidance behaviors. Punishment requires escalating the intensity in order to maintain that suppression, and ultimately the teacher then becomes associated with those aversives.

Puppies, dogs, even birds and other animals did not join our lives inherently knowing what behaviors are and are not acceptable to their human companions. Those are things we need to teach them with fairness.

Solving nipping at ankles

Okay, so let’s look at how to solve the problem in the most positive way.

Firstly, with every behavior it is important to look for two things – what is happening in the environment to set the ankle/pant nipping behavior into motion in the first place and what is the immediate consequence of that behavior that is maintaining or even strengthening it. Then, think about what you can do to prevent practice of that behavior (and getting reinforcement for it) while also building value or teaching a different, more acceptable behavior with lots of positive reinforcement.

With each puppy it can be different. If your puppy is likely to go for your pants or shoes during play, make sure that you have acceptable toys in hand to direct your puppy to playing with them instead of focusing on human legs. I like to engage in constructive play with puppies meaning I am teaching behaviors and self control through play….for example, when they sit, then the toy moves. If you can’t be actively engaged with your puppy (but always you are actively supervising), then another alternative is an interactive toy that keeps his attention like a food puzzle toy. And if active supervision is not an option at that time, then the best place for your puppy is a confinement area like a crate or x-pen so as to prevent your puppy from engaging in unwanted behaviors.

If your puppy tends to grab your pant leg as you walk, think about what you want to do and focus on that, but before your puppy grabs your ankle (because with each practice of grabbing your ankle, your puppy is gaining a reinforcement opportunity for the unwanted behavior). I will slow down as much as needed for that particular puppy and will even begin with marking (with a verbal ‘yes’ or click) and reinforcing the puppy for standing at my side while I am stationary, and continue to mark and reinforce being at my side with his head up as I move. I’ll only gradually move quicker as the puppy tells me through his ability to continue to walk at my side with his head up, that he is learning the behavior I want to see. If at any time the puppy goes to bite my ankle, I become a tree so as to avoid giving any reinforcement for the unwanted behavior; and then, I adjust my plan to go slower so as to help the puppy succeed.

My challenge to you is this: Instead of thinking in terms of what your pet is doing that is bad from your perspective, think about what that behavior is getting him and what you can teach him to do instead. And, as always, have fun!

 

 

Why Learning Should Be Simple

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” ~ Albert Einstein

Dog training tips for helping pets succeed by making the lesson as simple and clear as possible.I love this quote. In its great simplicity, it speaks volumes for both effective teaching and learning. This, from a world famous, brilliant physicist known for his general theory of relativity and recognized with a 1921 Nobel Prize.

I think about this often when I am doing dog training and behavior consulting. A question foremost in my mind is always, ‘how can I help my student succeed with this lesson?”

If the lesson is too difficult student frustration can lead to poor motivation, and with poor motivation focus on the teacher can quickly evaporate. When that occurs, teaching – at least teaching what we WANT our student to learn – is often not effective.

It is important to remember that in order for us to teach a behavior and strengthen its future rate, we first need to ‘get’ the behavior to occur so that we can follow that behavior with a reinforcing consequence. I continue to remember observing in a two day class with reknown trainer Dave Kroyer a session where he was coaching another trainer on teaching her dog to put his nose in a hole of a scent box. There was a moment when her dog was not ‘getting it’ and began pawing at the box. Dave’s response was to pick the box up and ask the trainer what they could do to help her dog understand. The answer was to put the box on its side. With that small change, her dog immediate went to the open hole and placed his nose inside.

And, once you and your student have success, then you can build upon that success from there by incrementally adding to the behavior as your learner can continue to succeed.

What are some ways in which you can make your lesson plan as simple as possible but not simpler?

For one, begin teaching in an environment with minimal other distractions. It is hard enough to focus on learning something new. With stimulus going on around you, it is that much more difficult to focus. Please read this column I had written on the importance of decluttering the teaching classroom.

Break the behavior down into small steps or approximations, and reinforcing your learning after each behavior approximation toward the final behavior. This is known as shaping, and it is a lot of fun to practice. Please click here to read a past post about it.

Be aware of the importance of timing when it comes to teaching new behaviors. Contiguity refers to the closeness in time between the behavior and its consequence while contingency refers to the degree of correlation between the behavior and its consequence (*if* I do this behavior, *the* this is the consequence that will follow). The less time there is between the behavior and its consequence, the quicker and easier the animal can build that relationship.  Please click here to read more. The immediacy with which you can ‘click’ and mark a correct behavior is one of the reasons why clicker training is so effective.

Use reinforcers that are of value to your learner. Remember, it is the learner that gets to decide what is of greatest value to him/her and that can change throughout a day. Learners will always choose to do the behavior that gets them a consequence of the greatest value to them so plan ahead and make sure you’ve stacked the deck in your favor. You can read more in this post.

Lessons In Teaching Self Control

This past weekend I attended a fun, two-day workshop on teaching self control by Swedish dog trainer (and border collie breeder) Fanny Gott at PosiDog in Columbus. She and her husband have a training school focusing on clicker training for dog sports.

In a dog training workshop, instructor Fanny Gott reminded us, that self control is driven by the dog’s choice. Fanny reminded us to teach dogs self control with choice rather than with lures, prompts and punishment. It is how you teach your dog to problem solve and to think through choices of behavior that lead to valued consequences (for your dog). It is also about you having fun with your pet and strengthening your relationship.

“There is no big difference between everyday life and training for competition,” Fanny told us. “Why settle for anything less than both joy AND control?”

In our workshop, there were about a dozen working dogs with a whole broad range of training experience from a german shepherd who was preparing for obedience competition to puppies who thought nothing of running at the end of their leash to jump on new people to a small dog who quivered and scanned the room and all of its scary newness.

Fun play and food (and, in the case of the people-loving puppies, the opportunity to run up to strangers) were the valued reinforcers for them. A dog who is crazy about a ball was being taught that doing something else was the way to a favorite object. A dog who really wanted that piece of food in a bowl was being taught that the way to get a piece of food is to be able to walk by the bowl at his owner’s side. A dog who lay calmly on the ground was given the opportunity to get an awesome toy. A dog who had no interest in food when a favorite toy was within reach was being taught that it was the behavior of taking the offered treat that got him a game of tug.

While the lessons were very different, their similarity was in teaching dogs contingencies between behaviors and consequences – and in making the classroom fun.  The reinforcers were consequences that the dog values. (I will write about increasing the value of reinforcers in a future post.)

The other similarity? These dogs were working! Make no mistake about it, they were absolutely exercising. In fact, even a border collie tired after about five minutes or so of a training session. It occurred to me how often people talk about taking their dog for a walk when they talk about exercise. Training your dog to focus on a lesson that involves both physical and mental control is exhausting. In fact, Fanny reminded us that after a short session, it is important to give dogs time to rest and to avoid another difficult training session right afterward.

Equally important, is that self control is something that must be practiced often and with consistency in order to strengthen. These are some tips Fanny gave for practicing.

  1. Look at everything happening in your training session. Ask yourself, is your dog showing self control or getting reinforcement for behaviors you do not want to see?
  2. Look at increasing your dog’s self control in everyday life. Really think about it. When are you being proactive vs reactive to your dog’s behavior? And how can you change that?
  3. Ask yourself, “how much are you managing your dog vs how often is your dog given a choice?”

Remember, this is about controlling access to reinforcers NOT controlling your dog.

What are some ways in which you have taught your dog self control? I’d love to hear.

Tip For Solving Dog And Puppy Behavior Problems

I was standing and talking with a new client the other day as her puppy was at her feet. The deeper into our conversation we got, the more her puppy began moving around. A few minutes later, he jumped on her leg, grabbed her sweater, and then when she removed it from his mouth, he took interest in her shoe.

Her instincts were to tell him no and push him away. She very much wanted to know how she could teach him those activities are bad.

dog training tip on solving problem behavior issuesShe didn’t, however. And, instead, it was a great opportunity for an important lesson in behavior. I thought I’d share a little about what was learned.

Here is the thing to remember about behavior. (I know I keep repeating myself but it is important to keep it forefront.) It always happens to get a consequence. If the behavior reoccurring, then it is working to get the animal a consequence of value to him.

Okay, so before we go down that path, what is wrong with simply yelling at a puppy to tell him Bad boy when he has his mouth on a sweater or shoe that should not be there? For one, if you have tried that in the past and your puppy is continuing that behavior then the yelling, attention and perhaps moving of your arms and lets is actually of value to your puppy instead of an aversive. Or it could be that in the scheme of things, the chewing on a sweater or shoe is SO valuable to that puppy that it trumps any negative association with your yelling at him.

On the other hand, if your yelling at him does work to reduce the frequency and/or intensity of your puppy’s unwanted behavior, then I’d have to ask, at what cost? It most certainly does not teach your pet what he should do instead. Just a few of the potential negative ramifications of using an aversive teaching strategy are that it can cause apathy, generalized fear, counter aggression and escape/avoidance behaviors. Punishment requires escalating the intensity in order to maintain that suppression, and ultimately the teacher then becomes associated with those aversives. You can read more about punishment here.

Puppies, dogs, even birds and other animals did not join our lives inherently knowing what behaviors are and are not acceptable to their human companions. Those are things we need to teach them with fairness.

In this case, there were many things that occurred prior to the unwanted chewing behavior to set the occasion for that behavior. Those things are called Antecedents; and some potentially could have been lack of other opportunities to chew on appropriate materials, boredom, lack of exercise, lack of attention. But also, the consequence of the inappropriate behavior was fulfilling those needs – attention, play, sensory stimulation, etc. After all, no attention was given to him until he decided to put something into his mouth.

There are many ways to solving this. One way is management. When you cannot actively be involved with supervising, playing and/or training; a puppy who is crated with tasty chew toys or who is actively engaged in a puzzle toy is not interested in chewing on a sweater. A puppy who is tired from active training and exercise also has less value on seeking out that sweater and more value in resting.

And, another consideration…did I mention training?  You can teach your dog or puppy an incompatible behavior that he can do INSTEAD of the unwanted behavior with as much or greater reinforcing value as the unwanted behavior. Think of it this way. If your puppy or dog does not know (because you have not taught him) what behavior you want him to do when you are standing with him at your side, then is it fair to blame him for coming up with his own ideas?

During that meeting, I began reinforcing the puppy for laying down by giving him a treat when he was laying on the floor. Within minutes, guess which behavior he was choosing to do on his own? After awhile, I incorporated play as a reinforcer for his laying down. When he lay down, I clicked and released him to retrieve a toy. Wow, talk about building HUGE value for laying down! After talking in the hall, when we walked into another room, can you guess again which behavior he immediately did?

My challenge to you is this: Instead of thinking in terms of what your pet is doing that is bad from your perspective, think about what that behavior is getting him and what you can teach him to do instead. And, as always, have fun!

 

 

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