Who Is Training Whom?

My dad loves to share stories of Sam’s brilliance…and keen sense of hearing. The two buddies often travel together to the store. My dad says he can’t leave without Sam because Sam knows right away when dad is getting ready to leave and comes running to go with him, waggling his tail and holding a toy.

Who is training whom?Hmm. I thought it’d be fun to take a closer look at this. Remember, living beings learn by the consequences of a behavior and it is those consequences that predict the future rate of the behavior. For any behavior to continue and even strengthen, something in the environment is reinforcing it.

Let’s put our Applied Behavior Analysis hats on for a minute and do a functional assessment of the environment from each perspective. A functional assessment involves looking at the specific measurable
behavior within the context of its environment including the Antecedent (setting event for the behavior), the Behavior, and the Consequence of the behavior. In doing an assessment, always begin by writing down the Behavior we are analyzing, then fill in the A and C.

1. Focusing on my dad

A:         My dad announces he is going to the store

B:         Sam exhibits ‘wanna go’ behaviors (immediately perks up, runs to grab one of his toys     and then comes back to my dad with his whole body waggling

C:        Dad gets Sam’s leash and takes him to the car (there actually could be a second ABC here if I tightened this up)

Prediction:  When my dad announces that he is going to the store, Sam will exhibit his ‘wanna go’ behaviors more frequently to produce the outcome of getting to go to the car.

2.  Focusing on Sam

A:         Sam is laying on floor in the kitchen

B:         Dad announces his excursion

C:        Sam exhibits his ‘wanna go’ behaviors

Prediction: When Sam is laying on the kitchen floor, my dad will announce his excursion more to get Sam to exhibit his ‘wanna go’ behaviors

It looks to me like both Sam and my dad are doing a fabulous job of reinforcing the behavior of the other. They are great teachers. I taught them well.

 

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Tips For Holiday

Another holiday is upon us, and that may mean much added stress, activity and company. Complaints of dog over arousal, jumping on people, getting into things it shouldn’t, and even biting or growling at kids happen a lot at this time of year. Instead of blaming your dog, think through how you can help your dog to succeed through the next few days.

tips for reducing your dog's stress during the holidaysHere are just a few tips for keeping your dog safe and reducing your dog’s stress during the holidays.

With this being just a few days from Christmas and Hannukah, the reality is, if you have not already spent time teaching your dog behaviors you want to see in different situations, you more than likely won’t be able to teach those behaviors with such fluency by the time guests arrive.

However, now is the time to really do an assessment of your dog’s reaction to different stimulus. Management and other solutions will be very different for a dog that has great fear reaction to people, sounds, and strange sights than for a dog who jumps on people to get attention.  If your dog growls, lunges at, or retreats from strangers, the holiday party is not a good time to be desensitizing your dog to people. A better choice is to keep your dog in a safe, quiet place away from company…or even sending it to a friend’s or a kennel away from it all.

If your dog is one that will jump on guests when they arrive, consider having it behind a gate, in a bedroom out of site or in a crate in another room until they settle in and your dog is in a calmer state. Be prepared to reinforce your dog for doing the desired behavior.

With adults often come children, and, as your pet’s guardian, it is your responsibility to ensure a safe environment for everyone. Any dog will have a breaking point when it comes to interactions with people who do things to make the dog uncomfortable. Additionally, children can run around which encourages your dog to chase them, potentially leading to over arousal. Children should ALWAYS be PRO-ACTIVELY supervised around pets, and should be redirected if they are doing anything that a dog does not like. Some dog body language to look for in an unhappy dog is: a tail held low or tucked between the legs; ears held sideways for an erect eared dog or flattened back with rapid panting; tense eyes that likely show the whites around the sides; tense body muscles; looking or moving or leaning away; a center of gravity over the rear legs or to one side. Dogs may also roll onto their belly in submission. If dogs freeze, become stiff, stand with their front legs splayed and head low, showing teeth or growling, interaction with them needs to stop immediately.

Ensure that your dog has a quiet safe where it can go if it wants to be alone, and instruct and enforce to all of your guests that they are not to enter the space around that quiet place.

At least during the most hectic times such as opening presents, serving food, guests coming and going, consider having your dog in its quiet place with a chew toy such as a stuffed Kong.

Make sure that your dog is wearing its collar and name tags in case it runs out the door. Of course, also managing its opportunity to be that close to the door is also very important.

If your dog is likely to grab some of that tasty holiday food, and you haven’t already trained alternative behaviors, management is your best solution. Tell your guests to keep food and drinks away from reach. You may also want to use barriers such as gates to prevent your dog from having access.

Can I be of help to you and your pet with your dog training needs? Please contact me.

Choosing Words For Training

I was asked the other day this question: “Does it matter if we refer to our pet by its species or its sex? Are “Good Dog!” and “Good Boy!” equal in esteeming and reinforcing good behavior?”

In dog training, does it matter what words you use to reinforce behavior? Certified dog trainer, Lisa Desatnik explainsI thought I’d write an answer to that, as it may be a question others have as well.

I am assuming that person was using those words both to let her dog know she liked her dog’s behavior and also to add value to her dog’s behavior so that she would see more of it.

Let’s first look at the function in training of using words to acknowledge a behavior. We call this using a marker. A clicker or other sound (or even another non-verbal signal) can be used as well. Moment marking training is very effective because it involves giving the learner very precise information that what occurred *immediately* preceding the mark is exactly what the trainer is looking for. If you are shaping behavior (reinforcing small steps or approximations toward a final behavior), you may mark those tiny steps with a click or word kind of like you’d play the child’s hot and cold game. You may also click in teaching simple behaviors like when a dog sits or you may mark a behavior for other criteria such as duration. That precision matters because within just several seconds time, you could be inadvertently reinforcing a different behavior if your timing is off. You can say ‘Yes!’ or click much quicker than you can deliver a piece of food.

Good markers then are distinct and short sounds that provide the learner with very specific feedback that *at that moment* the behavior was awesome. Having said that, then using two or more words that take longer to say may not be as effective because by the time a trainer gets through ‘gooood boy’, the dog may be on to doing another behavior. Another point is that, I have seen handlers who repeat ‘good dog’ over and over again. In terms of training, that is not specific enough information for the learner.

To use markers effectively, they should be used ‘as’ the behavior is occurring. No other stimulus should be present until AFTER the click or verbal word (so no reaching for your food until after you click).

Now, as for whether words matter, I’ll say the same thing I told my clients who taught their dog to come with a cue of ‘Buckeye’. Whether we are talking about a cue occurring before the behavior or a marker occurring after the behavior, the word itself does not matter. It is all in how you teach it.

You can build value for words by pairing them with things or activities your pet values. Remember that it is the stimulus that occurs AFTER something that affects the emotional response of what occurs before. A click in and of itself does not have meaning; however, if you click and then give your dog a treat with many repetitions, over time, your dog will acquire the same type of reflexive response to the click as he with the treat.

So, in answer to that question, if I am training a specific behavior, I would not use either ‘good dog’ or ‘good boy’ but rather I would use either a clicker or a single syllable word like ‘yes’ and I would spend time teaching my student the value of the marker I am using.

 

 

 

 

 

A Reminder About Teaching

I love this quote. It is so relevant to dog training (and any pet) too. Instead of blaming our pets when they are not learning what we want them to do, we need to ask ourselves as their teacher, ‘What can I do to make my lesson more clear?’ I wrote about this awhile back.

on dog training: If your dog is not getting what you are trying to teach, teach it differently.

 

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A Different View On Dog Behavior

Someone shared with me the other day of her frustration she was having with her dog. It seems her dog has a favorite pillow in her bedroom she keeps on the ground and as soon as she goes in there with her dog, Fido lays on it.  She keeps yelling at her dog when Fido goes to his spot, and he does come off willingly but his behavior hasn’t stopped. It’s very frustrating for her.

tips for solving dog behavior problemsI thought I’d share some of what I shared with her, as it is pretty relatable if you change ‘pillow’ to any other object.

So, why doesn’t this women’s dog get the fact that she does not want him on her pillow? Why does he continue to choose to go there every time they go into the bedroom together despite the fact that he gets yelled at when he goes there?

My background is in learning to solve pet issues in the most positive, least intrusive ways by looking at it objectively, visibly, and measurably through the lens of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). ABA is a systematic approach to modifying behavior by changing the environment in which the behavior occurs. It involves looking at the very specific behavior (such as a dog barking) in terms of what is giving that behavior purpose and value? What happened *immediately* prior to the behavior (antecedent) to set the whole ball rolling? And what happened *immediately* after the behavior to reinforce it (consequence)?

So, to begin with this situation, we need to stop and look at things from her dog’s perspective. We know that behavior is simply a tool to get an animal a consequence of value to that animal, so, instead of becoming frustrated with Fido for just doing what works to get him something he wants, let’s think about what those consequences could be that are maintaining and strengthening the behavior of laying on the pillow (scientifically speaking, he is receiving positive reinforcement for this).

A few possible consequences could be sensory stimulation (the feeling of softness) or attention from Fido’s owner (when he lays on the pillow, she calls him to come off and sometimes may do something else with him that she thinks will divert his attention away from the pillow).

We also know that the antecedent to Fido’s getting on the pillow is his walking into his owner’s bedroom with her when the pillow is on the floor. But also, some other contributing factors (we call these distant antecedents) may be: Fido generally does not receive much attention during the day, the home has all hard floors with no other soft options on the floor. And additionally, we know that Fido does not go into that bedroom by himself.

The ABC analysis for this situation would be:

A (antecedent):  Proximity to pillow when owner is present
B (behavior):  Fido gets on pillow
C (consequence):  Owner’s attention, sensory stimulation

Prediction:  When the owner is present, Fido will get on the pillow more to get his owner’s attention and sensory stimulation.

When you break it down like this, it gives you a very different perspective on your pet’s ‘bad’ behavior.

Looking at that situation then, there are choices to make. Altering the consequence so that the learner is not getting reinforcement for the unwanted behavior is very important, but doing that alone does not help to teach the animal what it can do instead to get reinforcement.

Actually in this case, because it would be difficult to prevent reinforcement for the behavior once it is set into motion, a better solution would be to focus on the antecedents so as to prevent practice of that behavior (because practice with positive outcomes builds strong behavior).

Brainstorming, some possible ideas for solutions (using the most positive, least intrusive strategies) include:

1. Moving the pillow to a higher surface
2. Getting a plushy dog bed or other soft area and building great value for Fido to go there instead
3. Have high value puzzle toys or other activity available in the bedroom that Fido will want to engage in
4. Teach Fido to do other behaviors than laying on the pillow, when in the bedroom

To build value for the last three ideas, I’d remove or move the pillow while teaching and building huge value for the wanted habits so that over time, those behaviors are the ones Fido will choose to do.

When you modify behavior in this way, you are also enriching your dog’s life and strengthening your relationship with it. Those are two great reasons to see things differently.

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Dog Arousal And Training

In all my years of sharing a home with dogs, and all my work with them, many times I’ve seen and experienced the impact of arousal on a dog’s ability to learn and problem solve what I am teaching.

dog arousal and trainingI saw that again at a recent workshop of Suzanne Clothier. The demonstration dog was pulling on her owner’s leash from the moment she came out of her crate, barking, wagging her tail, moving quickly, jumping and bumping her handler. And when her owner/handler sat to talk with Suzanne, those behaviors continued. It was of no surprise then, that when her handler got up and asked her to sit, stay or jump over a hurdle, in that moment she was not able to focus and do what was asked. Her clear decision making ability was broken down.

On the other end of the spectrum, I was at a client’s home last week to train his labradoodle. The room wasn’t well lit and she was moving slowly and then layed down on the carpet. In that moment, she was not an active participant in learning controlled behaviors because she valued rest more than she valued movement. She was unmotivated. Continuing to try and teach her active behaviors at that time would have been counterproductive.

While very different and with very different motivations, both of these dogs shared the fact that they were not in their optimal learning zone. I first heard this spoken of in an online course I took from world champion agility trainer, Susan Garrett many years back. Susan (and I have since heard and seen many others since talk about it) told us about a bell curve of arousal for dog learning. A dog that is over stimulated has a difficult time with good  decision making and self control. In simplified terms, inhibitory control refers to the process of altering one’s learned behavioral responses in a way that makes it easier to complete a particular goal. Self control is an important aspect of inhibitory control.

On the other hand, the dog that has too little arousal is distinterested and unmotivated in the lesson.  There is a ‘just right’ place somewhere in the middle where a learner is at its optimal level for focusing.

So, back to those two examples. In Suzanne’s workshop, she worked with the handler in teaching her dog to lower her (the dog’s) arousal – meaning to lay at her feet, relaxing her muscles and lowering her heart rate – while she sat in a chair. When the woman got up to work with her dog after her dog was in a lower arousal state, her dog was able to focus and sit, stay, jump over the hurdle perfectly. With my client, when we walked out of the room and re-entered, his dog was standing wagging her tail, moving around and engaging with us. (Incorporating games like tugging into your training can also help to build arousal in your dog. Just use caution that you don’t play a game that will cause your dog to get over-aroused or you will run into the other problem.) The response we got from asking her to do behaviors was very different. She not only did the behaviors perfectly but with a tail wag too.

I want to note here that there are other considerations too. Not in this case but perhaps your dog is tired because it has had a lot of exercise, it is the end of the day, or you have already been training for a long time and your dog is mentally and physically fatigued.

What is the take away lesson for companion dog owners?  Learning through experience your dog’s sweet spot on that arousal spectrum will go a long way toward helping you both build success. If your dog becomes over stimulated, work on lowering its arousal. You may want to use a more calming voice and slower body movements. Working in an environment with minimum distractions, only adding difficulty as you and your pet can continue to focus on the lesson, allows you to have better control of minimizing or eliminating competing reinforcers. If your dog is on

Core Exercise For Dogs

I am a pretty consistent exerciser, working out about 5 to 6 times a week. There is such an emphasis with people to strengthen our core – the muscles of our abs, spine and supporting limbs. That strength decreases lower back pain and stress on the rest of our body, and helps us to have more upright posture and prevent injuries.

Core strength in dogs is also a good thing, decreasing the incidence of injuries associated with osteoarthritis or other soft tissue issues, of iliopsoas strains, and spinal pain. I spoke with Ginger Jones, CCRP, canine physical therapist at the Care Center about core strength exercises the other day. “Core work,” she told me, “is integrated into everything I do.”

It is that important whether you have a very active, a young, an old, a big or small dog.

Ginger explained how you may notice signs of a weak core in everyday activities. There may be excessive sway in the hind end in movement. You may see your pet have difficulty making the transition from positions such as going from sitting to standing. Sometimes, depending on the situation, a dog’s inability to hold a sit stay could be due to weak core muscles.

Please note: Before you begin new exercises, clear them with your veterinarian/health care professional. You can mix these exercises up, doing several consistently at least every other day. They can also be considered a warm up before other activities.

Exercises to strengthen your dog’s core

Ginger said even simply walking your dog over uneven surfaces causes your dog to shift its body weight, engaging core muscles. When you take that leash out, keep an eye out for things in the environment you can encourage your dog to step on or move over. Walking up and down inclines and stairs involves trunk muscles too.  In your home, you can encourage your dog to walk on pillows or folded towels for example as another surface.

Exercises while standing. Holding a stand can be more difficult than you think in the beginning (think of the plank exercise for humans). Encourage your dog to stand and hold that position for up to ten seconds or longer. You may need to begin with just a few seconds of holding position. These are some of the ways Ginger engages the muscles more during the stand (for all of these, use a non-slip surface)

With a lure, encourage the dog to turn its head in different directions to follow the food.

Gently sway your dog from left to right while supporting it. Note: you are not rocking your dog so hard that it will need to move its legs to regain balance. As your dog becomes stronger, your dog will need less support from you.

Again, while you are supporting your dog, lift one leg for a few seconds and then replace it on the ground. Do this with each of your dog’s legs. For difficulty as your more forward with this, you can increase the time for each leg lift and decrease the amount of support you provide.

Sit to stand. Changing positions is great for strengthening your dog’s core. Encourage your dog to go from stand to sit and sit to stand (and you can incorporate laying down too). You can increase repetitions up to 5 or 10 times on a variety of surfaces.

Walking backwards and in a figure eight. This exercise, while fairly simple, helps a lot with balance and hindlimb strength.

Cavalettis.  A cavaletti is basically walking your dog over a series of raised surfaces. You can make your own or purchase them online. You can even use a ladder. This exercise requires your dog to lifts its hind legs over each surface improving strength, range of motion, balance and flexibility. Ginger said you can begin with a series of two-by-four boards. You can also use PVC pipes or broomsticks, or other poles. Begin with the hurdles laying on the ground and gradually increase the height. You can be creative in hurdle holders. I have seen people use crushed soda pop cans (placing the hurdle end over the crook in the can), laying the hurdle on blocks, ect. The hurdles should be placed one body length of your dog apart, and begin with about a four inch height (depending on the height of your dog). You can have four to seven hurdles. Walk your dog through the course four or five times initially and then increase the repetitions as your dog gains strength.

Elevated paw touch. Practice having your dog stand with its front paws on an elevated surface such as a chair to increase the weight bearing load of the back legs. You can increase the time in small increments as they increase their rear leg strength. When your dog can hold that position for at least 15 seconds, you can practice adding some gentle hand pressure to its body as was practiced with the stand. You can also practice this with your dog’s rear legs on the elevated surface.

Using a wobble board or balance ball.  Practice having your dog sit or stand on a BOSU or balance ball (you will need to support your dog in the beginning, and also just to desensitize your dog to being on it, you may want to wedge the ball so that it does not move when getting started).

Additionally you can teach your dog to put its front or rear paws onto a ball or wobble board. To do this, I first taught our dog to paw target (stand with his front paws on a surface) on a variety of surfaces and rotate his back legs so the behavior itself was not new. Below is a video of me demonstrating clicker training using shaping to teach a Vizsla to paw target, and then a video of me teaching our Sam to put his paws on a balance ball.

Teaching beginner paw targeting

Teaching our Sam to keep his front paws on the balance ball

All of these exercises are not that difficult to practice and teach, but they are so important to the wellness of our pets. A dog that does agility needs this strength to minimize injury risk. A dog that does confirmation will need good core strength to hold positions. For that matter, working dogs, older dogs, and puppies will all benefit. And you will have fun in the process!

 

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

How To Create New Reinforcers

Since my focus is on training and modifying behaviors in the most positive ways, I am always thinking in terms where the value is for the learner because the way in which you build value for a particular behavior, is by having that behavior followed by something the animal wants. This is teaching with positive reinforcement.

using positive reinforcement in dog trainingAnd that Awesome List as I like to think about it is ever changing. At one time of day your pet may value resting while at another time your pet may value a game of chase. The list could include the opportunity to go outside, food items, toys, attention, sensory stimulation, even distance from something aversive (although for this post, I am going to focus on the positive).

While food is good for shaping exercises because it can be delivered and eaten quickly for faster timing, having a variety of reinforcers to choose from in any particular training scenario makes you unpredictable and more engaging for your pet. Not knowing what cool thing is going to happen but knowing that SOMETHING great is going to happen as a result of doing a behavior sure can help to keep your student in the game.

You actually can create more reinforcers from the reinforcers already in your list. How? Using classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is a reflexive type of learning where one stimulus acquires the capacity to evoke the same response as another stimulus.

Remember that it is the stimulus that occurs AFTER something that affects the emotional response of what comes BEFORE it. Having said that, with enough pairing of the presentation of a toy, for example, before the presentation of a valued leash, over time, your dog will come to value that toy because it has become associated with the leash. (Show your dog a frisbee – you do not need to play a game, just show the frisbee and put it down, and then take out the leash.)

Experiment at home and see how you can create new reinforcers. The opportunities are endless!

 

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

 

 

Your Role In Training Success

When you ask your dog to sit or lay down, does it ever immediately pop back up into a stand instead of stay in position? And, what happens when you are out for a walk and stop to talk to someone? Does your dog go exploring and begin to pull on the leash when you’d like it to simply sit by your side?

choices in dog trainingIt is easy to get frustrated when your dog does not do what you want, but we have to remember, pets are not mind readers. If we do not teach them what it is we want them to do in any given situation, they are likely to come up with their own choice that is based upon where the value is for them. Anytime they are doing something, they are doing what works for them in the moment to get something of value or avoid something aversive.

So, let’s talk about several points here as it relates to the human factor in training.

Your Role in Paying Attention

People tend to think about focus as it relates to their students. It is one of the reasons why short training sessions are best and why you are helping your pet to succeed when you train in an environment with limited distractions, or a distraction level in which your animal is still motivated and able to maintain its attention on the lesson at hand.

But you should not leave yourself out of this consideration. Anytime you are training, you need to be completely attentive to your student and your lesson. If a distraction occurs during training (such as the phone ringing or your wanting to talk to someone), take a pause. If you are just beginning to teach stay and your dog doesn’t yet understand the concept, release your dog before turning your attention to something else so you do not set it up for failure.

Clarity

Remember, it is very difficult for an animal who doesn’t speak human to understand what we want them to do. When teaching, remember clear two-way communication is so important. Teach with small steps and great reinforcement for good choices. But also, remember that, if in ‘your mind’ you would like for your dog to sit at your side when you talk to someone while on a walk…that sitting by your side is a behavior YOU need to teach your dog, and reinforce it in that situation. Just as explained above, your focus needs to be on your dog’s behavior in that moment.

Realistic Expectations

If your pet continues to make unwanted choices, or if you ask your pet to do a behavior multiple times and your pet does something else, know that it is not because your pet is being dumb or obstinate. Instead, see it as a case of your student telling you it either needs much more positive practice of learning the behavior, or it is not motivated to stay focused in that moment. This is a time for you as the teacher to pause or stop the training and review what you need to change to help you both succeed the next time.

Watch what you are reinforcing

A common error I see among dog handlers is when their dog’s wanted behavior gets ignored and only its unwanted behavior gets attention. I have seen dogs sitting at their owners side quietly and getting zero reinforcement until the dog gets up and barks, at which point, the owner may yell (giving attention) and the dog gets self reinforcement in terms of adrenal and excitement. The owner may jerk the leash to get the dog to sit down but if the strength of the reinforcer overpowers the aversiveness of the stimulus, the pet will continue to choose to get up and bark. A better alternative is to concentrate on catching the wanted behavior and giving that behavior a lot of reinforcement.

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Realize That Each Dog Will Learn Differently

I was reminded again the other day, the importance as a teacher of recognizing that different animals learn differently, have different thresholds for frustration, and different values of reinforcement. That recognition and application to the lesson at hand can very well be what either helps and animal succeed…or fail.

10-06-learn-smI was demonstrating the beginner self control game that I have taught to dozens of other dogs, in different circumstances. Here is a link to a description of that game. Basically, you are teaching a dog without any words that *if* it persists in going after food in your hand, *then* the consequence is that the hand remains closed. However, *if* the dog moves away from the hand, *then* the hand opens and *then* the dog gets that valued prize.

Many dogs *get* this concept fairly quickly but this dog is not one of those statistics. The presentation of the food in my closed first near to his head was just too much stimulus for him. He is a dog with an extremely low frustration threshold and an extremely high drive for food. He was becoming so aroused that he began jumping, pawing, mouthing, and panting.

Teaching him by following the same steps as I taught other dogs simply was not going to work in this case. If I had continued, I would have continued to set us both up for failure. So, we stopped. My clients and I talked for a few minutes, then they did some practice of showing me his ‘place’ behavior and I did some hand targeting with the dog.

When I went back to the self control game, this time the dog was sitting and I held my hand with the food a few feet from his face. This time he was able to succeed, for a very short time in the beginning, of staying in position before I marked that behavior with ‘yes’ and gave him a treat. We very quickly were able to proceed with my moving my food hand closer (marking and treating him for staying put) to his face with success by making that one small adjustment. AND, with each success, there comes more success with more practice and positive outcomes.

It was a great lesson in teaching. Always remember, just as in a school classroom where all children learn differently, there is no size fits all when it comes to dogs (or any animal). Some have lower tolerances for frustration and you need to adjust your reinforcement schedule or difficulty, to help them succeed. Others need further distance from or environments with fewer distractions. Some dogs may be highly motivated by a game of tug for a reinforcer and other dogs would have zero interest in that opportunity. As your pet’s teacher, a big part of your role is continually monitoring it all. If your pet does not understand what it is you are teaching and loses interest in the training, stop, analyze your training and come up with another strategy.

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