Thursday Training Tip: Re-visit Your Basics From Time to Time

Mama Sally:

Lately, what I’ve noticed with Rugby James, is that he’s started slacking on some of his basics.  Yes.  I said it.  A dog trainer has a dog who is a slacker.  In basic work even.  Oh my.  I’m just keeping it real!  Rugby still responds well to his basic work, but he’s just gotten a little slower and a bit sloppier with his responses, and his real life applications aren’t as sharp as I would like them to be.

You don’t have to use a clicker, but I find Rugby’s focus and attention is better, and he learns things more quickly when I use one.

Well, here’s the truth:  All skills need to be polished, don’t they?  If we don’t practice any skill, over time, doesn’t it get a bit rusty?  I played the flute coming up as a kid, but I haven’t  picked it up to play in probably thirty years or more.  Am I going to have the same skill level?  Absolutely not!  I haven’t practiced.  I’m not even sure I still remember how to read music anymore, to be perfectly honest with you.

If we want to see our dogs performing consistently well, we need to keep things polished up from time to time and practice all learned skills so that our dogs will stay sharp and quickly responsive.  Thankfully, Rugby is not a robot!  He doesn’t respond as a robot.  He’s a thinking, feeling, expressive dog who can choose to comply with work or not.  And if I want him to comply, I need to practice, and I also need to make practice fun so that he will want to participate with me.

Once your dog hears, “Come”, at the moment your dog looks at you….he is making the decision to either come or ignore you!

We tend to think that once our dogs learn a skill, it’s a permanent addition to them….much like putting a collar around their necks.  When we fit a collar and buckle it, we never give it another thought.  We think of it being permanently attached to our dogs.

On the other hand, I think behaviors are a bit more fluid….they are alive, and change and grow right along with our dogs.  In order to maintain those good habits and skills, we need to keep our dogs thinking and working!  It’s always a good time to revisit basic skills, as well as work on new skills to keep our dogs from getting bored with their work.

This past week, I’ve started putting the polish on some basics with Rugby, and I’m finding that he and I are both enjoying that.  Rugby typically likes any and all sorts of work and I rarely wait until his behavior gets off in a ditch before I work to correct it.  I start after he’s gotten sloppy a time or two, because then it’s not much work to sharpen things up again.  In just a few days, he’s back on track and working at his best performance levels.

Training your dog to “Place” is a great way to have control with your dog inside your home…especially when they are rowdy dogs!

I’ve noticed that as Rugby is aging, he has less patience in work when it comes to learning new things, so he seems to be very happy to work on his known skills.  Rugby has never been a poster dog for impulse control.  In Rugby’s world, those two things are mutually exclusive terms!  My huge battle with him for nine years has been teaching him to slow down and think through a task!

Rugby is one emotional dog, and he has rarely been able to cognitively attack tasks initially.  He frustrates super easily, and he’s ridiculously food motivated, so when I’m trying to teach something new, he often just completely melts down with frustrated barking and barking and barking.  *sigh*  Once he melts down…sometimes several melt downs….then he can often start the cognitive process to think through what he needs to change and adjust to get what he wants.  His first response is always emotional.

I had hoped that going back to focus on the basics would boost his confidence and allow me to see a more patient side of Rugby come to the surface.  He doesn’t have to think very hard on the basics, so he’s able to perform them quickly and get a great, fast reward of some kind.  I do think that in revisiting his basics, he’s enjoyed being able to get quick rewards for known tasks.  Rugby is all about cutting right to the chase and getting that tidbit of food!

He’s known basic commands for nine years now, and he really is very rock solid on them.  I rarely “have” to offer treats to him, but I know that intermittent food rewards are the best way to win Rugby’s heart and keep him working hard.  It’s just important to remember that practice makes perfect, and all skills need to be practiced to keep our skill levels high….dogs included!  Let’s see what Rugby has to say about this subject!

Rugby James:

Well, lately the Mama has been working on fings what I already knows.  It seems silly to me, on account of I already knows how to do this stuff, but there’s snacks in it for me, and sum good play, and lotsa good pets, so I go along wif her!

Sumtimes we works inside the house, where there isn’t nuffing to distract me, and sumtimes we works outside in the back yard where there is varmints, and smells and sounds what can distract me.  Sumtimes we works in the back yard when our neighbor is out working on his car, on account of he does that wif friends, and they talks and laffs a big much what usually gets me into a big barking jag!  When all of the neighbors is away at work, the Mama and me works right in front of the house just a lil bit, on account of that is super scary to me!  The Mama calls it “stretching me out of my comfort zone” only I doesn’t know what that is.  Mostly I fink it means scary.

Because I gets very excited wif food rewards, the Mama mostly uses dog kibbles, and she usually trains about firty minutes after I has had a meal.  She always lets my breakfast or supper settle a bit in my tummy before she does any training.  And mostly, I’m not as hungry, so I’m a lil bit more patient wif her, and I works a lil bit better.  She saves the real exciting treats for times when we is working on very hard stuff….like don’t bark at the blender, or when the neighbor dogs is barking outside and I likesa give them my two cents!

I like to use treats that break easily so that Rugby is getting dime sized bites. Your dog only needs a taste…not a 12 course meal!

We works on basic command fings, like Sit/Stay, Down/Stay, Come When Called, Place, Get It, Leave It, Watch Me, and we does old tricks what I has done for a long time too.  When we works on a short leash, I hasta do the fing a few times before I getsa kibble or lotsa petting.  The Mama is a really good encourager, so she always uses those sweet words wif a soft sweet sound, she smiles, and she squints up her eyes a lil bit too.  I always gets encouraged a big much, and once in a while, the Mama gives me “jackpots” of kibbles, what is free or five of them, one at a time, really fast!  I does lubs me sum jackpots!!

Make sure you balance new things while you’re training the basics. Dogs love to learn new things all the time!!

We always works on new fings too, but I has really been lubbing sum extra work on stuff that I already know.  It makes me feel extra smart on account of I can do fings really fast and I doesn’t hasta fink very hard.  After we does a few of the basics, the Mama always frows in sumping new for me to mix it up a bit sos I doesn’t get all bored, and I likes that a lot.  And, she knows I’m smart, so she doesn’t make me do stuff a billion times in a row.  She has me do sumping I knows well free or four times and that’s it.  Then we getsa move onto sumping else.  She starts wif a lil handful of kibbles, and once that lil handful is gone, we don’t work anymore, so it usually goes really fast, and I likes that!  We just repeats it at different times during the day, and not all at once, so I like getting lil snacks froughout the whole day!

You might fink that your dogger won’t like doing stuff he already knows, but hopefully, you’ll try sum of these ideas, and see that he’s gonna be all in on the fun!  This kinda stuff is how you and your dogger will learn how to be a team, and we’re all about teamwork at my house!!

Building a great relationship with your dog is what training is all about!

 

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Scary Things and Body Language

I’m big on reading a dog’s body language!  I look back on my early months with Rugby, and I see an epic fail on my part to fully understand what he was communicating through his body language and facial expressions.

As a dog trainer of many years and dog owner virtually my entire life, I had a very good idea of what my dogs were speaking to me most of the time.  I recognized many of the common signals that all dogs use to speak in some form or fashion.

However, until I lived with Rugby, I didn’t realize how many different ways a dog can communicate fear and anxiety.  I didn’t know how much Rugby was constantly speaking with his body and face, and I didn’t realize that I could mimic some calming signals right back to him with success!  If I had known this information in the early days of my life with Rugby, I might have seen him deeply trust me sooner, and I might have seen much more progress from him in those really critical late puppy months when he was sprinting into adolescence and adult behavior!

When Rugby is fearful, he furrows his brow, and pulls his ears up much higher on his head. He often loudly pants when he hasn’t had any exercise, and his body is very stiff.

When dogs are really fearful, and an owner disregards that fear, it’s like throwing your dog under the bus.  When high emotions of any kind hit your dog, no new learning is taking place.  This is why even excited dogs can’t easily comply with known commands.  Think of your dog’s response to a doorbell ring and company coming in. When I arrive at a lesson, I often hear owners telling their dogs to sit and stay on the opposite side of the door, and I know that the moment the door opens, that dog is flying up to jump on me.  The excitement has overruled any thinking taking place in your dog.  It takes time, practice, and maturity for a dog to work through the over-excitement to respond consistently to given commands.

When fear is the emotion, however,  your scared and fearful dog is simply thinking that he has to survive.  His survival instincts kick in, and the situation can quickly morph into fight or flight.  When a dog trusts his owner or handler, he can learn to ask them for help.  But when there’s no trust, your dog will feel very much as if he’s completely on his own in the scary situation.  This is why it’s so very important to read your dog’s fearful, anxious body language.  Dogs will often quickly show anxiety or fear in their body language, which will give an alert handler time to respond in a helpful way, which will engender trust from your dog!

Rugby had been in our home for less than an hour. He was heavily panting, his ears were flat and pulled tightly back, and he was leaning against my leg for support.

When Rugby is overwhelmed, even to this day, fight or flight is exactly the behavior that I see from him.  Once he’s outside the safe parameter of his yard, he is very tense overall.  His ears are high on his head, and his forehead furrowed.  He starts a heavy pant when he’s had no exercise.  He looks frantically left and right, trying to see something scary before it sees him!  He often yips an excited, high pitched yip, and he starts to pull on the leash as he looks frantically around him.

Rugby working on a Down/Stay in our front yard. He is very tense, his body stiff, and his ears pulled tightly back into “bunny ears.”  He’s tightly bunched up, as if he wants to make himself invisible.

Once he sees or hears a trigger. he tries first to bark….to keep the scary things away, and then he runs, as if barking and running will keep him alive.  Because he thinks he’s trying to save his own life, in his mind, he can’t stop either behavior and still survive.  In our early days together at home, this was my daily life….trying to catch my little spotted greased pig who evaded capture like his life depended upon it!  This behavior happened multiple times every day and for twenty to thirty minutes each time.  No matter how much you love your dog, that’s some wacky behavior to live with on a daily basis!

My first step was to stop the running behavior by leashing Rugby to me, so that he would have a safe protector in his corner.  I wanted him to learn that coming to me would always be his best line of defense…not running and barking to escape!  Puppy Rugby did respond well to this training, when the stimulus wasn’t too big, and as long as we were inside the house.  Big issues or moving outside saw a completely different response from him.  I had the opportunity to reinforce the behavior I wanted from him much more easily since he was right next to me. Rugby did continue to bark….only now, he was leashed to my side doing it!  Ugh!  However, he did stop barking a bit sooner than he had when he was running through the house, so I knew I was heading in the right direction with him, anyway!

Outside, because we didn’t have a safe fence to contain Rugby, he was always on a leash.  Instead of running to escape when triggered, his responses included lunging against the leash and wild barking, and when that was unsuccessful, he turned to aggressively bite the leash to free himself so that he could escape.  He usually managed to snag the leash, but there were a few times that he missed and got me instead!  Clearly, he was one scared, reactive pooch, but it has always been puzzling and challenging to know how to help him work through this issue because he reacts negatively in a nanosecond!  I can rarely get enough lead time to set up a successful trial to teach him new behavior.

When your dog is aggressively barking on walks, it’s absolutely terrifying!

When you’re a handler with a fearful, reactive dog, time and distance are your best friends.  Having distance from the stimuli gives both you and your dog time to think of and plan for what to do, and time will give you a buffer to re-direct your dog into new behavior so that he can learn to respond differently.  In Rugby’s case, if he hears a trigger he immediately reacts, and his sight triggers with dogs often start at a football field distance from us…that’s 100 yards!!!  It’s been virtually impossible for me to get the really tough stimuli far enough away that he can stay calm at all.  He often negatively reacts at everything….just in case!

In my early socialization work with Rugby, I missed his early anxious signs:  yawns, whale eyes, heavy panting, lip licking or a tongue flick, etc.  I am sure that he exhibited these obvious signals throughout our walks together, but I was focused on other things on our walks.  When he was showing obvious signs of fear that I recognized, by that time, I couldn’t get him far enough away from the scary thing or help him calm down.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I needed to start much sooner to intervene before he exploded into his meltdown.

I kept thinking that if he saw a neighbor’s scary garage door go up and down day after day, over time, he would be able to generalize that garage doors do go up and down, but they never eat small dogs on walks!  Instead of helping him work through his reactive fear, all I did was reinforce his fear of garage doors and things that move!  Instead of calming down on walks, he became more and more reactive, looking around him in a panic, wondering what awful thing would overtake him next!  In all honesty, I think that those early days of repeated exposure to fearful things still haunts our relationship to this day….some nine years later.

For many, if not most dogs that I train, this socialization method works, especially when food is used as a reinforcer, and most dogs do sort out something like a garage door, over time.  It often doesn’t take many exposures for most dogs to figure out what it is, and when a yummy treat gets shoved into their mouth, just at the moment the door starts to go up or down, over time, they learn to stop reacting to the movement or noise.  In Rugby’s case, he has always refused all food when we leave home….a huge indicator of his stress, because my little dog is a chow hound when he’s relaxed.

In his early life with me,  I kept thinking that Rugby just simply needed more exposure to generalize things that set him off. I just never realized how terrified he really was, and day after day, I exposed him to terrifying things, without offering him tools to cope.  I wish I had worked more on helping him cope with his fears, but I just didn’t recognize his behavior as having a fear base.  I thought it was simply a lack of exposure, which was likely absolutely true.  However, the lack of exposure created deep fears in Rugby that triggered his fight or flight responses, and I was completely clueless to what he was telling me right from the moment that I leashed him! Rugby became the Guinea Pig to teach this dog trainer a different and better way to recognize and handle fear in a dog!  This is exactly why all young puppies need massive amounts of socialization well into adulthood!!  Doing so will prevent your dog from being socially handicapped as an adult like Rugby is.

More than anything, I had hoped to give puppy Rugby a safe home and a big, big world!

To be sure, Rugby does trust me now, and for the most part, I really do think that he believes that I am in his corner to have his back and keep him safe.  However, there are still times when I see shadows of his old fears surface, and the look on his face and body tells me that he’s going to revert to old behaviors rather than trust me.  I’m not sure Rugby ever would have figured things out….even if I had handled things differently in our early days together.  He had many critical puppy months of improper training long before he came to live with me.  I do wish I could have a “do over” with Rugby, to fix the mistakes I made in our early days together.  Unfortunately, that ship sailed, and Rugby is who he is.  The good news, however, is that to this day, I closely watch every dog’s body language, and when they talk to me, I listen!!  I’m able to intervene so much quicker and help frightened dogs learn to work past their fears.

For more information on understanding what your dog is saying to you, please read a book review I did on a book called, “On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals” by Turid Rugaas.  Here’s a link to the post.  It’s a great read and one I recommend for every dog owner’s book shelf!

http://rugbyjames.com/2015/11/05/book-review-on-talking-terms-with-dogs-calming-signals/

 

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Scary Things and Dogs!

The reason that many dogs are fearful is because they were not properly socialized from birth.  Socialization starts at birth!  Puppies are born blind and deaf, but they have a great nose, so that they can find the food!  Their eyes typically open at ten days, and their ears typically open at 14 days.

Our Happi with one of her ten day old puppies. She was a wonderful Mama!!

Once those ears and eyes open, especially in those first few days, puppies can be easily startled by all kinds of scary things that they aren’t expecting.  A careful breeder will ease them into noises and help them identify the source of the noises so that it makes sense to the puppy and won’t be quite as scary to them. As they grow and develop, a careful breeder will expose them to more and more people, places, and things so that their puppies will understand how the world works.

Backyard breeders, puppy mills, stray dogs having litters on the mean streets…..just don’t have the benefits of properly socializing these puppies, so they are more at risk for being fearful in life.  If socialization doesn’t happen, or doesn’t properly happen, these dogs are more at risk for having critical foundational skills that they will need in life as adults.  They are much higher risks for becoming aggressive at some point in their lives.

This is really what I suspect happened with Rugby James.  By the time I adopted him, the socialization ship had sailed, and left him essentially unable to make sense out of scary things in life.  As he grew from a young puppy to an older one, he developed “coping skills” which were patterns of behavior that helped him when he felt overwhelmed or stressed or scared.

When Rugby first came to live with me, his primary coping skill was a pattern of barking and running.  When he didn’t know what to do, he barked and he ran.  He dodged capture and continued to bark and run with a fearful look in his eye that told me just how scared and overwhelmed he felt.  In his mind, as long as he was running and barking, he would stay safe.  The running and barking was keeping him safe, so he knew that he had to continue to produce that behavior if he was going to survive.

In his previous life, before he came to live with me, when it came time for Rugby to be adopted, people saw this adorable little puppy, and couldn’t wait to bring him home.  Once home, they also saw Rugby’s crazy barking and running patterns, which are so very difficult to live with.  This is often where dogs get surrendered to a shelter, or tossed out into a back yard, because owners just can’t stand the crazy behavior.  As a dog trainer, I look at the behavior and know that there’s something behind it.  Owners often simply see a naughty dog who can’t straighten up and fly right!

Rugby’s first night with me. He was sooo scared, but trying so hard to put up an excited and brave front!

It’s really important to know that coping skills are learned behaviors!  They are behavioral patterns that dogs develop in response to other things going on in their environment.  Dogs are not born with these crazy behavior patterns; rather they learn them to help them cope with things that must seem crazy or out of control to the dog.  To correct the naughty behavior, we have to know what drives the behavior, and work with the root issue that causes the dog to respond the way that he does.  I’m part dog trainer, part detective!

Dogs are masters at spotting patterns in their environments, and they are also masters in problem solving!  They try and fail and try and fail until they try and succeed.  Once they figure out what works, they learn to create a habit of behavior.  This is true for learning good behavior as well as naughty behavior.  Often the naughty behavior is reinforced without an owner understanding that they are doing so, and as a result, strong naughty habits are formed, and sometimes coping skills as well.

Scared dogs exhibit many body language signals, such as lip licking or tongue flicks. This is why it’s so very important to understand how to interpret your dog’s body language!

In Rugby’s case, whatever overwhelmed or scared him made him run, and barking kept the scary thing away from him, and that’s what he learned to do.  When he produced that coping skill, he stayed safe, so in his mind, as long as he kept running and barking, the scary thing couldn’t get him.  Over time, he developed a habit of running and barking whenever he encountered anything scary.  It’s what worked for him, so he continued to do it.

Young Rugby taking a short break from running in the yard.

For an average dog owner, Rugby must have warmed their hearts with his looks, but his wacky coping skills were things that they just couldn’t manage, so he got surrendered when they’d had enough of him.  If his very first home had taken time to carefully socialize baby Rugby James, I think he might be a very different adult dog today.

As it is, when Rugby sees anything that’s scary or weird to him, his response is to bark and run.  When he’s on a leash, he can’t escape to run, so his response is to bite out of fear, frustration and anxiety over his situation.  He skips so many middle steps and leaps right to the conclusion that he will likely die, so his emotional response is to save his life, and he comes out fighting!

Rugby doing some training in the front yard. He’s got pinned bunny ears and a very stiff Down/Stay, showing how nervous he is training in that environment.

Over the years, I’ve tried so many different ways to help him understand that he is safe with me, but trust has been an ongoing issue with Rugby James.  This is the by-product of multiple homes.  People think that surrendering their dog will mean that their dog will get a “happily ever after” with someone else.  Sadly, that’s not always the case.  In Rugby’s case, he has a great, safe life with me, and I have worked to create an environment that is secure and happy for him.  I think that he’s very happy here.

Contrast Rugby’s body language hanging out on the patio in the back yard where he feels absolutely safe and relaxed.

But his world is so very small, and so very predictable.  Every time he was adopted out into an new home, he had to learn to trust new owners and figure out a new world with new rules all over again.  And over and over, he was surrendered to another home and new owners who started the process all over again.

New rules for living in a new house.  New hands on him.  New voices either speaking loving words or spewing mean, hateful things.  The only thing that I think was probably consistent for him was the inconsistency of his life.  So he learned to cope….to get by…to survive.  After so many homes and so many experiences with such a very young puppy….in his formative months….trust in humans to keep him safe and help him understand the scary stuff all around him just didn’t happen.

When the humans left to care for him didn’t carefully help him work through his fear and anxiety, he learned not to trust humans for help.  It took me five years to see Rugby transform to the point where he frantically ran to me with a pleading look in his eyes, asking for help when something scared him.  That was a huge milestone in our relationship together, and the beginning of his learning to trust humans.

This snuggle was one evening after we had had contractors in the house all day repairing storm damage when a tree fell on our house. Rugby was soooo happy to have me all to himself, and a quiet home!!

I’ll be writing more about this topic, because so many dogs that I see and train are fearful, and there is so much that owners can do to help their dogs feel safe and learn how to work through their fears!

 

 

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Looking Back at 2016: A Progress Report for Rugby: Part Two

Living safely with Rugby always has to center around his crazy reactivity to sights and sounds in his environment.  If he can learn impulse control, that will help not only with his frantic, worried barking, but his explosive aggressive responses to the things that trigger his behavior.  He’s soon going to be ten years old, and speaking realistically, things are what they are, and I’m not holding my breath for him to sort all of this out in the senior years of his life.

However, I’m also an eternal optimist, and as long as Rugby lives under the roof of my house, I’ll continue to work on things in some form or fashion, because 1) he loves to work, 2) it improves the quality of our lives, and 3) why not?  If he can make progress forward, even if it’s in baby steps, why not give him the opportunities to try to improve and grow?  It hurts no one to try, and I’m all for trying!

I think far too often, when we work with our dogs, our eyes are always on the ultimate goal, which in Rugby’s case is his reactivity to his environment.  But if all I ever do is to focus on that ultimate goal, I will miss the happy little accidents that happen along the way in the regular course of work with him.  It’s not always about the final destination, but the wonderful events that happen during the journey from point A to point B.  In other words, don’t miss out on the journey, because you’re so focused on the ultimate destination!

If you live with a “Rugby” of your own, I really want to let that last statement sink in and make sense to you.  The memories that I will carry of Rugby are the hours that we’ve spent together, forging our relationship, and learning side by side.  We both learn in our work together. We both make mistakes together, and when we have successes, the celebration is so much more sweet because we’re in this thing called life together as a team!

Because Rugby’s progress is always a step forward and one or two backwards, I’ve learned to keep my eyes on the journey that we have together. That helps me remember to keep chipping away at his difficult behavior, and this way I can also see progress here and there as well.  It’s a conscious choice and decision to see the progress Rugby has made versus focus only on where he falls short.  I want to celebrate his success, not lament his failings!

From the time that Rugby was an adolescent, he has always had a very, very difficult time coping with watching his pack break up and leave the house.  It’s worse if both Michael and I leave together, but typically that doesn’t usually happen.  When the first person leaves, Rugby barks incessantly….and I DO mean incessantly….until that person is out the door.  He barks like he’s losing his mind, and the amount of barking nearly makes us lose ours!

On a typical work day, Michael usually leaves the house first.  Rugby knows this pattern all too well, so he is often a barky mess from the moment that Michael steps foot on the floor until he walks out the door, which can be thirty minutes or so.  I will freely admit that even with a cup of coffee behind me, ain’t nobody got time for that wacky behavior first thing in the morning!

I have done absolutely everything on the planet to get this behavior to stop!  And truthfully, all of the things that I’ve tried do work.  But  they all require that Rugby has to have a “babysitter” until the first person leaves.  As long as there is someone who is working with him pretty consistently for that thirty minutes, he can stay quiet, and he can focus on his handler, but he will definitely be very anxious about the whole experience until that first person leaves the house.  Once they are gone, Rugby moves on with his day, and everyone can relax!

Typically when the second person comes home, they are treated to some of the same levels of barking, but it’s generally a much shorter duration, and it’s excited barking versus anxious barking.  He will often find a piggie to bring to whoever is coming through the door, and then herding begins accompanied with plenty of piggie grunting.

Michael has been training Rugby to stay calm when I get home, since I’m usually the last one home at night, and Rugby has made huge progress in this department!  Again, it requires that Michael be actively working with him, but Rugby is responding very well, and it’s been good in building a nice bridge between Michael and Rugby as well!

Because of his background, I’m not sure he’s ever really going to be calm when one of us leaves.  I just don’t know how many times people that Rugby loved and trusted walked out a door never to return.  He feels a sense of panic when he sees that first person leave, but can easily transition once they are out of sight, which is wonderful!

Rugby just doesn’t cope well with most types of change, and when he can sense change is coming, he loses it!  However, the work that we’ve done in working through this issue has seen a good improvement in Rugby where focus is concerned.  He’s doing much better with his focus, and even though we have good days and bad days with this one, he does seem to understand what to do, and that’s progress in and of itself!

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