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Tag: rally obedience

Helping a Reactive Dog Compete in Rally—And Why We Retired

Helping a Reactive Dog Compete in Rally—And Why We Retired

This is a rewrite, with significant changes, of a post originally published in March 2013.

Dog Trial venue
The distracting, sometimes scary environment of a dog trial

In March of 2013, Summer and I competed in her last AKC Rally Obedience trial. Yes, I was one of the many people who took a moderately reactive dog to trials to compete. She was such a good sport. She was a wonderful partner (she passed away in 2017) and did a great job, but I decided afterward that I was asking too much of her.

Sable mixed breed dog walks briskly in heel position next to small woman wearing jeans and red sweatshirt
Summer stepping out with a jaunty gait, relaxed mouth and face, and a happy tail

What It’s Like for a Reactive Dog at an Obedience Trial

Summer encountered many challenges at performance events and venues. A dog trial will never be the favorite environment of a dog who is indifferent to most people, primed to be afraid of men, bothered by certain types of dogs, and easily startled. Every time you turn a corner, or even while you sit in your own little area minding your own business, somebody new pops into your field of vision or right in your space. And the noise!

Once I described the trial environment and what it was like for a dog like Summer to a friend, and she said, “Like a funhouse!” She nailed it. For those a bit younger than my generation, a funhouse is an interactive carnival attraction that people walk through.

From the Wikipedia definition:

…funhouses are participatory attractions, where visitors enter and move around under their own power. Incorporating aspects of a playful obstacle course, funhouses seek to distort conventional perceptions and startle people with unstable and unpredictable physical circumstances…

Scary_clown
Public domain image of what an obedience judge might look like to Summer

Funhouses have mirrors that distort your appearance or confuse the pathway or aren’t mirrors at all. Some floors give way and move when you step on them. Weird characters may pop into view. They often have a confusing maze. In other words, a funhouse is an out-of-control environment that is hard to escape.

The big difference, of course, is that humans generally enter such attractions voluntarily, knowing roughly what to expect. For some reason, some of us actually seek out experiences that startle or scare us or bewilder our senses. I don’t think dogs do. Summer went (rarely) to obedience events because I took her. I did my very best to make them easy and pleasurable for her, but this was a challenge.

Summer’s History in Competition

I got Summer at about 10 months old from a local shelter. She was under-socialized and feared children and most men. She was anxious, she hated most small terriers and other feisty dogs, and she became somewhat sound-sensitive over the years. Besides these traits, she didn’t have a huge drive to do stuff with people. She was an extremely mixed breed, close to the phenotype of the village dog except for her longer coat. She generally wanted to do her doggie things like chase varmints and she liked her comfort. Finally, she was hypothyroid, on medication, and tired easily.

Perfect performance dog, right? Actually, for me, she was.

Summer and I were very close. We worked together for all of her life with me and she always read me better than any of the other dogs. She was my crossover dog and we grew up together in the dog training world. She loved to go places and have me to herself. I reinforced the hell out of rally and obedience behaviors, and she came to enjoy them almost as much as agility. Plus there were always those wonderful smells at dog trials!

Sable dog sitting in heel position gazing upward at woman (mostly out of picture)
Summer in the ring maintaining nice contact

How I Helped My Dog at Rally and Obedience Trials

Here are some of the things I did at trials to maximize the good for Summer:

  1. She got tired easily, so we minimized the time at any event (We stayed for about 2 1/2 hours at this event but we were outdoors for plenty of that).
  2. I left her by herself as little as possible since it worried her. Even if I had to go to the bathroom, I would get someone she knew to sit next to her crate.
  3. I set up our crate in a less-trafficked area and set up visual barriers in our little zone to cut down on some of the stimuli.
  4. I sought out and let her visit with a couple of people whom she adored (and who adored her).
  5. I took her outside as much as possible. She loved to explore outdoors.
  6. If there was an opportunity to work in the ring beforehand, we always did. I used the time to get her comfortable in the space while still staying connected with me.
  7. I stayed hypervigilant (since she was). I tried to see every possible startling thing before she did, to protect her or give her a heads up. (Also to protect other dogs from a possible snark.)
  8. I took the best treats ever, both for after her competition run but also for sitting around in such a difficult environment.
  9. I was responsive to her energy level and generally didn’t take her more than two days in a row.

I am not the only person who has made these efforts. Our name is legion, and since the original date of this post, the group has grown. There are now entire courses on helping dogs adapt to trial environments. Many bloggers write about competing, and sometimes choosing not to compete, with dogs who have difficulties in public situations. Thankfully, the pressure to compete at all costs seems to have given way to more consideration for the dog’s wants and needs. There are also many more opportunities for competition that accommodate the needs of fearful or reactive dogs, including all-virtual titles where you submit videos online.

I would not compete in public with a dog like Summer now. Why did I do it then? I had several motivations. Competing gave me specific goals and helped me keep focused on my training. It gave Summer and me something to do together with just the two of us. Also, I liked to get out and show people what a dog trained with positive reinforcement could look like in the ring. Even with Summer’s challenges, she always looked happier than 90% of the dogs who competed. And I wanted people to see a mixed breed dog competing and doing well. (This was still a rarity at the time.) And hey, I admit, I’m competitive.

With all these motivations, I had to temper my ego and preferences and avoid pushing my dog too hard.

Sable dog trotting toward camera with her mouth open and tail up (looking happy)
Summer heading for the gate (and probably thinking about chicken baby food)

Our Title Run in Rally Advanced

The sport of rally obedience involves lots of heeling in patterns and some other combinations of moves such as sits, downs, stays, and jumps. There are signs placed in order around the ring, each representing a defined behavior to perform.

Summer was one of the two first mixed breed dogs in my state to get an AKC Rally Novice title, a goal I set out to achieve as soon as I found out that she would soon be eligible. She got two first-place runs and a third place. The other mutt did well, too. I think the other owner was a motivated as I was to show that mixed breeds could perform well.

At the Novice level in rally, dogs compete on leash and there are 10–15 signs in the ring (out of a pool of 40 or so that you learn). In Rally Advanced (the second level in AKC) they are off leash and there are 12–17 signs, including more difficult ones. Summer and I already had two “legs” (qualifying runs) in March of 2013. A third qualifier would give us our title. Spoiler alert: we succeeded.

At this last trial, the course was a fun one, with a lot of Summer’s favorite moves and a couple of the new signs added that year. Things went very smoothly until we got to the very back of the ring.

We encountered a problem I had never experienced. The required behavior was a spiral left. You must take the dog in a certain spiraling pattern around some pylons, with the dog on the inside, between you and the pylons. But the pylons were set up parallel to the ring boundary and very close to it. We couldn’t walk comfortably in the space between the ring fencing and the pylons. I don’t know how the people with bigger dogs did it. I had trained Summer to walk at a certain proximity to me and she kept trying to move over into her normal position. This sent her toward the wrong side of the pylons. But she was only doing what I had trained her to do.

I kept getting her back in position but she finally made a move that would have made us fail the sign completely. So we took the option of a complete do-over, which lost us only 3 points instead of the 10 we would have lost if we had failed to perform the sign correctly. I walked a little more slowly the second time and clung to the boundary of the ring, encouraging her to stay extra close to me. Even with the do-over, we got a score of 96 (out of 100) and second place.

There were some other rocky moments when she got distracted by sights or sounds. I didn’t blame her. People were cheering in the other rings, and a bunch of dogs and people gathered around ours. I was so proud that she stuck with me so well in such a difficult environment.

Video of the Run

I’ve never posted a rally or obedience video before because we were decent but not all that great. We were true amateurs, competing in obedience less than once a year on average. But I was pleased when I saw the film. The only moments Summer looked unhappy were a couple of times during sit stays (at 1:13 and 2:15). When we were moving, her tail stayed up and she looked focused and happy. I even like the parts where she got distracted and looked out of the ring because she responded when I asked her to.

I edited out the first try at the spiral for brevity and clarity. I’m not embarrassed by the mistake. We were at the back of the ring and it’s hard to see our fatal error, so for most viewers, it would be 27 seconds of boredom. I linked to the unedited version at the bottom of the post for the curious.

Retirement

As you can see from her body language, Summer was pretty happy in the ring. It’s not surprising; we practiced a lot and I regularly gave her a whole jar of chicken baby food after a rally run! She knew what was waiting for her. But even that ambrosia can’t turn a miserable dog happy, and she looked happy and comfortable for most of her time in the ring.

Nonetheless, this was Summer’s last competition. We could have returned the next day to compete at the next level, for which we had practiced. But trials exhausted both of us. And with her potential for noisy reactivity if a small terrier should get in her face, I felt it wasn’t responsible to keep taking her. Remember, in the funhouse, you are never quite in control.

UCD Summer RA NA NAJ TBAD TG2.
11/2005–8/25/2017

Unedited version of rally run for those who want to see the mess-up.

Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

Welcome to the Funhouse

Welcome to the Funhouse

Dog Trial venue
The distracting, sometimes scary environment of a dog trial

Over the weekend, Summer and I competed in AKC Rally. She is such an incredibly good sport.

Sable mixed breed dog walks briskly in heel position next to small woman wearing jeans and red sweatshirt
Summer and I chugging along

After the match I was describing to a friend the ways in which performance events and venues are difficult for Summer. A dog show is never going to be the favorite environment of a dog who is indifferent to most people, bothered by certain types of dogs, and fairly easily startled. Every time you turn a corner, or even when you are in your own little area minding your own business, somebody new is popping into your field of vision or right in your space.

My friend said, “like a funhouse!” For those outside the U.S., or perhaps a bit younger than my generation, a funhouse is an interactive carnival attraction that people walk through. From the Wikipedia definition:

…funhouses are participatory attractions, where visitors enter and move around under their own power. Incorporating aspects of a playful obstacle course, funhouses seek to distort conventional perceptions and startle people with unstable and unpredictable physical circumstances…

Scary_clown
Public domain image of a what some people probably look like to Summer

I think obedience events for Summer can be a bit like going to the funhouse, or even a haunted house (a walk-through Halloween attraction for children that can be even scarier, with monsters popping out around every corner, things dropping from the ceiling, corpses moving in coffins, etc.).

The big difference, of course, is that humans generally enter such attractions voluntarily and consensually. For some reason, some of us actually seek out being startled or even scared. I don’t think dogs do. Summer goes (rarely) to obedience events because I take her. I do my very best to make it easy and pleasurable for her, but I know it’s hard.

As I have written in this blog, I got Summer at about 10 months old from a local shelter. She was clearly under socialized, and was fearful of children and most men. In addition to being indifferent or even fearful of some people, and actively disliking many small dogs, she has also become somewhat sound sensitive over the years. In addition to these traits, she is naturally a “doggie dog,” by which I mean she doesn’t have a huge drive to do stuff with people. Though an extremely mixed breed, her temperament is close to that of a northern breed. She generally wants to do her doggie things like chase varmints and likes her comfort. Finally, she is hypothyroid, on medication, and tires easily.

Perfect performance dog, right?

But on the good side, Summer and I are very very close. We’ve been working together for six years and she reads me better than any of the other dogs. She loves to go places and have me to herself. I have reinforced the heck out of performing rally and obedience behaviors, and she has really come to enjoy them. And best of all, all around the event building there are wonderful smells where other dogs have been (but aren’t there now).

Sable dog sitting in heel position gazing upward at woman (mostly out of picture)
Summer in the ring maintaining nice contact

Accordingly, I do the following to try to maximize the good for her:

  1. We minimize the time we are at the event (about 2 1/2 hours this time, but we were outside for plenty of that).
  2. I leave her by herself as little as possible since it worries her.
  3. I let her visit with the couple of people who are usually there whom she adores.
  4. I take her outside as much as possible. I try to keep in mind that that is probably the most fun part for her.
  5. If there is an opportunity to work in the ring beforehand, we do so, and I concentrate on letting her get comfortable in the space while still staying connected with me.
  6. I set up our crate in a less trafficked area if possible.
  7. I am hypervigilant (since she is). I try to see every possible startling thing before she does, to protect her or give her a heads up. (Also to protect other dogs from a possible snark.)
  8. I take the best treats ever.
  9. I try to be responsive to her energy level and generally don’t take her more than two days in a row.

I’m certainly not the only person who makes these efforts. Our name is legion, if the Control Unleashed and other such Yahoo groups give any indication. Many bloggers, notably Reactive Champion, blog about competing, and sometimes choosing not to compete, with dogs who have difficulties in public situations.

Why do we do it? I have several motivations, myself. One is that competing gives me specific goals and helps me keep focused in my training. It gives me and Summer something to do together with just the two of us. Another is that I like to get out and let people see what a dog trained with positive reinforcement looks like in the ring. Even with Summer’s challenges, she looks much happier than 90% of the dogs out there. Also I want people to see a mixed breed dog competing and doing well. (We are not alone anymore! The first place dogs in both Advanced A and Advanced B were both mixed breeds as well.) And hey, I admit, I’m competitive.

The responsibility I have as a balance to these motivations is that I must temper my ego and preferences so I don’t push my dog too hard.

Sable dog trotting toward camera with her mouth open and tail up (looking happy)
Summer heading for the gate

In Rally Advanced (the second level in AKC) there are 12 – 17 signs in the ring, each representing a defined behavior to perform offleash with your dog. We had to redo one sign during the course, and it was because of a problem I had never anticipated. It was a spiral, where you take the dog in a certain pattern around some pylons. But the pylons were set up parallel to the ring boundary and very close to it. We were actually not able to walk comfortably in the space between the boundary fencing (called the ring gates) and the pylons. I don’t know how the people with bigger dogs did it. Summer is trained to walk in a certain proximity to me and to respond to my changes in direction, and she repeatedly tried to move over, and it sent her to the wrong side of the pylons. She was doing what I had trained her to do.

I kept getting her back but she finally made a move that would have made us fail the sign completely. So we took the option of a do over, which lost us only 3 points instead of the 10 we would have lost if we had failed to perform the sign correctly. I walked a little more slowly the second time and clung to the boundary, and kept cuing her to stay extra close to me. Even with the do over, we got a 96 (out of 100) and second place.

There were some other rocky moments where she was visually or auditorially distracted, and I don’t blame her. There was cheering going on in the other rings, and a bunch of dogs and people gathered around ours. I am massively proud that she stuck with me in this most difficult environment.

I have never posted a video of a rally run before, because we are decent but not all that great. We are true amateurs, competing in obedience less than once a year on average. But I have to say I was pleased when I saw the film. (Thank you, Susan M., for recording for me!) The only times she looks unhappy was a couple of times she had to stay (but not every time!). When we are moving, her tail is up and she is giving me all the attention she possibly can. I even like the parts where she gets distracted and is looking out of the ring, because she responds when I ask her to.

I edited out the first try at the spiral, for brevity’s sake. I’m not embarrassed by the mistake. I would have left it in if you could actually see what was going on, but we were at the back of the ring and it’s pretty hard hard to tell. If you want to see the unedited version, there’s a link at the bottom of the post.

Summer’s official name is now: UCD Summer RA NA NAJ TBAD TG2. Not bad for a varmint dog from the sticks.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for:

Unedited version of rally run.

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

A New Resource, and our Rally Weekend

A New Resource, and our Rally Weekend

I have published a permanent page on my blog that collects all the posts and videos I have made that I have been told are useful for dog trainers to show their students.

It can be accessed here:

Video Examples for Teachers

but also is listed on the permanent menu above. I hope it is helpful. I will be adding more material as I develop it.

Our Weekend

For those of you who saw my last post on practicing Rally with Summer and attempting to reinforce appropriately, here are some pictures of how we spent our weekend. We trial very infrequently for a number of reasons, so it is a big deal for me when we do.

On Saturday we both worked hard but it wasn’t fun like it can be. I tried hard to make it easy and fun for her, but there were various stressors. We held it together in a difficult ring with an 88 and fourth place.

But on Sunday it was magic. We had a lovely run, stayed connected, and Summer stayed happy despite the difficult trial environment. I am pleased with the sequence of photos below that show her eagerly taking the jump, then beautifully collecting and checking in on her landing (fourth photo).

We scored a 98 and took first place. My unlikely competitive obedience dog and I.

Summer jump sequence 1

Summer jump sequence 2

Summer jump sequence 3

Summer jump sequence 4

Summer jump sequence 5

In the ring for awards

Accepting our blue ribbon

Letting the Treat Fit the Feat: Real World Application

Letting the Treat Fit the Feat: Real World Application

One upon a time there was an adolescent dog in an open admission shelter who had one day left.

And a woman who knew nothing about dog training, already had a smaller dog, and made an impulsive decision to go get the shelter dog. Some problems ensued.

That’s how a lot of people discover dog training, I think. And I suspect that I’m not the only one for whom that dog who started it all has a special place in the heart.

As a positive reinforcement trainer, I know that just about whatever a dog is physically capable of, you can train and put on cue. If you can figure out what is reinforcing to the dog, you can get reliable behavior. And you can even create new reinforcers by pairing them with ones the dog already has.

On the other hand.

In 1961 Keller and Marian Breland published a paper called The Misbehavior of Organisms. It was in part a response to B. F. Skinner’s work The Behavior of Organisms. The Brelands outlined examples of training difficulties having to do with countering the natural, instinctive tendencies of animals.

I think of this when I look over my motley crew of dogs, noticing not only their individual quirks but how their personalities and interests might be related to their breeds (mixed in most cases). There are certain breeds of dogs that have been selectively bred for generations to thrive on work with humans. Herding dogs and retrievers come to mind. My dog Clara exhibits the tendencies I’m talking about. A strong valuing of almost any kind of activity with a human and a strong focus and attention span to work.

My dog Summer is different. She has an abundance of independent varmint dog genes. Her are some shots of her in her element.

I hadn’t put any of this together when I decided to go into competitive dog sports with her. Summer is a non-traditional obedience breed mix, putting it lightly. I’ve related part of my painful learning curve in the post, “Ant Sized Treats.” I talk about how I finally learned how to really motivate her with food. But I didn’t mention in that post the work I have put in on trying to use tug as a reinforcer.

Summer does like to tug. She will tug very heartily with me for a little while. And I have had a tiny bit of success using tug as a reinforcer. But only when there is no food in the picture. If we are already playing tug, I can ask for behaviors and reward them with tug. But if it is a “training session,” food trumps tug. (And playing in the hose trumps some food, even.) Problems like this with food and tug are perfectly solvable. Here is a nice video my friend Marge made teaching  Maple, a boxer puppy, how to enjoy multiple reinforcers in a session. So please let me be clear that this is my choice as a trainer not to pursue food and tug issues with Summer until they are solved. I’m sure it could be done. But I have four dogs and plenty of essentials to train. With Summer it would be uphill. Zani and Clara will both tug in the presence of food and vice versa, and I’ve done much less work with them on it.

What Summer loves to do is to carry off and dismember toys. Perform squeakerectomies, fuzz-ectomies and anything-that-sticks-out-ectomies. That is by far her favored part of the predatory sequence. Allowing this type of self-reinforcement (with the human out of the picture) is somewhat Frowned Upon by many of the sports dogs trainers. We are supposed to make sure that the dog plays with toys with us, not on her own, or certainly not extensively by herself.

But Summer is a beloved pet and I am fine with her tearing up toys on her own. So: how then should I handle the challenge in our upcoming AKC Rally Advanced trial where a dog must heel past distractions on the floor including food and toys? We have practiced a lot with food and have a protocol for that. So I wanted also to figure out a way to reward Summer with a toy in such a way that would 1) maintain the Zen behavior she has and build on it, 2) be fair to her, and 3) be truly reinforcing. Letting the Treat Fit the Feat, as I’ve written about previously.

For this dog, grabbing up a toy and whooping it up expecting her to tug with me would not be reinforcing, especially if I took the toy away before she could rip it up.

With help from the Training Levels list and my teacher I came up with the following plan:  In Rally context (recognizable to her), Summer never gets the treat off the floor or the toy off the floor, even after the run is over. She has to exercise Zen self-control and for her, I can better accomplish it with giving her a treat that is separate from the one on the floor. She gets a great reward at the end of the run and it fits the challenge: a big bite of some great food, or yes, a toy to shred, or both. Both come out of my pocket or outside of the Rally setup premises (mimicking what we will do in a trial). Summer already knows that routine: long behavior chain, then run to the crating area for something great.

I bought a bunch of very cheap stuffed toys so shredding could be part of the routine each time we practiced.

My plan was to finish the run, make a big deal about the food and toy, then leave her to her shredding. But the first day I implemented my new plan I found out something amazing. It turns out I AM part of Summer’s play with the toy. I gave her the toy, she was surprised, but immediately made it clear that she wanted me to sit with her while she pulled it apart. She simply didn’t want it unless I was there, too. I was touched almost to tears. This is my independent dog. This is after years of on and off work on my part to make playing with me fun, but then watching her continue to prefer to take the toy into a corner and shred it herself.  So she had her toy, I hung out with her and bragged on her for 5 or 10 minutes, and she was SO happy. The second day we had our routine down better and She. Started. Bringing. Me. The. Toy. Again, you’d have to know the history. But it turns out that all the other stuff I had done to get a toy fetch, rewarded with tugging, was too much pressure. When I gave her some time, she went back and forth between shredding it herself and bringing it to me to tug and handle together. I left my jaw on the floor somewhere that day. The whole experience also brought home to me that for her (in a household of four dogs), time alone with me is very special.

So we ended up having, rather than an instantaneous reinforcer (even a whole jar of baby food takes less than a minute for her to eat), but a reinforcement period. There are some tricks to that–some things the trainer chooses to offer are bound to be of lower value than others so there may be moments of disappointment–and perhaps I’ll write about that in another post. But I feel like spending several minutes with my attention entirely on my dog and what she would like to do was a Treat that Fit the Feat.

On the third day, I brought out the video recorder. What you will see in the video are excerpts from an 8-minute session that Summer and I had in the backyard. I set out the plates of distractions, we did rally practice for about four minutes, then we finished, I released her, and we ran to another part of the yard. I gave her two huge bites of pumpkin cake, then gave her a disposable toy. I hung out with her. She gutted the toy. We tugged a little. She never once turned around to check out the former distractions, but just hung out with me in a relaxed way. She was free to leave and choose a different reinforcing activity at any time. After a time we went together (not cued by me) and I picked up the plates (during this part you can see that she is still very interested in them), then went back and hung out some more and she solicited some petting.

This will probably look pretty low-key to a lot of you.  Unless she is aroused about something, Summer is a pretty low-energy dog. But check out the photos at the top again and compare them to her demeanor in the video. In the video, Summer pays lovely attention to our work. After she is released, she doesn’t leave. We don’t see her patrolling the perimeter, digging, hunting turtles, or going up to the top of the porch to check out the neighbors, or any other favorite activity. She reacts not at all when a dog barks or the neighbors use their chain saw. She doesn’t take the toy off to a corner. She doesn’t prowl back to the plates. This is the most amazing thing. I mean, our Zen cue does not have anything like that duration. She is choosing to hang out with me over the chance to sniff and pilfer some stuff off the ground, which is always hugely enticing to her. (I would have picked up the plates if she had tried, as part of our rule structure. But the point is she didn’t even seem to think about them.)

So my hypervigilant dog chose, out of all the available reinforcers, to hang out with me in a relaxed way in a distraction-filled area.

My miracle dog.

Addendum, 9/27/12

I realized after some discussion in the comments that I had not talked at all about the fact that in my video and in my practice lately, there is a delay between the behavior and the reinforcement period. As most of you probably know, in most cases a delay between behavior and reinforcement makes for ineffective training. The relationship between the two can break down, or never form in the first place. On the other hand, there is ample research about delayed reinforcement that shows that animals can learn to connect delayed reinforcers with the behavior. Sue Ailsby in the Training Levels and some other trainers have techniques to teach the dog about this connection.

With Summer I have followed Sue’s technique and am pretty sure that she does make the connection. I spent several weeks a year or two back going to Rally practice wherein I didn’t give any treats during the run, but afterward, we ran back to our crate area and she got a whole jar of baby food. Her performance and enthusiasm improved markedly during that period, evidence that she connected the great food treat with the rally sequence. We do the same thing for agility runs and have a routine that even includes putting her leash back on before running for her goodies.

I don’t give training advice on this blog but I want to give a simple caution that if you have not taught your dog about delayed reinforcement, a period of food treats, play, and attention such as I show in the video would likely not be connected to a previous behavior chain. And frankly, I don’t think that by the end of my hanging out with Summer she was thinking, “This is all because I did my Rally moves so nicely!” But I think at the beginning she probably did experience the doggie equivalent of that. And if we are going to have fun and hang out together, it certainly doesn’t hurt to pair it with an activity that I want to have good associations for her.

Copyright 2012 Eileen Anderson

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