Posts Tagged ‘dog behavior’

Dogs are blessed and cursed by their co-evolution with our species. They are blessed in that their numbers greatly exceed any wild canid species. Many of the ones in much of the developed world receive better access to heath care, good food, and clean water than the poorest people on the planet.

As animals relating to people, dogs go more than half way in trying to communicate with us.  They go even further in how tightly they bond to us.

But this ease of relationship has certain negative consequences. Because dogs are “almost human,” as goes the cliche, we tend to think their entire existence is much like ours.

However, these assumptions are often faulty. We forget that they are still very much carnivorans, very much wolves. Yes, modified by domestication and co-evolution but still they are of that lineage, that natural history. And we cannot deny this simple reality.

We live in world that is increasingly alienated from nature.  The West is heavily urbanized. and fewer and fewer people understand other beings in ecosystems or even in agriculture.

So many people now get dogs without understanding the full context of the animal.  It is the only large carnivoran that most will ever see outside of a zoo, and it will certainly the be the only one that most will ever know on an intimate level.

And herein lies the problem.  The dog’s co-evolution with us gives it special status in our society, but we are largely operating on an understanding that dogs are just like people.

So we have “fur-kids” and “fur-moms” and “fur-dads.”  People are afraid to correct their dogs. They are afraid to train them. They are afraid to cut nails. They are afraid to understand them.

At the same time, the transient nature of modern society has alienated us from each other, and dogs become that ersatz human connection, and this problem compounds with the previous one.

So when I see someone attempting to walk a dog on a harness with a retractable leash, I see two beings in conflict. I see the human, who is seeking to have some sort of communion with the dog, and I see the dog, which has no idea about what is expected in proper society. It is craving essential communication, but this communication it will never receive. If it had received it, it would have learned to walk on the lead attached to its flat collar.

But the retractable leash gives the dog the illusion of freedom, a freedom that it does not seek as much as it would like to know the person on the other end of the line.

The person on the other end, though, either does not know or does not want to know that the dog is not a child. It is no way Homo sapiens.  To confront this reality is too difficult for some, for to admit such a thing is to admit the horrors of modern existence, all alienated from human connection and the natural world from which we sprang.

But there is a profound egocentrism in this convenient anthropomorphism. It is saying that no only does the world revolve around us, even our companion animals must fit our narrow paradigms.

This is the tragedy of the dog in the modern era. It lives better than ever in so many ways, but in so many ways, it is removed from what it is at its core, every bit as much as we are.

Yes, it is weird that I feel a sadness when I see a dog in harness being walked on one of those horrendous leashes, but the sadness I feel is justified.

Because I know dogs for what they are, and I love them for it. I try to give them what their animal side truly needs. The best I can anyway. For I am also short of the Pleistocene hunter-gatherer’s skillset and privilege, but I can try.  Yes, I can try.




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Note that these puppies have a lot of energy at six weeks of age.

They are also already very interested in people and objects. Several of these puppies are obviously trying to get cues from the person holding the camera. They appear to be looking at the person  in the eye to glean some information about this unusual two-legged dog.

This is what performance-bred dogs are selected for: high energy, high drive, retrieving instinct, and a strong desire to pay attention to people.

Breeds that have been bred to work more independently of people tend to have different reactions to people and objects as puppies.

Take this brace of beaglets.


Beagles are relatively small scenthounds. Properly bred, trained, and socialized, a beagle can be a wonderful family dog– every bit as much as a golden retriever.  As a very small child, I had a beagle babysitter, so I know what these dogs are like.

They are quite intelligent animals when they are tracking rabbits or hares. Members of my family have trained beagles to tree squirrels and flush grouse, so they are not necessarily a breed that is entirely set to be a lagamorph trailer.

That said, a beagle is never going to have the biddablity of a performance-line golden retriever.

You can see the difference in the play behavior of these beaglets. They are less interested in the person sitting on the ground and are less interested in the objects. They are very interested in each other, which makes perfect sense– beagles were bred to run in packs.  The proper beagle temperament is very friendly toward other dogs, but it is less focused upon people than the retrievers and herding breeds are.

It is not useful to talk about “dog intelligence” without understanding that different breeds have different breed typical behavior. However, breed typical must be taken with a grain of salt. In popular breeds, where there are tens of thousands of individuals and many different lines, vast differences can appear within a breed.

It is important to understand that each dog is an individual, and each dog can be an exception to the general tendencies of its breed.

But just because these aspects are correct does not mean that understanding breed typical behavior is useless.

These breeds have been selected for many, many generations for particular behaviors and tendencies to focus on people.  It would be folly to say that these selective pressures have had no effect on these dogs. The people who originally created these breeds relied upon being able to select for behavioral conformation.

One can see how these aspects of behavioral conformation manifest themselves at an early age. As puppies play, the behavioral tendencies they inherited manifest themselves. Retriever puppies carry objects in their mouths and pay very close attention to people, while beagle puppies follow their noses and play with each other more.

Selective breeding does affect behavior. Before we can have any rational discussion about dog intelligence, it is important to understand that each breed evolved its behavior in a particular environment and culture.  Each breed became “intelligent” for its purpose, the culture of its people, and the particular environment in which it was developed.




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Willie watches television.

When the US switched to digital, television became accessible to dogs.

In the old analog broadcasts, the pictures moved too slowly for the dogs to perceive them as interesting. They actually saw television as series of still shots.

With the advent of digital television, the dogs can now see the images on the screen as moving objects.

Miley also loves television. She prefers cartoons.

Her favorites are Happy Feet and the Ice Age moives.

When those movies are on the television, her eyes get big. Her face develops a playful expression, and she occasional runs up to the TV, just to get a better look.

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Hat tip to Jess Ruffner.

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Is the adult golden dominant to the puppy in this context?

Patricia McConnell continues her discussion of dominance:

This time it’s within the context of domestic dogs.

As with all things with dogs, it is complex– even contradictory.

I don’t think the way that certain people use the term dominance is very use the term.

Dogs are capable of learning social mores and rules. I think that’s where we should put our focus instead of using this concept.

I wish we had a better word other than “dominance,” because the term has been horribly corrupted. The view that this is all dogs think about and the only way to relate to them is as the boss man is a little bit dated.

I would use the term for the relationship between dogs and people as more of a teacher-student partnership. The way dogs relate to each other is more or less this way. One dog becomes the wise elder of the group, but because situations change,who the wise elder is changes accordingly.

That’s what I’ve observed from my own dogs.

For example, my grandpa had a beagle x that ruled the roost when he was around her.

As soon as he was gone, she was the low dog on the totem poll.

These relationships are infinitely more complex than Schjelderup-Ebbe’s pecking order in chickens. It is more give and take than one would assume from reading dog pop psychology.

Most of the pop discussion on dog dominance are extreme violations of Morgan’s Canon. It is assuming that dogs have this understanding their place in the world. And like Pinky and the Brain, they begin every night with this discussion:

Pinky: “Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?”

The Brain: “The same thing we do every night, Pinky—try to take over the world!”

The model she describes in Bradshaw is far more parsimonious. We know that dogs are great associative learners. They may be better at it than wolves are, and that is the main function that drives dog behavior rather than these assumed innate drives to control everything and everyone.


Now, it is possible to take this too far. Raymond Coppinger thinks that dogs are not social animals that live in groups. They are actually very much social animals.

It’s just what societies they develop are much more variable than any one would see in wild animals.

I know that horses are very much ruled by a linear hierarchy, but I’ve not seen that same social arrangement in dogs.

But it is easy to project these relations onto dogs, because dogs do tend allow one main dog to act as the “elder statesman.”

But it is unlikely that this main dog maintains absolute authority in all situations.

In horses, you get something like this, but that’s because their societies are much more strongly driven by instincts. Horse societies operate on a dominant mare who leads the other mares, and a stallion who herds his harem around. That’s because horses breed in harems, and the band stallion is forever being overthrown. Their lives are always in social chaos in the wild. They need strict linear hierarchies just to maintain order

Dogs social relationships are not so written in stone. Their social lives are not so dramatic, and they are much more removed from the wild than horses are. Their lives include us much more intimately, and associative learning has a much greater influence on what animals they will become.

Dogs are not tabula rasas, but they aren’t wild animals that are driven by instinct alone.  What they become is much more a result of what we do than what they are. That’s what’s different between wolves and dogs. Dogs can adapt to our world. Wolves are still molded by their natural history.

Dogs are what we make them. It’s true in breeding.

And it’s true in training.

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And get over it!

When I first heard that this was an antiquated notion, I screamed “Bullshit!” at the top of my lungs.

But I was wrong.

And I accept that I was wrong. That’s always hard.

It was hurting my understanding of dog behavior, and now that I don’t believe it, I’m open to seeing dog behavior very differently.


In 2009, an article appeared in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. No, it’s not a journal that studies the behavior of your vet! It is a peer reviewed journal of veterinary behavioral medicine. That means that the people who get things published in it are experts who know more about dog behavior than I do.

The article was a review of research on dog and wolf behavior, and its clinical application to veterinary behavior practitioners. Essentially it says that the dominance theory is bunk. Absolute bunk.

It seems the concept was on its way to being overturned through the work of Erik Zimen, a Swedish ethologist who studied captive wolf packs in Germany. He was the first to notice that some of these captive wolves wanted out  of their enclosures, which would make sense. No one wants to stay in a cage with a bully.

The authors point out that wild wolves don’t have linear hierarchies.  On page 137, the authors have a diagram of a wild wolf pack hierarchy. It’s more complex than anything you’ve read in the popular literature. There are two hierarchies: one for dogs and one for bitches. And the arrows are going in many different directions. It’s not linear at all. It is fluid. It is only the male hierarchy that has any linear quality to it. Dominance displays are very rare in the wild, because the breeding pair are able to hold their family together without much aggression. In the wild, only larger packs– mainly the result of disruption, as in the Yellowstone populations– engage in frequent aggression towards packmates. Normal wild wolves are not typically aggressive with their family members.

But the authors very quickly stop talking about wolves for a very simple reason– and a very good one.

Dogs are not big game hunting wolves from Canada, Alaska, the Rockies, or Eurasia. They are a domestic animals. Domestic animals do not always have the same social structures as wild ones. This assumption runs right through most traditional training modules. Cesar Millan relies upon this assumption almost entirely. The authors clearly state this assumption:

“Because the domestic dog Canis lupus familiaris is descended from the wolf Canis lupus, it is often assumed that its capacity to form social relationships is similar to that of the wolf.”

And that’s where it is dead wrong.

The authors explore literature on free-roaming and feral dogs, as well as the social behavior of domestic dogs that have been neutered. Feral dogs do not form pair bonds at all, so the wolf pack structure doesn’t happen. In wolves, status determines whether you breed or not. In dogs, virtually everyone gets to breed.

“Overall, it appears that domestication has radically altered the social behavior of dogs, so that when theyhave the opportunity to interact and breed freely, although they do form exclusive kin-based groups, they do not readopt a wolf-pack social system within these groups.”

Free roaming, feral, and neutered dogs don’t form hierarchies that are anything like wolves. I don’t have an answer as to why. However, the basic unit of a wolf pack is a mated pair, and if you don’t have a mated pair, you can’t have a wolf pack. It may have something to do with the fact that domestication has made dogs so socially tolerant of each other that they don’t care who mates with whom. The only time dominance displays were common is when bitches were in season, which makes sense. This is a competitive mating system.

The authors eventually conclude that this whole dominance concept is next to useless in understanding dog behavior.  Wolf packs are more cohesive and less belligerent towards each other than that model suggests, and dogs don’t form packs based upon mated pairs. The conclusion, then, is to look at dogs a from a social learning perspective.

The authors discuss very briefly how social cognition is very different in wolves and dogs. Dogs can be thought of as a tabula rasa. Wolves are much more controlled by their natural history.  Dogs are much more influence by social and associative learning. If a behavior works, the dog will keep doing it.

Dogs also use what they have learned previously to inform their social decisions.

The authors explain how this works:

Let us imagine, for example, a neutered male Afghan hound (AH) and a neutered male Jack Russell terrier (JRT). Although the 2 dogs have not met before, each will use information learned previously in similar encounters in deriving their behavioral response to the situation. The AH, for example, may have previously encountered a small, white male dog that responded to it with aggression. Because of the similar cues in this encounter, its anxiety would increase, and it would try to identify any other cues predictive of potential aggression. The  JRT may have learned to be anxious about all large dogs that show a tense body posture, because it has learned that this posture predicts aggressive behavior.

Because of previous learning experiences in other situations, therefore, the risk of aggression occurring in this encounter is relatively high, whereas if the same 2 dogs had met without any previous negative experiences, the outcome of the interaction would more likely be a friendly one. Using this learning-based model, therefore, explains the complexities of social interaction with no need toinvoke the concept of ‘‘dominance,’’ either as a goal or as an element in an overall hierarchical structure.

This model is much better than the dominance theory.  It is more consistent with Morgan’s Canon. It is easier for people to understand than the dominance-based nonsense, and it provides a clearer remedy to the situation. You retrain your dog not to be aggressive. You don’t fight him as if you are the alpha wolf!


So what does this mean for dog trainers?

Well Gun Dog Magazine has the answer.  Gun Dog is hardly a PETA rag. It’s a hunting dog magazine that has articles on gun dog breeds and training methods, as well as how to use tools like e-collars.

However, Ed Bailey writes that we need to drop this nonsense:

Unfortunately the dog behavior wannabes who love the alpha concept either haven’t read the updated literature, haven’t grasped the concept of wolf social ordering, or accepted it and are still flitting around spouting 40-year-old misconceptions.

What need is what he calls the “leader-follower” model, in which we utilize the social learning aspect of dog behavior to train our dogs. I wouldn’t call it “leader-follower,” simply because that isn’t enough of a semantic change from the dominance model. I would call “teacher-student”  or “parent-offspring.” (Remember, I think it’s very wrong to consider dogs human children.)

My other complaint about this analysis is that it does do the “dog as wolf” analysis. It’s not wrong. Dogs are wolves, but dogs are different from wolves. If you want me to explain the nuances of that contradiction, I would have to write for two or three days. I’m not going down that path right now. If you read the blog regularly, you know that it’s much more nuanced than you normally get.

For a dog trainer, the most important focus is on being a good teacher for your dog:

When the dog does the desired task it gets paid by receiving some of the desired resources. The dog is working for a living, but because he is getting paid with something positive, he is willing to repeat the desired task. When the dog does something undesirable or refuses to do the desirable thing, the pay is withheld. Gradually the dog does only the correct thing because it pays off and the undesirable drops out because there is no pay-off.

In this situation, the dog corrects itself. A mild correction such as a “no” or “ah-ah” can speed things along and even a heavier correction when required can be beneficial. But the need for any correction gets less frequent as the dog learns that “If I do this I get something good and if I do something else it’s just not worth it.”

The research by David Mech showed wolves train their young pups using this technique.

Teachers in grade school train their charges this way. Wild animal trainers and psychology rat researchers give a pay-out for every small increment of correct steps toward forming a complex behavior and have termed this process “shaping.”

There is a lot of evidence that animals that have been taught how to learn using shaping techniques are far better at solving novel problems and will work harder at it than control animals that were not taught how to learn. Hunting dogs respond the same way.

Wolf scientists moved away from the alpha concept long ago. They have re-evaluated the dominance-submissiveness model in parental care of pups and are now seeing it as a leadership model. Dog people, taking an opposite tack, seem to be getting more enthralled with alpha dominance as the way to go.

Dog people should catch up to the wolf people and drop the whole alpha thing from the vocabulary. And, like the wolf researchers, dog people need to rethink the dominance-submission model for training and realize that it can be counterproductive, cause problems, and that it may be good for making automatons but not thinking dogs.

They need to be teaching a dog to think, to put two and two together to get more than four. Why? Because for real hunting situations, a dog has to learn to think outside the proverbial box.

So for normal working dogs, it might be more useful if we adopted the learning model.

I also highly suspect that learning can also be more effective in treating dogs with aggression issues, but I’ve not had experience with dogs that are aggressive.

But when has a dog learned problem solving from being strung up on a choke chain every time it goes out? Cesar doesn’t teach dogs to think. He teaches them to obey. And that’s a major problem if his methods are applied to working dogs.


I need to clarify some things about wolf social structure.

As I stated before, the basic unit of a wolf pack is a mated pair, their pups, and grown offspring that are generally under the age of 2 or 3 depending upon the location. Some wolves remain with their natal packs until they are as old as 5 years of age. Others leave when they aren’t even a year old. All wolves eventually leave their natal packs. This includes both dogs and bitches.

Canis lupus is not the only species of dog to form packs. Ethiopian wolves, Lycaon pictus, bush dogs, and dholes form packs. Ethiopian wolves and Lycaon typically have more males in a pack than females. In fact, it is not unusual for these animals to have only a single breeding female in the pack.

Eastern coyotes also form packs, but this appears to be a relatively recent adaptation to living in deciduous forests that are full of deer. Hybridization with wolves also may have made them more likely to form packs.

It is likely that wolves and the others evolved packs from a phenomenon seen in coyotes and the three species of jackal. In those animals, it is not unusual for grown offspring to remain with their parents to help raise the next generation or two. In jackals and coyotes, these helpers also have been seen helping their parents hunt larger prey.

In the pack hunting dogs, it is likely that they used this helpers helpers to eventual establish a niche as specialists at hunting large prey. However, Ethiopian wolves do form relatively large packs, but their diet is almost exclusively rodents. So exactly why these animals formed packs in the first place is still a pretty good question. It’s much more likely that assistance in raising the young was a stronger motivator than hunting. It is also possible that finite nature of available vacant territory forces young adults in these species to want to remain with their parents. It is probably a combination of all of these factors.

All wild dogs that have been studied have a mated pair as the main social unit. Dogs are unusual among the Order Carnivora in that monogamy (or serial monogamy) is the rule. Pair bonds are very important. The only exceptions that have been found are some populations of red foxes in which harem-type systems have been observed.  No one knows what sort of social unit exists among the small-eared dog. They are so hard observe that we know very little about them.

The original studies on wolves focused on their aggression. Aggression was the thing for ethologists to study in the 1940’s.

Now the emphasis is one what makes wolf packs more cohesive, and it has been discovered that what makes them more cohesive is not dominance or aggression. It is the strong family bonds that exist between members of a pack. A pack is a family.

Nothing more. Nothing less.


It’s time to put the folk ethology away.

And open up our minds.

The dominance concept has damaged too many relationships between people and dogs. It may have hindered our ability to train good working dogs.

It’s a dinosaur.

Its time has come and gone.

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What I am about to write is something quite heretical, but it’s something that I found that virtually all the literature seems to miss in dog behavior.

We tend to get focused on this hierarchy stuff. It’s mind numbing in how all dog behavior gets reduced to bosses and underlings, but if you ask the average person about dog or wolf social behavior, you get the same answer. Dogs are pack animals, and one animal leads.

However, I’ve found in my own experiences with groups of dogs that no all dogs relate to each other in this fashion. I know of two pairs of dogs in which status issues didn’t seem to exist at all.

The first of these were two dogs belonging to my grandpa. One was a JRTCA Jack Russell and the other a beagle cross rescued from a dumpster in Myrtle Beach. Both dogs were dog aggressive, but both dogs also loved to go on hunting excursions.

This love of hunting changed their relationship. The JRT would bolt the rabbits and groundhogs that went underground or in pipe, while the beagle’s superior nose would find their trails. After this relationship formed, I never saw the two dogs show any aggression or dominance displays to each other.

Both were bitches, and both would fight another bitch if they had the opportunity. However, they never fought each other.

The other two dogs that I saw develop this sort of relationship were my oldest golden retriever and the golden boxer.  The golden boxer could be aggressive towards other strange dogs. She was aggressive toward her own mother at times, but she was never aggressive to the older golden retriever. When the golden boxer was younger, the older golden retriever had the upper hand, but as the boxer cross got bigger, the golden began to allow the golden boxer more liberties. By the time the golden boxer was three or four, the social differences between the two were nonexistent.

The only time I remember the golden boxer acting aggressively or showing dominance displays over this golden retriever was when the golden retriever developed brain cancer. When that happened, her behavior totally changed. She wasn’t a normal dog anymore. She did not have the full communication skills that she once had, and this greatly perturbed the golden boxer.

But while they were healthy, these two dogs were a partnership.

That whole concept is very foreign to the dog literature. I’ve not seen it discussed anywhere.

However, I did find a hint of it in Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s  The Hidden Life of Dogs:

Suessi and Windigo were almost equal in height and weight, and the social differences between the two were almost imperceptible [They may not have existed at all]. They spent their lives together, always in perfect friendship. They never fought each other… (66-67).

Thomas goes into a discussion about dominance issues in that part of the book, but that little relationship between two husky brothers should cause us to pause and think for a minute.

I remember reading in Jim and Jamie Dutcher’s book The Wolves at Our Door that there were two wolves that had relatively equal rank. These wolves did nothing but fight each other.

But these domestic dogs I discussed seemed to develop relatively egalitarian relationships, so dogs may be capable of developing relationships that wolves are not.

Now, I had never heard of anyone developing a partnership with a dog in this fashion until I read Merle’s Door. Merle and his owner develop a very interesting relationship. Merle is given freedom once he’s learned the rules of the neighborhood, and through this freedom, the man and dog develop a partnership that is not unlike the ones I’ve seen between domestic dogs. Merle is not 100 percent obedient, but he  is allowed to develop his skills and talents as a dog to their fullest extent. Even though Merle is a Labrador cross, he is not required to be a bird dog. Bird dog activities don’t interest him. He’s far more interested tracking elk and going cross country skiing.

Man and dog are partners. The dog makes some decisions. The man makes some decisions. It’s give and take.

That’s a concept that I don’t see discussed very much, but it is a relationship that we could have.

But in order to do so, we’re going to have to leave our egos at the door.

And unfortunately, dog culture is about about ego. If your dog isn’t 100 percent obedient, then the dog is stupid, and you’re a failure as a trainer.

Yes, dogs have to learn rules. We all do. However, we also have to allow them to be dogs. Finding the balance is the key toward taking this relationship forward– as partners, not underlings.

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This wonderful documentary talks about how wonderfully amazing domestic dogs are.

It includes some of the social cognition research we have been discussing in earlier posts.

And I hope that it is there when you click it.

It is really good.

One of the best I’ve seen in a long time.

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A shaggy dog story


This stray dog lived at the Grand Canyon. He became a kind of feral dog, living on what he could scavenge. He was evidently not so wild that he could not be handled, but he was obviously not accustomed to it.

I don’t know whether it is accurate that this dog is part Briard. Briards are not a common breed.

There is one way to tell. Briards have double dewclaws on the hind legs, which is a dominant trait.

If you watched the whole episode of DogTown last Friday, Shaggy makes a transformation from a nervous and very scared dog into an animal that can walk nicely on a leash and play with other dogs.

When this animal first appeared on the show, I didn’t think there was much chance of turning him around. Dogs that live as wild animals don’t easily convert to living in such intimate terms with people. My first thought was that maybe Shaggy would have been better off if he had been left at the Grand Canyon.

But he managed to adapt to these new conditions, and in the end, he seemed happy to be a loved dog. He became nothing like the wild creature that was brought in at the beginning of the show. It was a truly remarkable transformation.

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From the Telegraph.

Apparently, this young wolf found himself without a pack, so he hooked up with the local dogs.

Events like this had to be much more common in the past. After all, wolves and dogs have been living in the same areas for thousands of years.

There had to been a gene flow between the populations, especially when wolves had little reason to fear people. It was only when we began to keep livestock that the wolf began to be persecuted.

Romeo is a good example of why we can’t make broad assumptions about dogs or wolves. In general, wolves are rather intolerant of domestic dogs, but sometimes wolves and dogs become friends.

Because Romeo needed companionship at that early age, he developed an entirely different response toward domestic dogs than one might expect from a wolf. Perhaps this suggests that the hyper-territoriality that we see in wild wolf populations is at least partially “culturally” driven.

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