Kamal Fernandez recently published his book, Pathway to Positivity! He joins me on the podcast to chat about the book and talk about how important it is to teach sports dogs how to be great pets too.
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.
Today we'll be talking to Kamal Fernandez.
Kamal is an internationally renowned dog trainer and seminar instructor, Championship Obedience Judge, Crufts competitor and the head trainer and owner of East London Dog Training. He has over 27 years of practical dog training experience, based on a combination of science and hands-on work that have led him to establish a reputation for positive training and to champion reward-based methods all over the world.
Kamal has made a study of psychology and began his career as a police officer working with young offenders. This has shaped his training philosophy and helped him craft a style that gets the best from his students, human and canine alike.
He's probably most well known for teaching heelwork, his primary focus here at FDSA, but he's successfully used rewards-based methods in a wide variety of dog sports, including obedience, agility, protection sports and canine freestyle. His training specialty revolves around using play and games to create motivation and control.
Hi Kamal, welcome back to the podcast!
Kamal Fernandez: Hi Melissa, how are you?
Melissa Breau: I'm good. I'm excited to chat today.
Kamal Fernandez: Yeah, good. Thank you for having me again.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, can briefly refresh our memories by sharing a little about the dogs you share your life with and what you're working on with them?
Kamal Fernandez: Oh gosh, I've got a lot of dogs. I'll go from oldest to youngest. The oldest is my Malinois, Thriller, and she does obedience. I also have a retired Border Collie who is 12 years old, and Thriller is 11. She's still working, still fit, and this will probably be her last season. Then I have my boxer, Punch, who hopefully will come out in IPO this year. After that, I have my Border Collie, Fire, she does agility, and my Border Collies Super and Mighty, they do tracking disciplines. After that … I've lost track of who I've got! I've got Great, who is my young Border Collie. At the moment I have a dog who's been featured a lot on my Facebook, which is a dog called Tizer. He's a dog that was a student's dog, and I have him temporarily to do some work with him and rehab him. When he's suitable point of where he can be rehomed, he'll be looking for a home, so he's with me temporarily. I have Sonic, my German Spitz, who does agility, and Sugar, who is our little Poodle cross, who does nothing, really, and just is a family pet and Neave's little playmate.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. I understand a lot has happened since we last chatted. You published a book!
Kamal Fernandez: Yes, my book, Pathway To Positivity, was launched at Crufts this year, which was really, really exciting. It's been a long time coming together, a lot of planning, a lot of work going into it, and it was really exciting to launch at Crufts, which is the biggest dog show in the world. And it was really, really well received, so I'm hugely in debt and humbled by people's response to it, and very, very proud of how it's been received. So yeah, really exciting.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Well, congrats! Do you want to just share a short overview of what's it about?
Kamal Fernandez: Pathway To Positivity was … I was approached by the publishers to write a book basically discussing positive-reinforced dog training for dog sports specifically, and also discussing a little bit briefly about my journey on a personal level as a dog trainer from more traditional dog training when I first started, which was a considerable amount of time ago, when primarily everybody did more show-and-tell with varying degrees of compulsion and possibly aversives in their training, to now a trainer that uses positive-reinforcement-based methodologies to train dogs in all spheres of dog sports and in all walks of life.
They approached me about the project, and it was an opportunity to share my experiences both practically and actually living, breathing, and walking that walk, or the path, I should say, of positive-reinforcement-based dog training. Although there's a lot of information about reinforcement-based dog training out there, a lot of it is based on theory and what should happen, whereas the book really is about a person, myself, my experience of actually trying to train dogs positively, as the phrase may be quaint, and all the ups and downs that goes with it. There's stories in there about my own dogs and the experiences I've had with them and the ups and downs of dog training, and also some ideas and skills that are unanimous irrespective of the dog sport that you partake in, they can be a great asset in your artillery, and just some fun anecdotes along the way.
Melissa Breau: Maybe this is an obvious one, but I'd like to start with a basic question: Why did you write it?
Kamal Fernandez: I wrote the book because … really I started writing a blog some time ago and I found that I really enjoyed it, to be truthful. I enjoyed giving my opinion and insight into dog training and how it applies, and how I perceive dog training, and my experiences in sharing that with others. I teach a lot of people, and I teach across the world, and I feel very passionate about what I do. It's very interesting to be able to work with people and to share that knowledge, and a book was a great way to take that even further.
And also I suppose everybody would love to think about one day writing a book about their experiences and their journeys in what they do, so it was really a bit of a labor of love, to be honest. It was a bit of a thing on my bucket list, so to speak, and all of the things aligned, the sun and the moon, etc., aligned at the right time for it to come together.
Melissa Breau: The description says the book shares your process for developing a balanced, well-adjusted dog, with skills that transfer to competitive dog sports. I thought that wording was interesting. Is the book for sports people? Pet people? Who is the target audience?
Kamal Fernandez: To be truthful, the book is applicable to all — anybody that wants to have a dog that is a great family pet and a great ambassador for dogs, full stop.
I think that's my primary agenda whenever I get a dog into my home, I welcome a dog into my home, my first goal is to create that dog into being a model citizen and being a really nice dog that I'm not ashamed or embarrassed to own or to take into different situations, or I feel concerned about where I take the dog, or I have to be hyper-vigilant, etc., etc. My first protocol, aside from any specific skill for a dog sport, is to create a dog that is well adjusted and balanced. I think that is my primary concern.
Having had a lot of dogs over the years of varying breeds and varying backgrounds — rescue dogs, rehomed dogs, dogs that have had issues, puppies, different breeds, etc. — the thing that I would say was my benchmark was that all my dogs have got really, really stable dispositions, they're very easygoing about life, they don't tend to have any extreme end of the spectrum in terms of anxiety issues or phobias, and it was too many dogs for that to be a coincidence.
I started to analyze why it is that my dogs tend to be that way and why I can take dogs that have got behavioral issues and relatively quickly improve their behavior. When I broke it down and really started to scrutinize it, I realized there were key things that I did in the way in which I rear them, how I handle situations, and how I build their confidence that underpinned them in then going on to be hopefully a great sports dog, because, to me, the two things go hand-in-hand.
I wouldn't want to own a dog that I could do sports with that on a day-to-day of life the dog would be basically a problem or a hindrance to me. I want to have a dog that is a great dog to own, that I can walk it around the town center and the dog is really, really relaxed and chilled, and I can sit outside with my daughter and have my dogs around. Alternatively, I want to be able to take that dog into a sports arena and the dog give me a hundred percent focus and commitment. And to me the two things are interlinked. So I would say the book is actually applicable to anybody that owns a dog, and by the very nature of owning a dog becomes a dog trainer. So it's really for anybody that trains dogs.
Melissa Breau: It seems like you start right at the beginning … the very first chapter is on finding the perfect dog. When you're considering that, looking at choosing a dog, what factors do you go into?
Kamal Fernandez: There's a lot in that chapter that really explores the endless list of criteria that we have when looking for "the perfect dog." The bottom line is that when we strip it all back, it's a little bit like … I always equate it to going on Tinder or Match.com, where you're trying to find the perfect partner — what would be applicable for me, what would be suitable for me, would be suitable for somebody else. The key is to be truthful with yourself about who you are as an individual, and what your aspirations and desires and wants and needs are in your life, in order to find a dog that's suitable.
I think often people put the sport before the ownership of the dog, and therein lies the problem. When you buy a dog because you believe it's going to bring you "success," ultimately what happens is that ends up being a relationship fraught with issues. Whereas if you are truthful with yourself about who you are as a trainer, as an individual, as a person, and your lifestyle, and you find a dog that's going to best fit with that, you ultimately have success in both entities, i.e., domestically living with the dog and owning the dog, you'll have a great deal of joy, and also in a sporting arena. For me, looking for the perfect dog is very much a moment of self-reflection. You've got to think about what you're looking for and what you want that dog to do, and therefore that will determine the dog that's most suitable for you.
Melissa Breau: I know from the TOC that you have several chapters on various pieces of training — the power of positive learning, how to be an effective clicker trainer, whether clicker training works for every dog. I want to talk about those for a minute. I think most of the podcast audience … they're probably pretty bought into positive training, if they listen to the podcast, but do you have any tidbits from working on the book that they might be able to use if they were talking to another dog owner who maybe isn't quite as bought into the idea?
Kamal Fernandez: Absolutely. My own personal journey has been an evolution from a trainer that, like most people at that time period, used a melee of positive training, we used reinforcement, we used treats and toys, but we also used a lot of compulsion. What I have learned by experience is that punishment or the aversives or compulsion has a fallout, has a side effect. That side effect might not be seen in the moment that you use it, and it might have the desired effect of stopping the behavior, but there is always a fallout from the use of punishment, and after we can't control where that subsequent fallout may occur. It's hard to control, for example, if you use an aversive on one behavior, where that will be transferred to that anxiety and tension that technique has on the dog.
Also I'm a trainer, a dog owner, that prioritizes my relationship with the dog above everything else, and I want to have a relationship which is based on trust would be definitely a huge part of that. It isn't to say that balanced trainers or compulsive trainers that those methodologies don't work, because I would be foolhardy to say that they don't. For me, it's more about what I'm willing to do with my dog in the name of a dog sport, first and foremost. And for me, dog sports are for our own gains and for our own ego, and as much as we aspire to train a dog to enjoy, love, and crave the sport that we partake in, it's still largely for our ego. If we put a dog in a vehicle, or fly across the world or to another part of the country, to compete in an event, that's for our gains.
So for me, from a moral and ethical point of view, I feel strongly that we should be training our dogs in a way that doesn't compromise our morals and ethics. I'm very nonjudgmental about how people train their dogs. To each their own. In my experience, reinforcement-based dog training is just so much more effective. I equate it to my dogs of old would be watching television in black-and-white, with a coat hanger in the front aerial, trying to get a decent signal, and my dogs now are watching HD Surround Sound, panoramic, all-singing, all-dancing, full blockbuster movie. That's the comparison I would make, in that not only is the information clearer to the dog, I can pinpoint really, really accurately where the strengths and weaknesses in my own training are, whether I've over-reinforced something or haven't reinforced it enough, I haven't broken it down. I can constantly revise it.
There's so many benefits to the way in which I train and use reinforcement. There's less fallout from using reinforcement. The most you might create is a dog that's slightly confused, or a dog that doesn't perform consistently within effective reinforcement-based dog training, but that's applicable to all methodologies. But you tend to not get the other stuff that can be created when you use compulsion, etc.
The other thing about reinforcement-based dog training, which is unanimous to all training, is timing is an important part of being an effective and proficient dog trainer. We all have days when our timing's off. I know sometimes I'll reward something or mark something and it will be the absolute worst moment to do so, because I'm a human being and I'm tired, or I might have over-anticipated, or whatever the reason is. The most that's going to happen with my dogs now is that it takes them longer to learn the information. Whereas the trainer of old, from my own personal perspective, is they would have been a mistimed correction would have been grossly unfair to the dog.
Again, it comes back to the relationship I want to have with my dogs. I want them to be trusting of me, and although they might be confused, the most that's going to happen is they're going to get a treat or a reinforcement or a lack of reinforcement in an incorrect moment. But there isn't any physical discomfort or pain being inflicted on them at an incorrect moment, which basically is being grossly unfair. So for me, I could talk about reinforcement-based dog training all day and how my own personal experiences has shown me consistently across the board with numerous dogs of my own and my students, etc., that have shown it can be done and done very, very well.
So hopefully that's what the book basically says. It really does go into the practical applications of reinforcement-based dog training, and also my own personal struggles with my own dogs and how I had those moments where I questioned, Is this the right approach? Can I do this? etc., etc. So hopefully it's written in a way that's user-friendly. It's just a personal perspective, really.
Melissa Breau: Knowing that most of our audience probably has at least a little bit of clicker training experience, can you share a tip or two from the book, or off the top of your head, that might still apply to them that can help them be more effective when it comes to clicker training?
Kamal Fernandez: Absolutely. This is the one that will probably be controversial when I say that I don't click for approximations when I'm shaping behavior. What I mean by saying that — this is the one that can often split a crowd of people like Moses at the Red Sea — I don't click my dogs, I don't press the button on the clicker, when my dog gives me an approximation of the behavior. I only click when the dog does the end behavior that I'm training at that moment. The reason being is that, for me, that keeps the power of the clicker far clearer to the dog.
Often when I see people shaping, they are clicking and clicking and reinforcing the dog for approximation, so the dog sniffs the box, they click, the dog paws the box, they click, the dog eventually gets in the box, and they click and reward. From the way in which my dogs would perceive that information, there's three behaviors I've told them I like, which for me would be confusing. So the way in which I train, which is different to a lot of people, is I will reward the dog for approximations, I might give the dog a treat, I might praise the dog, but I ultimately wait for the dog to do the end behavior before I press the magic button and say to the dog, "That's exactly what I want" in that session. The reason that to me is more clear and effective for dogs is it allows me to minimize my dog's confusion.
So, for example, the previous explanation I offered, the dog would be offering me three responses and it would be correct because I clicked all three, i.e., sniffing, pawing, and getting in the box. Whereas the way in which I train, although I reinforce them and give them the treat, the dog will over time understand that the click is the thing that they're working for, so when they hear that magic word or that magic marker, they will very quickly dump all the variations and keep consistently offering that same behavior. That's one thing I would offer.
The other thing is that — and again it's a bit controversial — is once my dog understands something and I minimize my dog's failure and frustration when they are learning. Once they learn, then I will challenge them and I will almost allow them to get a bit frustrated, minimally frustrated, so it teaches them to work through that little bit of they're not quite sure what they want. I equate it again to the dog figuring out how to get through the maze. A lot of trainer thought about clicker training and shaping is to not have any failure, and for me, I think there is a level of failure and frustration that is healthy for a dog developing confidence and tenacity and the ability to think in a heightened state of arousal. I employ this technique a lot in dogs that are reactive, or have reactivity issues, to teach them how to think in a heightened state of arousal, and when they're frustrated, to actually use their brain as opposed to just reacting inappropriately. So two things that I probably do a little bit different from other people when it comes to clicker training.
Melissa Breau: And they're both super-interesting. I'll have to think on those because that's got wheels turning. To dig into the third piece that I mentioned — does clicker training work for every dog?
Kamal Fernandez: Clicker training definitely does work for every dog. However, and the caveat to that is, not all dogs take to it initially well. In my experience there is a type or a strain or an ilk of dog that really doesn't do well with clicker training in terms of offering behavior, and that is dogs that have been primarily bred to do a task, and bearing in mind a lot of the dogs we have for sports are of an ilk.
I'm going to use the breed I first experienced this with, which was my Malinois. I noticed when I first tried to shape with my first Malinois, he really hated shaping, he hated offering behavior, he just wanted to be shown. I tell a little, I think it's in the book possibly, about teaching the dog a hand touch. The hand touch is a relatively basic behavior, that I would consider basic behavior a dog to learn. I could get him to do a singular nose tap, and I wanted him to maintain contact and sustain duration, and the dog couldn't do it. I spent probably about a month battling away, and I could get no more than three taps and the dog would get frustrated, and he'd displace, and he'd avoid, and he'd walk away, etc., etc.
Of my own frustration one day, I got so exasperated with the whole process, I put my hand on his nose, held it for three to five seconds, and I clicked him. Instantaneously the dog went, "I know exactly what you want me to do." The behavior that I'd been battling with for a month, approximately, I couldn't progress it, within that one session the dog was doing a sustained hand touch with duration, and I could walk down the road, etc., etc., and he wouldn't move his nose until I clicked him. It was a really, really profound example of a dog that didn't want to problem-solve.
If you think about it logically, he was from a long line of dogs that had been bred to do a task and to do it very, very well, so you create a dog that's very tenacious, very, very biddable, that has a desire to work, but they are, generally speaking, what I would qualify as a show-and-tell dog. You show them what you want and then tell them what to do and they'll do it. So the ability to think laterally has often been taken out of that ilk of dogs, so when you ask them to offer behavior, they get frustrated very, very easily, and frustrations in breeds like Malinois are actually a very desirable trait. For example, for protection work, frustration is used to create animation and drive, etc., etc. So from a clicker trainer's point of view, frustration and offering behavior is crucial for my dog's learning. Now I could have chopped that down and I could have played around with various ways of approaching that.
Bearing in mind this was nearly 20 years ago, my learning curve with that dog was to teach him in a way that actually taught him to think through and be a problem-solver, and I learned the lesson with him, which I then employed with my subsequent Malinois and her skill set, and her ability to problem-solve is phenomenal. But it wasn't natural to the dog. It was taught to her.
I still say to this day she's as good a dog as she is and she doesn't get over-aroused and she doesn't get over-stimulated and she has an amazing ability to regulate her own drive, which wasn't innate within the dog. She was actually more extreme than him as a youngster. Because of that technique that I've used to teach her how to think when she's excited and how to listen when she's in a heightened state of arousal, which are crucial components for a sports dog. We want our dogs to perform things in an environment that is challenging, and we want them to perform behaviors in drive and in speed. We need to also ensure that we're teaching them to utilize their brain in the same vein.
Melissa Breau: That's interesting, because I think that most people would think about that problem differently. But I like how you explained it as the dog just didn't know how to think laterally, or didn't know how to problem-solve, and you had to teach that concept. That's kind of neat.
Kamal Fernandez: Yeah. Certain breeds of dogs, like I'd say Australian Shepherds are phenomenal for lateral thinking, absolutely amazing at problem solving. Whereas a breed like Malinois or working line German Shepherds, not so great at it. They get frustrated very easily and they almost want to use their brawn a lot more than their brain.
As I say, it's one of the many observations I've made about clicker training, so coming back to the original question of does clicker training work for every dog, yes, it does, but it's really down to the application of the methodology.
Melissa Breau: You've also got a chapter on play. I was curious: what do you get into there?
Kamal Fernandez: Play is, for me, it's a crucial part of my relationship with my dogs. I believe that all dogs will play, but whether they'll play to the point of where it can be used as reinforcement is another question. But for me, play is a medium to check my dog's temperature in terms of their temperament and how they're feeling in an environment. I can also gauge if the dog is confident, if it's over-aroused, I can observe the way in which it's playing, and I can tell if the dog is apprehensive or anxious or worried or whatever the case may be, all via the medium of play. It allows me to build trust in my dogs because I can introduce handling, I can deal with if the dog's concerned about something, I can utilize play.
I think play is a bit of a lost art in that people are tending to use food to train their dogs, which is brilliant, but I think there's definitely more that we could be doing to utilize play effectively. And I would say that play is a reinforcement, is a huge, huge skill to develop with your dogs that is worth investing into.
For example, with my Jackapoo Sugar, she was a dog that didn't come with play, or didn't want to play, and she was very concerned about hands moving around her when you tried to play with her. I shared a video of one of her early play sessions on YouTube, which you could see the dog very, very uncomfortable with me playing with her and very concerned, and it was a huge part of improving our relationship or certainly establishing a relationship with her, was to build trust via the medium of play, teaching that dog that my hands can be near her, on her, and around her, and I can engage with her and use the toy, and sometimes I push you away and have resilience, and all that stuff I can create via the medium of play. You can do it with food, but for me it's far more relationship-enforcing or reinforcing to do via the medium of play.
Bearing in mind that play is a huge part of social interaction for all living beings. People play, dogs play, horses play, cats play, etc., etc. Interspecies play. It's such a huge medium from which we can tap into and use and therefore extend our relationship with our dogs.
Melissa Breau: The other piece that I really want to get into was that in the description, you mention the importance of laying good foundations. I know we talked about this a little bit at the beginning, but when you say "good foundations," is that what you're talking about is just like the piece for a well-adjusted dog, or in terms of training foundations are there skills that you consider are important for the dog to learn for that good solid foundation?
Kamal Fernandez: Absolutely both. The foundation I lay with my dogs for being really great pets, i.e., playing with them, being able to play with a toy, bringing a toy back to me, allowing me to handle them when I play with them, touching them, interacting with them, them being able to offer me behavior, etc., etc., are all fundamental skills or foundation skills for sports, but they also underpin my dog being a really, really confident, outgoing dog, full stop.
For example, I talked about shaping. Shaping is a great way to teach my dog that they can access the thing that they want, if they offer me behavior that I want, or if they offer me behavior. So when you're talking about a skill for a dog sport, say, for example, the dog putting its feet on a perch is a behavior that I would shape, but I can also do that, I can apply the principle of the dog offering me behavior to get what they want, when I'm working on a domestic recall or if the dog wants to chase squirrels or birds, etc., I can apply that same logic in order to get control over them and also to create a dog that I can take into a field with livestock or other dogs, and the dog understands how to behave. So the principals are all the same.
And I think it's really important to not differentiate between a dog that's trained for a dog sport versus a well-behaved domestic dog. My Life Skill classes, which I run on a weekly basis for just people that want to have a really nice dog, are all based on dog sport skills, and the ultimate goal is to train the dogs to be model citizens and also to create the foundations for a fantastic relationship that's going to last a lifetime, which surely is what we all aspire to do with our dogs.
Melissa Breau: I love that perspective, just approaching dog sports from that angle of starting with building up life skills and how interwoven those two things are.
Kamal Fernandez: Absolutely. I think the other thing is all of us have to be realistic about … my Boxer had a major injury and his career was in jeopardy. I didn't know whether the dog would ever compete, and I was then "stuck" with this purpose-bred sports dog that would have been just a pet. He had a shoulder injury, which would have limited his ability to any dog sport, never mind the one that I intended him to partake in. The reality is, if I had just focused primarily on creating this dog that loved to bite and chase and fight with helpers, I would have had a really, really horrible domestic pet dog, because I've created these beasts that I then can't live with. Whereas my approach is create a dog that I want to live with, first and foremost, and then build the other attributes from there. The reality is that our dogs, when we partake in dog sports, if we place all our emphasis on that, then we are, certainly for me, missing out the joy of owning a dog to its absolute fullest.
Melissa Breau: Anything else that you want to share or that folks should know about the book?
Kamal Fernandez: Just that the book is, as I say, it's a personal perspective and it was definitely a labor of love and one of passion, and I hope that they enjoy it as much as I did putting it together and reminiscing about some of the stories and looking at old photos, and I hope that that comes across to the reader. The feedback so far has been absolutely amazing and really humbling, and I hope that people continue to enjoy it and share it with other people and provide the feedback they have on it. I'm immensely proud of it. Hopefully I might have another project in the pipeline — a little bit of a sneak peek there — there might be something else coming up, but for now, Pathway To Positivity is the book that I've got out, and I hope that people enjoy it and glean from the pages.
Melissa Breau: Where is it available right now? Where should people go if they want to find it?
Kamal Fernandez: Great question. At the moment, you can get it from performancedog.co.uk, basically order it direct from them. I know Clean Run are going to be stocking it in the States, and I believe there's been pockets of people importing it to New Zealand and Australia, but I think that's been more a little group of people that have been enthusiastic about the book and they bought it in a bulk order. If you do want to order a book, I would suggest just contacting performancedog.co.uk and they'll be able to assist.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Last question: I've been asking everyone who comes on lately this one last question. What's something you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?
Kamal Fernandez: This is an easy one. The concept of consent in dog training was something … I was recently was teaching for fellow FDSA instructor Julie Symons in New York, and the discussion of consent came up in dog training, and it really got me head-scratching about consent and how applicable it is to my dog training, and do I ask for consent, etc., etc. It really got me looking at my training and analyzing my own training.
The long-short of it is that I think that any trainer that is concerned or cares about the dog's engagement should instinctively, I should say, looks for consent from the dog, because without consent, the dog's willingness to engage with you, you're going to create a very different response to then one that we aspire to create, and one of enjoyment and connection, etc., and the only way you can do that is to have a willing partner.
So I think consent and the concept of it was something that I hadn't consciously made a note of. It wasn't that … but it was definitely subconscious within my training and a definite thread through the way in which I rear my dogs to have them constantly consenting to what I'm doing with them and engaging with me from the correct perspective. And if they aren't willing and they don't give me consent, how that steers my own decision-making in order to, for want of a better term, win them over and persuade them that what I'm asking them to do is either beneficial or enjoyable or acceptable, or in some cases it's not, and finding alternatives for what the dog isn't comfortable with, etc.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Kamal! This has been great.
Kamal Fernandez: My pleasure. Lovely to talk to you as always. I wish you all the best, and hopefully people enjoy the book.
Melissa Breau: Thank you. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in!
We'll be back next week, this time with Sarah Stremming to talk about adolescent dogs.
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