E339: What is a Confident Dog, Anyway? with Dr. Amy Cook, Julie Daniels, Petra Ford, and Sara Brueske

In preparation for the upcoming confident dog conference at FDSA, I invited 4 of the presenters for the conference on the podcast to talk about what confidences looks like in our dogs, how much of it is innate vs. something we can instill, and what the process of building confidence looks like. Join us for this fascinating conversation!  


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 I have Dr. Amy Cook, Sarah Brueske, Julie Daniels, and Petra Ford here with me to talk about what confidence looks like when it comes to our dogs and how we can help build it.

Hi all. Welcome back to the podcast!

All: Hi. Hello. Hi guys.

Melissa Breau: So to start us out and to give listeners a little bit of an idea of whose voice is whose, I'd love to have you each just tell us a little bit about you and your current canine crew. Amy, you wanna start us off?

Amy Cook: Sure. I'm Dr. Amy Cook. I'm the developer of The Play Way, which is an approach for working on behavior issues with dogs through social therapeutic play. And I've been teaching here, I can't believe it now for 10 years, who, like, where did that go? And I was thinking of that because I, you know, I developed that here through the process of teaching online. So it's amazing that it's been 10 years already.

I have my current, my current crew is Marzipan, the Whippet who is 12 now, which what? And blind, but doing really well. Just, you'd never know if you didn't know. I'm amazed at dogs that can do that. And Caper, who's seven, she's my little terrier chihuahua cross and my agility dog. And we just, we love that. And right now we're starting to get into tracking, which she's really enjoying. So, that's us.

Melissa Breau: I am always stunned when you tell me caper is older than like two. So I know seven plus seven plus seven and a half. What about you Sarah?

Sara Breuske: I'm Sarah Brueske and I have a lot of dogs. We definitely won't get into all of them, but most of my dogs are older retired dogs that we're performing at halftime shows, at fairs and festivals around the world and representing Purina through demonstrations like Frisbee, dog diving and trick dog shows. But my latest in Denver that really ties into Confident Dogs is I opened up a boarding and training facility called Happy Dog Lodge. And one of the programs that we run every single day is called Day Camp.

And so this is a twist on daycare where dogs come to us, do a bunch of different activities and often, including today, I get some dogs that are lacking confidence and so we find activities that help boost their confidence in different ways. And so I think that's super cool as far as relating to our conversation today. But yeah, I really like building confidence in dogs. I've got a ton of dogs, done a ton of sports.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. What about you Julie? Oh boy. So I'm Julie Daniels. I live in Deerfield, New Hampshire, and I share my home with another professional dog trainer and her three dogs. And I had three dogs. And through attrition I just recently lost my nearly 16-year-old. So I'm not complaining.

He had a wonderful life, but he was the end of an era for me, the last of my famous agility dogs. So I had a long time career in agility where I worked with a whole lot of high power dogs and still, I still get to work with all those wonderful dogs that I love because I'm a certified Control Unleashed instructor. And so we do a lot with that kind of arousal state and high energy activities. And many of those dogs, I'm sure many of you know, look like they have all the confidence in the world. And I've certainly had dogs like that over the years and in fact they are quite insecure and very high anxiety dogs. So I work all the time with dogs, high energy and low energy and dogs who feel insecure and anxious. So it's a love of mine, the empowerment approach and dog's choice training approaches to dogs who feel insecure. It's just one of my favorite things to do.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. And last but certainly not least, Petra.

Petra Ford: Hi, this is Petra. I have three dogs right now. Zeal is 11 and a half. He's my retired competition dog. Zaina is seven. She's currently training and trialing. And then I have little Zesty. He's not so little anymore. He's three. And I started showing him, well, I would say last year even though that was a couple days ago, and got him through his UD. And now then I decided to take a little break because I could see he wasn't as confident in utility as I wanted him to be. So we're just doing a little more training before I bring him back in the ring.

Melissa Breau: Makes a lot of sense and super relevant to all of our conversations today. So since we are here to talk about confidence, I wanna start things off with a conversation about what confidence is when we're talking about our dogs. So how would you describe it or define it when you're talking about a confident dog. Petra?

Petra Ford: So, as far as how they look, I feel that when my dogs are really confident, they look first and foremost. They're, they look relaxed. There's no real tension in their body. If there is, it's their alert, right? They're, if they're almost anticipating, 'cause they know exactly what I want, they know exactly what's coming next.

Their eyes are bright, their ears are up, their tail is typically wagging. If they're really concentrating. Sometimes it's actually not, but I can always tell by how they respond to my cue, right? So if I give my dog a cue and he, I'm envisioning signals 'cause that's super hard and the dogs need to be very, very confident.

And so if I give him my cue and he responds really quickly, then I'm like, okay, good. He knew that was coming. He's comfortable performing that cue in this environment. Same with the sit or the come, for example, dogs, you know, some dogs will respond quickly to cues even if they're not comfortable because of some pressure or compulsion.

But those dogs will typically have ears back. They're panting pretty heavily. Their eyes are a little whale eyed. They just don't look what I would describe as just relaxed and happy. So I think that's the most important thing. My dog looks relaxed and happy and my dog, when I give them the cue does the behavior quickly and happily and it meets criteria.

And my dog looks fairly relaxed if my dogs are anticipating, I kind of like that because it says to me, all right, they know exactly what's happening. They know exactly what's coming next. They know what I want. And so I'm pretty happy with that.

Okay, awesome. Next, Amy, what do you have to add there?

Amy Cook: That's great, Petra. I love the low latency sort of, you know, measure. It's like, are you jumping right into what you see here? Right? So it's a great description of that, you know, as usual, I tend to think of it in mentalistic terms, right? And, and you know, in pondering confidence in what that is in, you know, inside you, what is it for you, right? I tend to use the words that I'm, I'm certainly not alone in this. I know probably all, all of us do. I tend to use the words like optimism and pessimism. And, and at first I think people go like, well, but that's a mushy word and you can't, but you can think about it specifically. So if I'm gonna say a dog is, is optimistic about where I just brought them, I'm gonna be looking for things like, are you hesitating to explore something that's here or are you boldly and you know, quickly with low latency as Petra was talking about, just going forward right into whatever's available to you.

Do you hesitate or you know, do you just behave with, you know, boldness? And what I want that to, what that sort of tells me is you're not expecting anything from this environment that is negative. You're not expecting anything from this environment that you should be concerned about. You have arrived somewhere you've never seen before, or you're in front of an object you've never seen before, and your default assumption is that this is gonna be great, or this has some kind of reward or reinforcement situation for you, or it's interesting right away you are curious instead of you are hesitant, you are unsure if this is gonna work out, not sure if this is going to be great, I wanna see just this default or that we get to a default position in them that says, this is probably gonna work out, this is probably gonna be awesome. I should go check in. I should go see what it is I should go right toward it. And to me that's saying that the orientation, if you will inside the dog is that things are gonna work out. And outside of that, it's, for me, it's actually quite hard to quantify because confidence looks a little different in, you know, every person and in every dog. But if I can think you're not hanging back, you're not unsure, you're not scared, then we're probably going, going in the right direction. So that's how I think of it.

Melissa Breau: I love those two answers because Amy, you kind of talked about novelty and environmental and you know, those pieces and Petra was talking about, you know, skills specifically and trained behaviors, right? Right. So I think it shows us kind of how big this conversation can be. Totally. Sarah, you wanna wanna step in that?

Sara Brueske: Yeah. Yep. So I'm thinking about when I am looking at my dogs and they're being confident, the way I kinda define that is I love Amy's description of optimism, right? They're excited about what we're doing, they're opting into what we're doing. But it's kind of hard, like she said, to define exactly what that looks like because it's different for every dog. And so this is where having a relationship with that dog is so very important because what I'm looking for is that that dog is responding as they normally would to the games they're playing, the focus games, they're playing the cues I'm asking of them. And what, as they normally do is different for every single dog.

So I have some dogs that wag their tail and they're super excited. And I have some dogs that their tail's more neutral and they're kind of checking out the environment and that's their normal. And so it's really difficult for me to really define what a dog looks like or how they respond in terms of confidence because there's so many dogs out there and there's so many different responses.

You have your fast twitch excited, do all the thing dog like Vibrant, my three-year-old Koolie who is just excited to be alive and her brain runs at like 5,000 miles per hour. And then you have like Edgar, my little Boston Terrier Shihtzu mix and you know, he's excited and happy, but when he's not confident it kind of looks the same. So I'm looking for the subtle little changes in how he is responding, how he is acting that are different from normal. And so for him, he might be panting a lot more, his breathing might be a little bit more excited. And you know, for some of the other dogs I work with, they might be a little bit slower, a little bit more thoughtful about the things I'm asking. So I really try to know what my dog normally does in a space that they are confident. So in my home, in our yard, that sort of thing. And then when I take 'em to those new situations, new environments, I'm looking for deviations of that normal.

Melissa Breau:I like that. Julie?

Julie Daniels: Boy, there's not much to add, so let me be the recap. So they look happy, they look ready to work, so to speak. They look optimistic. We have a relationship with them so we know what their little individual tells are when they feel a little bit insecure versus a little bit confident. So just in general, I'll evade the question entirely since I don't have a lot of different information to add. And I'll just say, yes, a dog who is confident is a dog who exudes an air of looking forward to whatever's gonna happen in the space. There you go.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. We'll let you take the next one first to that. You don't get stuck as the caboose again, but, so kind of building on that, right, like is confidence something that's kind of innate to the dog? Is it something that can be trained and taught? Is there, are there some, some considerations maybe to the answer to this question that we need to break down first? Go ahead Julie.

Julie Daniels: Oh boy, this is a fun one, right? So I think what is innate? So I think the hardwired part would be a tendency toward the optimism that we are talking about. And so I think many dogs, really, all puppies come into the world curious, but many puppies come into the world with a sense of this is great.

And that's of course what we wanna nurture. And there are many puppies who don't come into the world with that optimistic expectation about life in general. So for example, that'll show up early on in aversion to novelty, that kind of thing. Suspicion. Suspicion of novelty. And so what can you do about that? I don't know about can you out-train that?

Well, you can overwrite that and by continually overriding insecurities with successes, quick successes and happy experiences. I really think, and this will be part of my presentation, I think you can turn a pessimist into an optimist. I think it can be done.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Petra? Yeah, so I, so if I'm gonna look at it from the competition perspective, yeah, but I pretty much agree like, you know, I feel there are some dogs that are innately more confident than others. Just like with humans, I think those, the dogs that are not innately confident, which I have had and have, and I've had students that you just have to put a lot more work into it. But if you do, if you work really hard and create, break everything down into pieces and just build on every piece, every piece, success, success, success. You can teach them to become confident in competition or in certain environments, it's not going to be as easy as it is for other dogs. And you're gonna have to, you know, a lot of the games and pressure work that I created were all born out of necessity for Zeal because he was and is like, he's just, everything makes him concerned and nervous. And so by doing that, I was able to change things as late as eight years old, which I thought was pretty fascinating. 'cause that's a long history he had of struggling. And at that point I was just curious like, can I, you know, certain things, can I change him? Is it possible? And it turns out it was.

So I think that's really encouraging information pe for people that if you're willing to, you know, yes, I understood him and no, I did everything I could, not to over face him, but by being very mindful and thoughtful and careful, I was able to turn him at least in competition into a different dog.

Melissa Breau: I like that. Amy?

Amy Cook: The question being is it innate or can it be trained? And of course my answer would be yes, it is both of those things. We know from plenty of, you know, studies about cross fostering that early maternal care can really set the, you know, an animal's, a young's stress response. I won't go too far into, you know, all the terms of all of that. But, how they're treated very early can make them hesitant to explore or make them very, you know, bold to go out and just see what the world has to offer.

We do know that there are things that can happen very, very early before we ever see the animal at all that can tune them toward being what I'll just shorthand into pessimistic or optimistic. But we also know very much that an animal is the product of its experiences, right? And so the part about confidence being "is it learned?" Well, there is optimism learned.

Well, you know, what you expect from an environment has very much to do with what you've had happened to you in environments before. And if the experiences you've been shown and the life you've been given has brought you to nothing but great things, when you go new places, what, you know, what else should you expect? You might have come in with a tuning of caution, a tuning of, let's see, let's make sure. Right? But if all of your experiences have been, or the majority of them have been confirming that everywhere new is good and, and everything you try is great and it's okay to experiment. And if you're not sure what your person's asking, try something. It's gonna work out. Your person is kind and all of that. You are, you are, you can make up for in a way, if there is a cautious sort of orientation in the beginning, you can make up for that by how you're, what you're putting in front of them, not having it be so challenging that it's confirming for them that maybe they should have been cautious.

Maybe it is really hard out here in this, in this life. So is it innate? Yeah, you know, in a lot of ways for sure. And, and we've seen dogs who no matter what happens to 'em, they just approach everything with confidence. But regardless of what innate situation they came, came to you with so much of what we put in front of them colors their expectation for what will be in front of them for next time. So, a lot of it is in our hands for sure.

Melissa Breau: Sara?

Sara Brueske: Yeah. So my views on this is that genetics play a big role in the dog's natural optimism level. Confidence level. I believe that genetics gives you a spectrum, right? So if I've got this long spectrum of a super confident dog and low confident dog, genetically, my individual dog is when we fall somewhere in between a peak high and peak low. And so training, in my opinion, can get us as far up on that peak high as possible. But at some point, the dog's genetics are just gonna be too powerful to overcome that confidence.

And I think there's a ton that we can do to help create situational confidence and kind of mask those genetics by creating pattern games, by building confidence in working with the handler and creating confidence in certain environments. But there's gonna be a certain point where if those things aren't there, so if I don't use my pattern games or somebody else is handling my dog, or it's a novel situation, or I'm asking for novel behaviors or whatever it might be, that the genetics are gonna overpower that, and my dog inherently then is not confident, they're confident in situations, and I can create that and I can mask their lack of confidence. But I do believe that overall, that confidence is dependent on being secure with they handle, they're dependent on knowing what's happening in that situation and the predictability and the games that we create. So we can definitely create situational confidence in our dogs, and train that into 'em. But underneath that, when that gets all stripped away, where is their confidence level? And that falls into genetics in my opinion, and epigenetics and those early learned experiences that Amy talked about.

Melissa Breau: Super interesting, right, to kind of think about all of that, kind of, to continue to build the conversation. I think a lot of the times when we're thinking about confidence, we're thinking about lack of confidence, perhaps more people don't necessarily look at it differently than they would behavior change. And I'm not sure if that's right, if that's wrong.

Kind of where that, where you all fall on that. So how does the process of confidence building either differ or look similar to maybe the ways that we try to change behavior with like desensitization and counter conditioning and some of that other stuff? Is it different? Is it the same? Sara, you wanna start us off?

Sara Brueske: Yeah, sure. So this is a little bit tricky one because I'm not super into the behavior modification. I'm getting back into it now with owning Happy Dog Lodge. So I don't have a ton of experience and I do tend to think of them pretty similar. But I think the differences are that, man, I do tend to use pretty similar things. I use my pattern games, I use building confidence with me, and then once I have my game set and my emotional responses to those games, that's when I start to generalize to different things. And so it's kind of hand to hand, like if I think about reactivity to another dog and uncertainty and lack of confidence around another dog, you know, it's the same general process as when I'm trying to build overall confidence with the same dog, right? Because a lot of those uncertainty, behavior modification things that we're doing are because of lack of confidence or lack of understanding or lack of predictability.

And so in my opinion, I feel like confidence building really is the same thing, whether you're building confidence for a trial or just out in about in the normal environment. So I don't know, I don't think I have very many differences. I'm very interested to hear what everyone else says.

Melissa Breau: All right, Julie, you wanna take it from there?

Julie Daniels: Sure. I like that a lot. This is a really fun question because we all have, especially as professional trainers, we all have our own favorite approaches and favorite go-tos both diagnostically and therapeutically. So I think it's really fun to have this question. So some of the things that I work with all the time are pretty much like Sara was saying, relationship-based and other things will be specifically, I would call them empowerment based. I actually wanna create actionable behaviors that my insecure dog can feel more confident about, meaning by a quick success, right? So, oh, that's a win and there's another win and another win and I'm such a winner. That's what we're trying to do is generalize the feeling that the dog will be successful.

And so there's a lot, I tend toward a more empowerment based approach using things like play and movement and curiosity and snuffling behaviors and things like that which are actionable. So that's really my basic approach. But I have a lot of other things like, you know, the inside jokes that you develop with your own dog based on your personal special relationship and certain kinds of touch, certain areas and, and ways of touching by way of connecting. So I'm always working on the relationship piece always and developing the little tricks that are gonna help us get out into the big wide world so that when I do get out into the big wide world, I feel like everybody thinks my dogs are confident, they look, they look great.

Well why? Because they feel safe and secure with me and they know I've got their backs and they know what they're doing. They feel really confident in their own skills. And so being able to take those skills on the road is a matter of their relationship with me. That's how I look at that.

Melissa Breau: Interesting. Petra?

Petra Ford: Oh, I'm next. Yeah. Well, I'm the weak link on this question because for sure I don't, I don't have any expertise in behavior. I think the only limited input I have is, you know, I have had dogs or students with dogs where something does bother them and we would do desensitization to that thing, right? In order to make them confident because if they're concerned about that, it's gonna be very hard for them to work. So to me they would be kind of similar, but again with the caveat that like, Amy is probably way better, I'm sure is way better at this because that's not my area in terms of behavior per se, outside of…

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. So Amy, all on you.

Amy Cook: No, no, no, no, no. I think that in a lot of ways it's not so different. The question being framed as has the process of confidence, the building differ from the way we change behavior and, and you know, we're all, we're all changing behavior, you know, whether it's "behavior" in quotes or you know, changing heeling behavior, we're all doing it, right? And, and I think what's maybe distinct about either training these days or training here at FDSA or you know, those of us who've given this kind of thing, a lot of thought is that there's not as much of a line between how I am going to confidence build versus how I'm going to change behavior. Because what we want in a dog with a behavior issue is that they are not fearful.

Fearful is, you know, the root of so many of these issues, right? Many behavior problems and I don't want them to be fearful. And that circles back into confidence building. And so it many of the techniques of helping your dog with the issue that they're having for me, I'm gonna go straight toward what is your optimism? Like how, you know, quickly will you respond in this environment? Are you willing to explore? How do you feel about the things I ask you? How do you feel about me? And while those are nebulous, and of course I have behavioral, you know, things I'm reading or measuring for those things, it is, it is not so distinct. Whereas before I might have separated out something I thought of as confidence building, like, you know, will you engage with this game or this pattern and then something separate like, like counter conditioning.

But we know that counter conditioning comes along for the ride when you're doing everything you're doing. And so I'm already going to set up training situations that where the dog wins, as Julie was saying, and where you can trust that I'm not bringing you somewhere that's going to cause you a problem. And, and so because all of our orientations are toward the dog wins and the dog doesn't have questions about what I've asked, we are all, you know, in the same bucket of promoting clarity, your dog shouldn't be figuring out a puzzle constantly when you've asked him to do something or, you know, given them a cue. It's not time for them to guess and throw a bunch of behaviors at you. It's the time where they know what you've asked, they can do the thing confidently. And so they're, they should be living in a world where you are predictable, they know what to do when you've said things they know, when you bring them places it's going to be good or at least not directly, you know, bad news for them. And so really all of the ways in which you're dealing with your dog, if you're, you know, FDSA style, you know, the people here on the panel for sure are rooted in, it's just living in the foundation of that.

We want you to feel confident and safe. So I really tried to think of, is there anything I'm doing that's really different if I'm trying to change behavior? And yeah, the answer is no, because I wanna come at it from, I need to make sure your mind, your emotion is in a place where you can learn the right things from this situation.

And I'm never gonna be asking you to, you know, look at different things or heel a certain way or do a certain behavior if you are not already safe here in this environment, safety is first. And we all know that no matter what we were teaching, if a dog was looking at us feeling unsafe and their latency was getting really long and they had these wide eyes, we would not be continuing to train. So I've been trying to find a distinction and I think because we are also aware of the emotional lives of our dogs and we want them to know that they're in a good place that I think all of these techniques just become one in their core, even if they might, you know, look occasionally different in which technique you choose.

Melissa Breau: So to transition a little bit here from, you know, a more general conversation to sports a little more specifically, you know, how important is confidence when we're talking about a dog we wanna compete with? So for an actual competition dog and Amy, you wanna, you wanna keep going here?

Amy Cook: You know, I feel like there's no way around that you can't, you can't do something as hard as what we ask dogs to do competition wise. If you are still struggling with, as a dog, if you're still struggling with, are you safe in this environment? Do you know what you're supposed to be doing? Do you know what to expect from your person?

I would think this has to be, I mean, for me it's really key. Even if we can define it in different ways, I still think it's key because there's so much more, I'll use the word pressure and I don't mean that in, in a kind of a hard way, but there's so much more pressure from the environment and from, you know, where you're going to be bringing your dog compared to if they were not a competition dog. You know, the pressure of many dogs in an environment, the pressure of a lot of novelty, right? And if a dog is giving you a lot of challenge, it is very overwhelmed by those things and you are helping them hold it together with a lot of effort.

You know, I mean, of course we do that for the dogs we love and we make sure that everything is right. But if we are talking about, you know, what do I, how important is it for my choice or how important is it for the competition dog? I would wanna see as much sort of mental resilience as possible because I know that what we're going to be doing in the career in the lifetime of this dog are gonna be things that kind of are, are very unusual for dogs who are not competition dogs. You know? And so if I can, if I can bias toward that, I'm absolutely going to, but I'd love to see what the more experienced competitors than me on the panel have to say about that. Fair?

Sara Brueske: Yeah. So in the sport of Mondio, I think it is a thousand percent a test on confidence. How confident is your dog in their job to be able to withstand the environmental pressure, the social prep pressure, as well as stay in the fight when things get hard with the decoy. And so the obedience tests, tests environmental confidence, it tests how confident they are away from you, the absence, the out of sight down stay. I mean, those distractions are absolutely insane. And our dog is out there left by themselves. I mean, it's a really hard sport that way. And I think the more, I used to think it was a sport based on how well you can train your dog, but I don't think that anymore. I think it's a hundred percent how confident your dog is in their ability to do the job.

How well do they know their job? How confident are they that they can do it in a safe way? And how confident are they that you're gonna be keeping them safe? And so for that reason, I mean, confidence is everything. You can do the sport with a less than confident dog, but man, you're gonna have to do a lot more work generalizing and showing 'em different patterns and different scenarios to help them know about their safety in those situations. The other one I wanted to touch on was performance. So when I'm out performing with my dogs, it's very much like a trial. You know, we're out in front, there's that pressure from me of, oh my God, we have to do the thing correctly because we need the biggest applause possible. And you know, there's all those unexpected things that can happen. And so when we're building confidence, a lot of us rely so heavily on patterns and, you know, getting our dogs comfortable and predictability and that sort of thing.

But when you're out trialing or you're out performing, anything can happen. And so it's, it's extremely important for performances. I mean, one time I was at a state fair in Kentucky and during our show there's literally 10 feet on the other side of our ring. There's a guy riding a motorcycle across a tightrope with flames shooting everywhere. And like, I haven't proofed for that and like, that's not a scenario I could ever show my dogs, but they had to have that confidence to carry them through that even though this weird crazy thing was happening just outside the ring. They were confident enough in their job and my ability to keep them safe, to continue like nothing had happened. And so, you know, you probably aren't gonna experience that in a trial, but there are very similar things that can happen. And so I think it's very important to take confidence into consideration. One of the top three things almost on rival with the skills you're building, I would say it's right up there in importance for a trialing or competition dog,

Julie Daniels: Yeah. I think Sarah, you win like Mondio is tough, Mondio's hard, amazing like that. So my sport may be not so grueling in that way. My longtime sport, what 35 years or more is agility at the international level. I'm a two time international gold medalist, so that's pretty crazy too. And of course we're running at five yards a second and here's our thing, the dog doesn't know where they're going. So I mean there's a lot of teamwork involved with that and there's a huge amount of trust and you could only begin to imagine the level of confidence that a dog on the start line would have to have knowing that they are going to run as fast as they possibly can while performing extremely difficult and challenging maneuvers and they have no idea where they're going.

So that's pretty cool. I like that a lot. That teamwork means a lot to me. And I think that that generalized optimism that it's gonna be okay, boy, you just work your whole life for that with the dog that everything will be okay, we're good no matter what happens. Motorcycle. So what I mean, my dogs tend to love the game so much, which obviously is the foundation. If you don't have love for the game, you have nothing when the pressure happens. And I think we all know that, and I think people intuitively know that even if, if they see a little flinch from their dogs, I think if they, if they don't take that seriously that the dog feels insecure in the moment, if they don't take that seriously and figure out how to help the dog relax. I mean, Petra mentioned that at the very beginning, relaxation is a big deal and it's really huge in terms of being able to assess your dog's confidence, do they look relaxed? So I think that's something that we want to build and spend a whole lot of time with with competition in mind.

We wanna be thinking about how is it possible for me to help my dog relax in this, you know, crazy environment. So anyway, I've never thought about agility before as your dog's sitting on the start line, they have no idea what's gonna happen next. It's a really different way of, they know They're gonna run as fast as they possibly can.

Yeah. Which nowadays is well over seven yards a second, especially on a jumper's course where there aren't contact in, you know, materials and they have no idea where they're going. So I mean, you know, we tend to become frustrated with handlers who blame the dog for mistakes such as, I'll just take an example, that's a pet peeve of mine.

Famous face plants, which, you know, cost a whole lot of time and are a very serious era in terms of the dog's personal safety and the time spent going in the wrong direction, shall we say, just to put it bluntly. But every single face plant is a handler error and it means late information. Hello. And so if we stop thinking about dog errors and start thinking about antecedents and handler errors and timely information and what does the dog need to prevent errors, I think that's the way we have to go if we're gonna do well in competition. So only way to improve the dog's confidence about competition. No dog wants to land on his face. Okay. They don't want to do that any more than we do. Right, right. They didn't do that to ruin your run promise, I promise. Yeah. So think about your handling.

Petra Ford: So a couple things. One is I think it's super important for us to be confident. So I'm a hundred percent sure that Sara's dogs did their job with the crazy motorcycle in burning flames because she was confident, like she held it together, she was confident in herself in her handling and in her dogs, and she gave her dogs the support and kind of like the same picture as normal.

So the dogs went, oh, okay, mom's totally cool and she's giving me the cues that I understand really well, so I can do, I can respond to that and do it correctly. So that's huge. I'm like a massive proponent of mental management and that as handlers, we need to hold it together. I for sure in obedience and in rally, but I've seen in other sports as well where the handler is different in the ring than in training and that's super confusing for the dog and that's really gonna make the dog concerned because they don't know what we're asking of them. I also think that, like Sarah said, the dogs are dealing with a lot of pressure. They're also dealing with distractions and they're going to be novel all the time.

So they need to be able to generalize those behaviors, which means we need to put a lot of work into that. So you need to do more than just teach the behaviors really well in your yard or in your training building and then maybe one or two other places and then enter a trial and expect that your dog can handle. So I divide everything into like, you know, I teach my dogs how to handle pressure from the judge, from barriers from the environment. I teach my dogs how to generalize distractions, novel distractions so that when something novel happens, like the motorcycle, my dog's not like, oh, it's just another one of those weird things that mom exposes me to all the time as well as chaining.

Like our dogs have to do a chain of behaviors lasting nine to 11 minutes and they're doing them with very little to no reinforcement, right? Like in a perfect world, something like obedience or rally, you make the behaviors inherently self-reinforcing, but it's not as easy as certain other sports where the dogs are getting reinforced for, you know, running through a tunnel, for example, if your dog happens to like that a lot. So there are so many pieces that all your handling, you know, you have to make sure your handling is the same every time in training so that you're always giving your dog really clean information and then you do the same thing in the ring. So there are tons of different components and you need to really make sure your dog is confident in every single one of those areas. Before I would consider putting my dog in the ring.

And if I think my dog is ready and I go in the ring and my dog is telling me they're not, then I need to recognize that, acknowledge that respect, that step away from showing work on those areas and then try again. So there's a lot of responsibility on us to look at all these different areas and to put in really all the work because otherwise I personally just think it's not fair to the dog. We're just putting 'em in a situation where they're going to struggle and we're gonna, you know, be very limited in how we can help them in that moment in time. I think that was a lot. It was good information though.

Amy Cook: I have a quick anecdote to share about things of proofing. Not my own though. If anyone has seen Laurie Williams and her Maltese dog Andrew, they were on a reality show. They were on I think America's Greatest Dog, something like that a bit ago. And one of the challenges was your dog is in a stay while an elephant approaches you head on straight, head on to the dog and you can see this video anywhere. She has it on her social media, her seven pound Maltese sat there in a sit stay while this elephant walked all the way up. And it's not a trick of camera angle. The elephant got all the way to the dog within a couple of feet with the trunk over the dog's head and everything inspecting.

You know, they're sniffing each other a little bit. And I don't know that everybody really understands the, what that actually really is we do here, right? That dog was not whale eyed, that dog was not looking for an escape route and withstanding the pressure that dog just sat there curious about the elephant and doing fine with the frontal approach of something that large.

And I really marvel, I give a lot of props to Laurie for this. I really marvel because that dog, you know, any dog would've been at least holding a stay, but looking for like, should I be doing that? I don't know mom, this is a lot. I've never seen this before. And that dog was, was relaxed and trusting and just what it takes to build in that dog the confidence that this is going to be fine, whatever this is. I don't know, I've never seen an elephant before, but it's probably going to be fine. Mom said, stay, there's no reason to assume anything bad is gonna happen here. He was relaxed and fine. And, and I just think of that as a pinnacle of so much of what we want because we can't she couldn't prepare for that. Nobody prepared for that and most of the dogs could not stay.

And her dog not only stayed, but it just exuded like, yeah, this is fine. Like I'm sure it's gonna be okay. And I just marvel at that, you know, it's like your motorcycle with the flames, like what are you gonna do? You can't, you can't prepare for a lot of things. So I aspire to and, and with a toy dog, we all know that that also with a toy dog mentality that that is another achievement. So just so things to aspire to in my world.

Melissa Breau: That's absolutely amazing.

Amy Cook: Yeah, it's a video everybody can find. I'll send it to, I'll send it around. Yeah. I Also I think it would be interesting for other people to learn how much work she put behind that for that to happen. Because that's where I think people grossly underestimate and have too high an expectation very often of their dog.

Like how much work it takes on our part to get a dog to that point, Right? Because that's not just a trained stay, it wasn't just, we did lots of reps, right? That dog I can read immediately, we all could that that dog expected that it would be fine. And that takes a lot of experience at things being fine that you are not under threat.

If I think you're unconfident, I won't make you do this. You know, she put a lot of time and effort into communicating what she had to communicate for that and, you know, even if he came out the world's most confident dog, no dog is staying in place while an elephant does a frontal approach, right. Walking right up to them and you need to stay, any dog would be able to have questions about this. So the fact that he just didn't, we know how much work she must have put into that. It was incredibly impressive.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Yeah. So speaking of all of the work that goes into these things, let's talk about that a little bit. Where would you guys kind of start if you felt that a dog that you were raising maybe lacked confidence in some of these things? What training or skill building would you do? Kind of what are those first couple steps for you, Sara?

Sara Brueske: Yeah, a few of my dogs have lacked confidence in different ways. I would say most dogs out there have an area, at least one area where they lack a little bit confidence and could do with some confidence building, whether that's environmental, social or whatever that, whatever the pressure is. And so even if my dog doesn't show symptoms of lacking confidence, I still do these steps. So I have something in my back pocket to rely on later when maybe they're going through a funky adolescent stage or something like that, a little boost in that confidence. Plus they're just general fun engagement games that I like to do anyway. And so my presentation for the conference is actually my favorite confidence building games, like that's what it's called, Sara's Favorite Confidence Building Games. And so these are games or variations of these games that I teach all of my dogs, all of my student dogs, all of the dogs that come to Day Camp and they're just stupidly easy. Like one of them's a treat toss game, one of them is choose to heel, one of them's just hand touches.

But the whole point is that they are stupidly easy and predictable so that my dog can learn to be, use them as a cue of, oh, everything is fine here, everything is normal. So even if we come into a situation where they're lacking a little bit of confidence, they, we can play these games and they're like, oh mom's normal game is normal. I know this game. They have a conditional emotional response to these games and that helps bring up their confidence in that certain circumstance. So first thing I do, even if I don't have a dog that's lacking confidence, but it's a dog I'm working with or a dog I'm raising, teach some really easy, fun, predictable games to them.

Julie Daniels: Oh yeah, like that approach a lot. So if I had to pick one thing, and we all know there's never one thing, it's all a big picture. But if I have to pick one thing, when I first start seeing a lack of confidence, maybe it's situational or maybe it's general, I'm gonna try to evoke a curiosity response in something, anything just to peak the dog's interest in something in a positive way. I am looking for a way to turn a negative valence because the dog is clearly worried, right? That's what I'm seeing is some sort of anxiety or worry. So that's a negative emotion. And I wanna find a way to evoke a mild, that's what my thing is about is mild arousal. I don't, I don't wanna just use, I don't wanna just bring out a tug toy and get the dog so ramped up that nothing's gonna phase 'em.

We often talk dogs into things they don't wanna do using arousal. So I'm not talking about that kind of arousal. I'm talking about a very mild arousal, such as a curiosity response. Just like, whoa, what is that? Because that's a positive emotion and that's how I'm going to overwrite negative emotions is by beginning and then introducing and building upon the various positive emotions I'm gonna need in order to increase my dog's confidence.

So I think that's probably the very first thing I'm going to do. And the other thing I'd mention as being a first order turn of events would be empowerment games. And the games that I'm going to talk about in my presentation involve some kind of snuffling. And I'm gonna go into, I'm gonna do a deep dive into snuffling and how you can use that whole approach to both measure, assess, and measure and then systematically actually expand your dog's confidence.

Melissa Breau: That's a fun word to say: snuffle. Yeah, it just kind of fits.

Petra Ford: So I think the most important thing for people is first of all to even recognize when their dog is not confident. Because I think sometimes people don't, sometimes people feel the dog's not confident and they completely bail, which doesn't necessarily help the dog or sometimes they push too hard. So I think the most important thing is to read your dog and then kind of do what Sara said, which is I just say, can you do like this super simple behavior. For me it's usually a trick or something using props. Like my dogs have really strong positive relationships with certain props, so I'll bring those along. Can you do that?

And then in some instances I've done kind of what Julie said was like, just a treat, toss something very simple. Can you, can you eat the treats here? Cool. Can we move a little closer? Good. Is this too hard? Can we move further away? Can you do it now? Yes, good dog and kind of build it up that way. But I think it's important for people to learn how to read their dogs and recognize when they are struggling a little bit and then think about doing something that can support them and help them out.

Amy Cook: I think that yes to all your answers for sure. Always tough to, you know, go last when you, when you've all kind of covered such great ground. And I think that the, the part that I would add, the thing I emphasize, you know, the question is where would I start? If I feel a dog I'm raising lacks confidence. Where I'm starting is I'm making sure that I've communicated a framework of choice for this dog.

I want dogs to opt out, I want dogs to tell me they can't do this. So that I'm not necessarily just relying on body language. I want them to be able to directly say, no, not this one. I can't. And so that I can also then say, you're allowed to say no, we don't have to do this thing. You're out. There's a reward for you not saying no, there's another thing available to you. And I feel that when a dog really understands the system, they're in that way when they really know they have a choice that I will not be saying, Hey, but give it a try anyway.

It's gonna work out. You know? 'cause I know it is gonna work out when instead I say you can always tell me no and I will accept that answer. I feel like I get a lot more yeses. I feel like a dog who, and I've said this before, you know yes, is more meaningful from a dog allowed to say no.

And I wanna make sure that, that early on my dogs understand that there's a way to tell me what's actually going on for them in case I miss a signal in case they aren't, you know, obvious in body language. In case my head is somewhere else. I say, would you like to do this? And here's a cue for you to do that.

And the answer is, "Nope, don't think I can." I want them to know that that is safe for them to do because, you know, choice and control over your own environment is very confidence building. It's very stress relieving. And if there is any stress there, I want them to know they can walk in and say, oh, not today,

Nope, not for me, can't do it. I want them to know that an option. I, of course, before I get to any point with them, want them to not feel they ever want to answer that, I want their answers to be heck yeah, everywhere we go. But if the answer does happen to be no, I don't think so.

I don't want there to be a cover on them that says, but I can't really say that, so I'm just gonna still try my hardest to face this. I don't want them facing things that they've told me they feel really insecure about because the earlier they can tell me, Hey, this is kind of a problem for me, the less of a hole I'm gonna dig, either in missing signals or in just kind of being a human that's discounting that and saying, come on, it's gonna be fine. You're okay. I don't wanna get in that trap. That's a hole you dig and you just keep digging and it can become a problem before you know it.

So, I'm gonna at least try my best to emphasize some choice to cover my blind spot, to cover my mistake, you know, so that a dog can be very direct with me if I've missed something. And then, then I'll know that if I really do get yeses here, that these yeses are freely given and I didn't accidentally, you know, put any pressures on them to do that because I want my training to also cover for my very real human possibilities for mistakes. So that's where I go with that.

Petra Ford: Can I go off script and ask Amy a question? Yeah. Maybe. No, it's easy. Can you tell us where we could learn about how to teach our dogs the opt out cue? I guess it sounds to me like that's what it is. Where can you go to learn that, Melissa? Do we have classes in that?

Melissa Breau: If you're talking about like start button behaviors, I mean, we've got a number of people who do like ready to work protocols. We occasionally do have stuff on start buttons. I don't know if there's anything coming up on it, but is the Start Button the same? Is that kind how your Stop Button that Amy said, where the dog says, has the option to say no.

Amy Cook: I'm certainly not the person to truly and clearly explain the difference between start buttons and the other pieces of this. I know other people do this, this well, but there's a way in which if, if you don't give me your behavior at the start, you're saying no, you're, if you won't set up, you're saying no. So there's a way for that. But there's also, you can directly teach, you can say, so I've taught, I've taught Caper, a backup. If she just takes one step backwards or one step backwards and sits, she's not moving forward into what I asked. So if I say, do you wanna go outside and open the door? Let's go. Okay, you can go. And she takes one step backwards. I'm like, oh, you don't need to go outside, that's fine. I don't have to guess from her standing there, that kind of thing. So you can just directly teach and alternate behavior and reward it as well. I open the door, if you take a step back, I'll close the door, give you a cookie and go. So she actually has a communication system.

It really is just a possibility of setting up cute, you know, behaviors that lead to different reinforcers so that they can do those different behaviors. But then the, the trick is that it's okay to do that as a response to the queue I just gave, you don't have to just do the one thing to the queue I just gave, you can do this other thing as well and get a different reward. And that lets me know that I have, I have an issue in place. I'm not sure I can tell you where to go get all of that. Petra, now that you, now that you say it, where are we teaching this?

Melissa Breau: Yeah, that's a good question. I don't know. I feel like I've heard bits and pieces of the different places, but I dunno if there's any one solid resource to kinda point to. I know when I was working with Levi early on, there were a couple places that I picked up. Like he had a good mat option. So if we were working on something and I was over facing him, he could go to his mat and I would reinforce that no matter what we were working on, right? So some of those kind of options, behaviors, right? Like having two behaviors available at all times. Having your toy, you know, having something else you could do for reinforcement. So I've suggested this thing, Hey, get up on top of this.

And instead they look at that and go, Hey, how about I go over here on my mat? You know, it's like, oh sure you can do that as well. Here's your reward for that. But now let's stop and let me ask myself as a trainer, why didn't you go for the thing I was directly offering? How come I'm not gonna just go and ask you again,

I'm gonna problem solve here. But you had two options. You can go to the thing I indicated, or the other thing in the environment that you're also allowed to avail yourself of and your choice there tells me I have an issue. 'cause you should have thought the thing I indicated was the best thing possible. That's the best one, right? No. Oh, why not? Yeah.

Petra Ford: Thanks for that information. Hmm.

Melissa Breau: And it can be really useful, especially on more complex behaviors. Like when I was trying to teach Levi weave poles, right? Like if he was like, I do not understand what you just asked me. I'm gonna go land my mat instead. Like, it was a very clear piece of communication.

Okay, I need to stop, rethink how I'm teaching this and break things down just a little bit more. Right? Julie? Don't we see this in agility where, you know, I've queued a weave and the dog goes tunnel, I'll do tunnel instead. And people get so mad at that. It's like, I'm collaborating with you human. I'm giving you something you tend to like for you. You usually can I just do this one instead? And it's not naughty. It's a collaboration in my mind.

Julie Daniels: Yeah. It's information that we need and we need to take seriously. So yeah, for sure. Yeah. So I was thinking about that as Petra asked a question and I think the very first place to start would be something like Chirag Patel's Bucket Game, because that incorporates both the start button and the stop button very clearly in the same game, which it has quite a lot of usefulness throughout life anyway. So it's a, you might call it a Zen Bowl game of sorts, but he has a very specific way of teaching it. And it's freely available on his website, which used to be called Domesticated Manners.

I'm not sure, but if you Google Chirag Patel Bucket Game, you'll come up with it. And I'm sure you'll love it because it's easy to teach to your students. I teach it in Baby Genius class, Hey, which comes up in the February term. And we do a lot with it because it incorporates both a start button and it's a duration start button which is easy for a puppy to learn. And conceptually it's a powerful tool for us to use in all our training going forward. So I love the question, and that's my direct answer to that question. That's where I would start. I like it. Maybe somebody has to develop something, a specific, a webinar workshop kind of targeted around that.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, that would be a fun one.

Julie Daniels: I would love to do that. 'cause as Amy said, we use that, we need that information so much. And agility, so much of what we do is really hard and comes at you fast. So I love the dog's choice training approach and have been advocating it for agility for 30 years. And it used to be quite an uphill battle. I spent a lot of time arguing. But the world changed in your favor. That's so true. It's so heart forming. It's all changed in my favor. And now people, you know, want the information, which is great. So Yeah. I don't have to bitch anymore. Well, and also, you know, the ready to work stuff is like it's all built in this, because that's saying, lemme ask you if you can do this, and then you get an answer from the dog if they can do this. And then we've taken it a step further, which is, I'm gonna let you say yes or no to this thing. And if you say, no, that's a valid answer, we're gonna go that direction as well. Yeah. And a step beyond just saying, I can, I want to, my responses are what you expect. I am eating, I have low latency.

This is do you, do you want to? And if you give me a different answer that says, you'd rather do something else, I'm actually gonna honor it. Which is blasphemy in so much of historical doctrine, you don't honor that. They said, no thanks, I'd rather not, you don't honor that you convince them that, that this is the way they should go.

But not, I don't, I wouldn't do, I don't do that anymore. I used to, but I don't do that anymore. Yeah. So the research around that is so fascinating and so exciting because we know for a fact that even if the learner can go walk three or four steps and eat the same cookie for free, we know that it doesn't take long for them to prefer to work.

And I see that in my agility dogs and have for 30 years. They would rather work than get it for free. Yeah. And people are worried about that. If I let my dog opt out, well then he is just gonna opt out to get the cookie. Why would he work? And you know, I wanna tell people that's not what happens.

And you can freely reward your dog for choosing not to do the thing you offered because they have a reason for that. There's a reason there. They would otherwise have jumped right into what you were offering. So if they're opting out for that same, for that same reward, you have a problem in front of you to solve. Once you solve it, you'll have that problem. And the solution is always in the antecedents. Always. Always. Yeah.

Melissa Breau: Yep. I Love that. So that was a fun sidetrack. And for those listening, this is usually what happens after I hit stop recording. So, hey, I'm all about including it in the podcast this time. All right, so one last question for everybody, and it's just kind of a general, like any final thoughts, any key points you maybe wanna leave listeners with? Anything you kind of wanna round out everything we've been talking about with Julie?

Julie Daniels: Oh boy, that's a fun one. And we certainly could talk for another hour. Let's just say, I think it's important for us to carry away that we have a lot to do with how successful our dog is gonna feel, how confident the dog is gonna feel in a certain environment. And, feel free to share that with your dog. So feel free to develop ways to let your dog know that it's cool, everything's good here. You're gonna model confidence and you're also gonna share your confidence. They can take their confidence from you when they need to do so while they bolster their own.

And it's, and wait, no, I have to do one more thing. 'cause this came up in my head while we were talking about something else. So as a final thought, here's my final thought. And when we're talking about, oh, you have to train for an elephant approaching your dog, or you have to train for the motorcycle on the tightrope or the guy juggling fire. No, you don't. What you have to train for is variety. Such, such a wide variety of unexpected small things adds up to that kind of resilience and confidence around the big things. So I would say simply that creating a lot of variety in your training is much more important and valuable overall than continually increasing the difficulty level, which is what we all, you know, tend, we think we need to do. You gotta work up to really hard stuff to, you know, have them feel confident around an elephant. Well, yes and no. You need a huge variety of experiences that all work out fine and bolster the dog's confidence from every single conceivable angle. That variety is more important than difficulty. That's my parting word.

Melissa Breau: Excellent, Sara?

Sara Brueske: Yeah, so I just want to kind of let everybody know that confidence building should be an important part regardless of whether your dog lacks confidence or not in your training. So even if you feel like you have the most confident dog in the world, you can never train confidence or build your dog's confidence too much. We want them to be pushy, we want them to be excited to work. We want them to be able to stand up to an elephant without a problem. And the only way we get there is by considering confidence building a crucial part of our training and a necessary part of our training, regardless if our dog lacks confidence or not.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Alright, Petra?

Petra Ford: So I would highlight and underline everything Julie and Sara just said. I'm also gonna kind of reiterate something I said earlier is that it takes a lot of work on our part. And I think that's super important for people to understand, especially with the variety, right? It means that today I could easily just go and train in my yard, but even though it's cold out, I'm gonna suck it up, put my coat on, put everything on, throw my dogs in the car, drive them somewhere where it's different. And you know, maybe today my dog can only do like 10 or 15 minutes in that environment, but that's so valuable and then I have to put 'em back in the car drive all the way back. But I feel that if we don't put the work into it, it's just not fair for our dogs. And I think that there's nothing more rewarding or beautiful than watching a dog work that is truly then a dog that can work confidently at a competition, right? So that it kind of like what we described with the cute little dog and the elephant is the dog can do that, not because it was exposed to an elephant, but because it was exposed to so many different things. And then when you see it doing that, it's beautiful. Like everybody would be like, wow, look at that dog. That's amazing. So it was worth it for her to put all that work into the dog.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. All right, Amy, you wanna round us out? Final thoughts?

Amy Cook: Yeah, underline everybody. Of course. That's a great term. Thank you, Petra. I want people to leave with the idea that they are really, all their dog has, they are crafting the experiences that their dogs have for the most part. And, we need to be safe places for our dogs. We are not a place of pressure.

We are a place of opportunity. We are the people that say, this is going to be fun, this is going to be safe for you, and you can trust that I will be that. And, and that puts the onus on us to understand that, that we have to curate carefully the experiences our dogs have, and we have to watch our own skills and our own ideas when they creep in that, oh, we just want one more, or, oh, I'm sure my mechanics were clear enough, it's your fault that you didn't get it. Actually, we need to be really clear and consistent about what we expect and what we're going to do and where we're going to bring them.

And to know that they're having to build the picture of their world based on what we've put in front of them and what we and how we behave. And so keep your dog's emotions and their optimism and their expectations in the forefront of your mind. Well over the precision of exactly what your dog did right then prize that your dog did something confidently, even if they were confidently wrong.

Because you can wreck the confidence. You can always build the precision only that wasn't exactly the behavior I wanted. That's okay. I've got, I can explain that better, I can keep working with that one. But you can wreck confidence by not honoring that they really tried their best somewhere and they, they really just jumped ahead and said, I think I know what it is.

It's this, you know, take your dog's fair offerings, keep your dog optimistic that working with you is wonderful to do, and know that you are their safe place, not their place of pressure. Keep their safety both emotional and physical in mind all the time. And let the rest of it kind of come out in the wash as you keep training forward. So I think we should be the best caretakers of their emotions as we can.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. That's an important note to end on, so I'm glad that's where we're, we're leaving things. Thank you all so much for coming on the podcast. This has been such a cool conversation. So thank you. Thanks Melissa. And thank you to all of our listeners here for tuning in.

We'll be back next week with Kayla Everett to talk about trialing and nosework. If you haven't already, please subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast, music provided royalty free by bensound.com. The track featured here is called Buddy. Audio Editing by Chris Lang. Thanks again for tuning in. Happy training.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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