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Sunday, 27 June 2021 12:45

Stick with the Program!

There are many distractions today when owner-training a service dog. And I'm not only talking about distractions for the dog.
If you want to train your dog to be your calm focussed service dog in a timely manner, you'll have better success to choose one program designed for the job and follow it through. The building blocks that are laid out for you will get you there faster and with more success than trying to cobble your own program together. 

The trouble is that we all get bored of the doing the same things when they require long-term focus and we welcome variety in what we do. One thing to do is change what specific behaviors within a program you are are working on, then go back to the previous ones. 
Occasional clearly-defined side forays to unrelated activities for variety are fine. They do, unfortunately, act as a reinforcer and often become the focus, which is why people often stray from a program. We get bombarded by social media with all the possibilities that are out there. We feel we are missing out. Shiny bells and whistles draw us away from what should be our focus. Stay the course! 

There are so many fun sports for dogs today! Many of these require very different emotional state from service dogs and are often incompatible with being a service dog. They aim for high arousal and high speed.  Instead we want a service dog to be in medium to low arousal at all times (except when off duty) so that he can regulate his behaviors and ignore highly arousing distractions like running people, kids with food and other dogs. A service dog needs to be able to get up from a relaxed settle to do a task when needed, then settle back down immediately. The behaviors a service dog are asked to do are smaller more focussed behaviors like a short 6 foot retrieve of a dropped item rather than outright sprinting for 100 yards to retrieve an object.
Consider the extra courses you take carefully. Will they lead you to your goal of a trained assistance dog or conflict with it? Can your dog clearly separate the two as work and play? Can you? If not, keep looking for something more compatible. 

Choose a solid program that is intended for service dog or assistance dog training. A program that is best suited to your medical needs, your dog and your environment will help you both to learn the needed behaviors, tasks and emotional state. Such a program will offer training for the different life stages of your dog, and support you through the challenges of such stages if you follow it through. The program itself will build in choice for variety to keep the process interesting.  The best thing you can do to have more success overall in training your own assistance dog is stick to the program!

Here are some tips to staying focussed

Check out our online self-paced service dog program with web cam options and see if it will work for you and your dog! Request a free 15 minute webcam session to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. about how our program may fit your needs! Hope to hear from you soon!

Wednesday, 02 June 2021 07:44

Prices for Puppies & Dogs Have Increased

World-wide, the price of puppies and dogs has gone up. Apparently during Covid 19, many people thought that them being at home was a good time to get a puppy or dog, decreasing overall availability. Waiting lists for puppies are years long and the limited supply has driven prices up. More unscrupulous breeders are increasing how many litters they are having. 

Buyer Beware
It's a buyer beware situation! Some people are cashing in on the trend and charging over-inflated prices for puppies with untested health and temperament. In Canada for example, mixed breed pups that just over a year ago used to go for $750 are now selling for $3000 or more, depending on the mix. The poodle mixes (often with doodle in the name) have historically sold for very high prices and are now costing even more  at around $4500 to $6000. Most of these are from untested health lines.

If you are looking for a service dog candidate right now, for the same money (or less), you can get dogs from long-time established and ethical breeders who do breed-specific health testing and are concerned with the temperament of their lines and individual dogs. These are breeders who breed with a purpose: to either produce a dog for a specific sport or function or to improve their breed. Some breed to create a good family dog but these are hard to find. 

The get-rich-quick breeders will tell you their dogs "are healthy and vet checked". A veterinarian cannot see hereditary diseases, not can they see internal structural anomalies that won't develop until the dog is older. For a service dog candidate, a simple vet check tells us nothing. Being a service dog is mentally, emotionally, socially and physically taxing. Burnout due to stress and stress-related medical conditions is common among owner trained service dogs. Service dog candidates need to be genetically and structurally healthy as a starting point. Of course temperament of the individual is important as well.

Some Steps to Take
What can you do to make sure you are getting a medically healthy dog?

1. Choose a breed or mix.
2. Find out what inherited health issues are common in the breed or breeds you are considering. Look at health issues beyond basic structural issues. Here is a .pdf that you can view online or download. It lists the breeds and what inheritable diseases they are prone to. Some diseases are affected by the environment both in development and as an adult. 
Be aware that there are other diseases such as seizures or allergies that may or may not be tested for but may also affect a specific line of a breed. Do additional breed-specific searches on the internet or join a breed-specific group of forum to learn more from owners and educated breeders alike.
3. Ask what specific health conditions the breeder tests the specific parents for or tries to keep out of their lines.
4. Get copies of the actual test results of both parents of any litter you are seriously considering. In some cases you can get OFA numbers and look them up on the OFA website or for labradors, golden retrievers and Nova Scotia duck tollers on
If the dog is an adult (2 years or older) you can get the dog itself tested for many things like hips, elbows, patellas, eyes etc if the breeder has not yet done that. You can also make the purchase or return of the dog contingent on suitable results of the tests. Make sure to specific that they will refund or replace the dog (whichever you prefer) and by what age the tests must be done.

No Guarantees
Unfortunately, there are many factors involved in a dog's individual health so health testing will not guarantee a lifelong healthy dog. What health testing does do, is give you an idea to the degree the breeder is doing due diligence to prevent unwanted known health issues from getting into their lines or attempting to remove them from their lines. And studies show that when done over many generations, health testing is predictive of the health of the lines overall. 

Check out our free lesson on finding a reputable dog breeder and work though that first.

Get Third Party Breeder Evaluation
Finding a suitable canine candidate can take some time. Ruling out unethical breeders then talking to potential breeders takes patience. It is an emotional roller coaster for everyone. When you are spending that amount of money, training and effort on a potential service dog candidate, it it worth it to get a second opinion about a specific breeder from a professional. Book a set of 3 x30 min web cam sessions or one or more 60 minute web cam sessions with us. We help help guide you in the direction of a reputable breeder by ruling out the less desirable ones. 

When I was back in university, I took a class called "Environmental Psychology" that had a huge impact on how I looked at the world. Right from the first class, I learned an important lesson. Context can affect our views and behaviors!

At the time, I lived and breathed teaching children and families about nature and the environment animals live in.  So, when I read the class description, I thought the class was going to be about how the natural environment affects human behavior. Imagine my surprise when I stepped into the classroom the first session and found out that we were going to study how the built environment affects humans behaviors!  An example would be how we move through a shopping mall affects our purchasing choices. I seriously considered dropping the class but decided that while it was different than what I thought, it might prove to be of interest and value after all. It was!

In that class, we looked closely at how every part of the environment can change how we interact with it. From the width and flow of hallways to the color of the walls and height of the ceiling affects if we are attracted to that location, how we feel in it, what we do in it and how long we stay there. It can even affect what we purchase while we are in it! 

Changing the Environment Changes the Behavior
Just changing the appearance of the entrance to a store can make it more appealing to enter into. Choosing the design and comfort of a chair can affect how long the customer stays.  If a chair is comfortable, a customer will stay longer. If the chair is uncomfortable, they will leave more quickly. Fast food chains like McDonald's achieved a higher turnover through their restaurants for many years when they used hard ugly yellow chairs attached to the tables. Conversely, family restaurants who want you to stay longer and eat more, offer more comfortable padded dining booths that afford privacy and often some sound dampening. Deliberately placing small items like gum, candy and magazines near cash lines at grocery stores takes advantage of people's impulsiveness while waiting. Most of this behavior response is unconscious and is conditioned by repeated exposure and becomes a habit.

How it Applies to a Service Dog in Training
The knowledge from the field of environmental psychology is very relevant to training a service dog. For the most part, we choose and create the environment around our dogs. The size and design of the house and yard we choose to live in with them, the access to the house (the level of freedom they have), the arrangement of objects that are found within and extends to the emotional environment we create and especially the habits we get into all affect how our dog behaves to a large degree. Like us humans, much of this behavior response is unconscious and becomes habitual. 

Good Crate Habits
Let's start with a crate. It's a small confined space often placed in a quiet location in the house. Often there is a soft cushion in it. The dog is put in the crate when we want him to rest or take a nap. We will sit quietly nearby. Maybe he's given a food toy to occupy and calm him at first. If the crate door is left open, we may find that the dog chooses to go in during the day when he wants some quiet time. That combination of things teaches him that being in the crate means he can be calm and relaxed within one.

In teaching the crate, we may also see a dog that can calm down in a crate but not when laying out in the room with the family. That's likely because he's learned that the only place he gets a break or needs to be calm is when he is in the crate. At other times someone is interacting with him or entertaining him. The family needs to learn to build in some quiet time with the dog out of the crate. Maybe it starts in the evening, when everyone is tired from the day, the dog cuddles with the handler on the floor or couch. The handler might start with a massage. Then as the dog has learned to calm there, just the warmth of laying next to the handler or on a particular mat is calming. With repeated exposure, the dog learns to be calm out of the crate as well. The same can apply with a dog that is calm in the car but not out on a walk. His handler has likely gotten into the habit of putting the dog into the car (a small quiet stationary place) after the walk, perhaps to talk with friends, but never set up the situation for the dog to learn to be calm and rest out of the car. Next time, bring a mat and have the dog settle on the mat on leash next to you as you talk with your friend. 

Coming and Going
When we come back into the room or house after an outing and we interact with our dog in a positive way when she's excited (jumping up etc), then we are conditioning (making it a habit) that excitement. Instead, if we come in and get busy doing something else, and wait to interact when the dog is calmer (it only takes two or three minutes), we will have a calmer dog when we come and go.  (Check out this calming video)

Being Calm on Outings
A dog that is habitually revved up before, during or after training sessions or outing (to burn off extra energy first) conditions a high adrenaline response before and during training. Chasing balls triggers adrenaline for example. That is the opposite of what we want in an assistance dog. Choosing less adrenalizing ways to expend extra energy with a service dog is ideal.  A long walk at a steady speed can take the edge off and have a calming effect because serotonin is released during the sustained exercise. 

Settling in outdoor setting.
Photo used with permission by Ingrid Mcue 2021.

Making Better Choices of Reinforcers
Carefully choosing what reinforcers we use can make a huge impact on the present and future behavior of a dog. Our behavior, massage, food and play can all be used.

Using calm body language (avoiding flailing arms and excessive body movements) can help a dog stay calm. Moderating your voice (generally lower tones, speaking slowly and using softer volumes) can have an calming influence. Make sure to use calm sound and body movements at first, then teach him to remain calm even when your voice and body language tells him you are excited.

While massage is less exciting than food for most dogs, how you use it makes a big difference. Heavy fast pressure can actually excite some dogs. Generally long slow medium strokes are calming. Food can be calming (low value) as the chewing process calms a dog or it can be exciting if your dog loves all food and gulps it!  Toy play can be super exciting or only moderately exciting. This doesn't limit play from your dog's repertoire, just be careful in why and when you choose to use it. If you want your dog to show more enthusiasm for a specific behavior, such as pulling forward guiding, then use toy play afterwards to increase the enthusiasm.

If your dog gets excited about food (as most Golden retriever and Labrador retrievers do!) then use massage to consistently reinforce a calm behavior or task. If your dog doesn't value a massage, then you need to teach him it has value!

Training in Public Places
Taking a dog to an environment that has constant movement, such as a dog park or busy mall, and never teaching him he can be calm there results in a dog that expects to be doing something at all times. Instead, take his mat and settle at a distance to watch. Use massage to help him stay calm. Do it for short periods and only increase the duration when he is successful at lower durations. Only then incrementally decrease the distance from the excitement.

When we do public access training, if all we do is train in motion the entire time we are out, the dog never learns to be calm or rest away from home. They learn to expect to be "on" the whole time. Instead, we need to teach them that being calm and relaxed is in fact what they can do most of the time when away from home. We need to get into the habit of adding calm settle sessions away from home. Do them often in an outing. Then build time into those. This is hard for many people, especially if they are uncomfortable away from home. You may need to have someone else to do this part of the training for you until the dog is ready to have you accompany them. A family member or trusted friend can do this or hire an experienced trainer to take on this part of the training, then transition it over to you.

Here is a service dog sleeping in a hospital.
(photo used with permission from Sarah Magnan 2021)

Calm During Anxiety and Panic Attacks
If a dog consistently sees, especially from a young age, the handler being emotionally affected by a trigger or environment, that dog can become sensitized to those events or situations. There is research to support that. So, we either start with an older dog that has had her personality shaped by a more stable environment before we start training anxiety-related tasks or we can try to avoid letting her experience stressful situations until she is old enough to handle it. Most dogs start getting to emotional and social maturity at 18 months of age or later.

Consider Your Own Environment
So knowing that the physical and emotional environment affect your dog, what things do you do to unknowingly excite your dog every day? What specific things can you do to change the environment around your service dog in training to change his response to a calmer one? 

I am so glad I stayed in the class as it was a life lesson of considering the environment's affect on not only human behavior but that of service dog behavior!

If you'd like to get some specific ideas on what environmental changes are possible for your environment and identify what habits you and your family might have that are working against you teaching your service dog in training to be calm, book a web cam session with me!

When learning how to train your own service dog, there is much theory to be learned.
In order to successfully train your service dog, you need to transfer that theory into practice. Some people can do it easily, while others are okay and still others understand the theory but struggle with putting it into practice.
First, identify where your area of weakness is. 

It helps if you practice all three steps like any other skill. 
Get help from a family member, friend or professional trainer to help you think through all the considerations needed for your specific dog and situation. They can also help you make a plan to implement the theory. 
Then demonstrate what what you need to do. (Learning by observation is a key skill for humans too.)

First, let's look at the practical training skills, also called "training mechanics".

Choose a Theory and a Behavior
Let's start with applying the concept of "capturing". Capturing is a great way to teach a dog what any behavior he already does naturally is called. First we get him to do it repeatedly and predictably, then we add the cue.

Choose a really simple behavior like sit or down for your dog. Your dog knows how to sit, we are just getting him to do it and adding a name to it so he knows that we are asking for it.
This experience is for you, not your dog so don't worry too much about how well he already does or does not do the behavior, just that he is willing to work with you.

Next, using the same behavior, plan a training session. 
Where are you going to do the training. Why?
What equipment will you need? (reinforcers, props, etc.)
What training mechanic are you going to be working on (for you, not the dog)?
Exactly what will it look like? 
What specific criterion are you looking for in this set of 10 repetitions?
How will you know he meets your criterion?
When will you mark? Before the dogs does it, while he is doing it? After he has done it?
What treat will you use? What value? What shape and texture(this can affect how far it rolls if you toss it)
Where will you move the treat to once you take it in your hand. In front of you? At your side?
Where will you release it to? His mouth? Drop it on the floor? If the latter, how far will the dog have to move to get it?
How will that line him up for the next repetition? It helps if for you to be very clear on where you are putting your treat (use a piece of tape to make where you want to place it or a bowl to toss or drop it into or put tape on the ground where you will toss it to.)
What will the next repetition look like? Dog stops chewing and lifts head or eyes to make contact with my eyes.

Great! If you have answered all these questions before you train, now you have a specific plan!

Do it! Hands-on Practice!
Practice the skill without your dog in the room. Put him into a crate or in the other room with a door or baby gate to stop him from getting to you.
Either use a stuffed dog or use a surrogate dog (a pillow works just fine!). 
Set up the equipment (including a camera to film the session).
Set up the fake dog where you would place your real dog. Consider if the flooring material may affect a dog's ability to do the behavior (In this case is it slippery or grippy?)
Stand where you would stand if the dog was real.
Do a training session exactly as you would if your real dog were there. Do 10 repetitions in a nice even flow.
Record your session and afterward watch your body movements.

How did it feel? Did the process get smoother each time you did it?

Repeat the training session several times, each time paying attention to only one mechanical skill.
Where are you holding your treat delivery hand while you want for the click? This is called your "Home position". Keeping your hand there will prevent you from reaching for the treat before you click. 
What is your criterion? 
When will you click? 
Where will you release the treat? 

Here is a video showing me capturing eye contact from Jessie as an example to see what you are aiming for. The session is just 30 seconds long but is a good example to observe what I am doing rather than what the dog is doing.
Just watch the first 43 seconds. Do not do it yet with your dog. Just watch what I am doing in the video.


Now the theory. What training concept were you using? (Capturing)
Describe what you did.
Describe why you did it.
Was it successful?
What would you change the next time?

Now I want you to try it with your dog. 
Keep everything else the same, just remove the fake dog and add your live dog to the set up. 

More Thinking...
What other behaviors might you use capturing to teach your dog the name of a behavior they already do?
For each behavior, what environment or situation does your dog tend to do it in? How could you set that situation up to increase the chances he will do the behavior again? 

Is this process similar to other parts of the theory you already know? Such as classical conditioning? In what way? 

The Beginnings of a New Skill! 
Just like any other skill, doing it will feel awkward at first. Just like driving a car or learning a musical instrument, with practice you will likely feel more comfortable and be able to do it without thinking about it as you do it.  The more practice you have doing the correct training mechanics, planning and applying the theory, the easier it will come to be.

Rather than asking others how you might solve your dog's problems, if you gain the ability to apply the theory, you will be able to solve them yourself. 
If you are still having trouble with any of these three parts of the training process, then reach out and get some help.

We are available to do one hour web cam sessions or three 30 minute sessions to walk you through the process (scroll down the link for the one hour session). If you are clear on what you want to learn, we can help you get there! 



Here is a link to 20 years of research that looks at why specific-bred guide dogs are removed or "washed" from work. This is important to look at as more and more people are owner-training dogs they have chosen as service and assistance dogs. If professionally bred dogs have issues, then it's no surprise that dogs chosen from pet and sport dog lines will have problems. The key is to choose your next service dog candidate carefully. Choose the right breed. Look for parents who are fearless. Look for breeders with mature dogs and multi-generations so you have a better feel for their potential.

A quick summary of the findings:
In the study 83% of the dogs retired. The reason for other dogs being removed from service were: 
environmental anxiety, training issues (a lack of willingness to work or confidence) and  fear and aggression.
Other reasons were chasing, lack of attentiveness, social behaviour, excitability and distraction.

An average service dog's working life is 3097 days. Dogs removed from service for behavioural reasons lost between 1,580 – 2,286 days of work.

Different issues were associated with dogs of different age categories.

2016 source

Young dogs under 3.5 years of age were more likely to be removed for fear and aggression.
Training issues were the reason for removal of dogs older than 6 years.

Sex may also affect the type of behavior that triggers removal. Fear, aggression and chasing were more often cited in the neutered males (All guide dogs are neutered).

Breed may as well. Behavioral reasons for Labradors were the least likely reason to be removed from work. German Shepherds showed the most fear and aggression.

Note that this study does not include mention of dogs that were removed for health or other non-behavioral reasons. They are other things to consider. 

This research points to the need to carefully choose your next service dog candidate. Not just any dog will do! Check out our FREE Service Dog Selection Class. There are many things to consider! 

Anaphylactic Allergy Alert Dogs (Peanut, tree nut, fish) alert dog

Training a dog to do anaphylactic alerts takes a very high degree of training since it involves the life and death of the handler. SDTI accepts no liability or responsibility for these risks should you decide to train your own dog. This content is provided for interest only so people understand the possible process of training anaphylaxis alerts.

Anaphylactic allergies are becoming more and more common, especially among children. There are things that can be done to protect those with severe allergies from harm. Of course the best thing is to avoid the allergen trigger, but this can be hard when, in cases such as peanuts, they are found in so many things and in so many places. (Link to list)

Anaphylactic Alert Dogs are dogs that can alert the allergic person to the presence of these specific chemicals in their environment, even what they can’t be seen by the naked eye. This can be done in three ways.
1. The dog is sent in the room ahead of the person, does a room search and indicates if there are objects containing the allergen or residue (which may be on counter tops, handles, clothing etc)
2. The dog stays in proximity to their handler and alerts if the allergen is on or near objects, people and food and blocks their access to it (as in if a person moves close to them with some peanut butter on their clothing or who has handled peanuts recently) This is more typically used with children. With adults, the dog may be trained to alert to the location of the allergen (using a pre-trained behavior used only for that alert such as scooting backwards or dancing on front feet and then sitting) and the handler makes a decision to leave the area.
3. The dog is trained to sniff food (from a restaurant) that may contain allergens and alert if it is present (peanuts, tree nuts, fish, soy, etc that triggers allergies).

The dog is usually taught to use the same alert behavior for all different allergen alerts. The dog learns to alert several different scents (or residues) that can trigger an anaphylactic reaction such as different kinds of tree nuts if that is what the handler is allergic to.

They can also do other tasks such as carrying medication (Epipens (adrenaline), antihistamines etc) in a pack, getting help if the person collapses etc. In their home environment, dogs can also be trained to remind their handler to take medication at regular intervals such as the same time in the morning and night each day. They are taught a different way to indicate this than what is used for allergy alerting so there is clear communication what the dog is telling the handler.

Choosing a Dog for the Task

Since anaphylactic alert dogs need to check counter surfaces and other high places, it helps to have a dog that is a reasonable height.
A breed that has a higher number of sensory cells in her nose helps for finer detection. (link to list)

If you or your child has possible dog allergies, consider a hypo-allergenic breed, realizing that they are actually not allergy free, just that the person is less likely to react to the dog. 
Crosses of these breeds (such as poodle) may or may not have the non-shedding coat, depending on how many generations F1, F2, F3 of the mixes have been bred.
Avoid short-nosed dogs (brachycephalic) as they have fewer sensory cells and also may have breathing problems of their own.
Depending on your lifestyle, dogs with shorter coats (such as labs, pointers,hounds, Dalmatians) may work better than dogs that don’t shed since they have less fur to bring in allergens from the outdoors such as grass pollens and can be easily wiped down with a damp cloth to remove pollens.
Dogs that are eager to work and play with you are the best choice as they will always be up for the challenge. At the same time, the dog has to fit into your lifestyle.
Also consider the food you are feeding your dog as that may affect how allergic to her you are. (If you are feeding your dog a food with corn for example and you have corn allergies, you may show more symptoms than if you feed a diet without corn.

Here is a general approach to training an assistance dog to be of help with this disability. Anaphylaxis is a disability recognized by the ADI in the US and Canada.

Anaphylaxis alert dogs are trained the same way as a drug narcotics (scent) detection dog and diabetic alert dogs combined.

Here's a video showing how to pair an alert behavior with the scent. If you are training your own dog (or a family member or friend), see below for some suggestions to save you money while keeping you safe. Look for "Save on Costs"  Give careful consideration to what scents you choose to train with that are safe for you. If you choose smells that you run across on a daily basis (or that are common in your various environments), your dog will be constantly alerting to things that are trivial. In my environments, the only place we run into people drinking tea is at home and the cups are never on or near nose level or lower. The nice thing about tea is that it is almost always found in or near a cup as a clue to what the dog is alerting.

Here's the next step in the process, teaching the dog to smell for the scent on the ground and in containers.

Early on, dogs are typically started on a scent wheel. One container is used for the same scent to avoid cross contamination during training. Here's how to make one from easily available materials.

Tip: Start with clean containers. Materials of all kinds hold scents so make sure to mark and use only one container so as to not cross-contaminate the scent for the dog. A dog may alert to a container that had the scent in it previously (residue) as their noses can pick up very small amounts of scent. I use a pen to mark containers, or tie a knot in shoes etc. Just make sure the mark can be seen by you but will not be perceived by the dog as a visual clue.

Here is how to start your dog on a scent wheel.

There are many ways to teach your dog a basic scent search.
Here are Three:

Part A i Using Containers

Part A ii Adding a Cue to the Search Behavior

See Youtube for more numbered videos in the progression of training the allergy alert dog.
(Search "Donna Hill allergy alert")

For room searches, the dogs can be trained like Steve White does with the allergen as the scent item and the dog performs the alert behavior in its presence.

(Scent wheels vary in construction)

For the taking it on the road, practice hiding the vial with scent in it in your garage, the backyard, in a friend’s yard, in a friend’s house, in a bookstore (where you have gotten permission to train) etc.

There are many elements that need to be trained separately, before being added to the chain of behaviors. For example, the dog needs to learn to search at different heights. Teach the dog to rear up during a nose target (without using her paws), then add the scent in. Use chest of drawers, tables and  boxes stacked on their side to help the dog learn to search at height. Or use target sticks with a vial of scent on the end. Train at varying heights. Place many of them with only one scented one. Transfer to hiding it at different heights in the room.

Trainers work the dogs with a variety of small amounts of scents in any form: raw, cooked (canned, baked, steamed, dehydrated etc), oil, butter, dust (residue in packaging), and in combination with other food items (such as chocolate bar, in rice noodles) etc. Also, you want to train in smaller and smaller amounts of scent so the dog learns to indicate even trace amounts. Note: ideally, you don’t want the dog to touch the scent container, just indicate it. This will help reduce risk of the dog contaminating the handler after an alert.

They then teach the dog to detect other related substances the person is allergic to. For some people this would mean different kinds of tree nuts (hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews etc).

Once the alert behavior rate is consistently high (90% or higher) in one environment, they then start training the dog to alert in different environments with more distractions as will be needed by the client’s lifestyle.

Save on the Costs by Training the Foundation Behaviors Yourself
Since hiring a trainer to train the dog from the start can be an expensive proposition (especially if you or your child has a wide range of allergens to train), a suggestion is as follows:
Find a trainer who closely shares your training philosophy.
Work with them to create a detailed ‘how to’ training plan. (Watch for our videos that show a basic process and provide ideas).
With the trainer's guidance, but with the owner doing the training, start training your dog to do the alert behavior using scents that you (the future handler) can safely interact with. Use careful selection of the scent so that it is not one your dog might encounter in the environments the allergic person will be in or the dog will give what appears to be a false alert in public. In fact, she will be alerting to a scent that was trained. Also the scent does not have to be very strong. You may need to be creative.) Train one scent to a high level of accuracy and high degree of distraction, using room search patterns, low to high etc.
Train this one scent in several different indoor environments (increasing distraction levels) where your service dog in training has permission to be. Don't forget to include outdoor environments as they are usually more challenging for the dog and will improve their indoor scenting.
Train other scents one at a time (using the same approach) so the dog learns to generalize the behavior. (The more different scents the dog learns, the faster each retraining will be)
Next, have the trainer to train the dog from the beginning with one actual allergen at a site that the future handler will not be exposed to (usually their training center). (Be sure to have them wipe the dog down with a mild antiseptic before returning her to you after each training session.) For some allergens, there may be several different forms such as raw, cooked, liquid, oils, ground, trace etc. Ensure the trainer trains these as well.
Then have them train the dog to indicate other known anaphylactic allergens (one at a time) for you to a high degree of accuracy.
When complete, do several trial runs with the dog and the new alert scents in a public environment to you so the dog transfers the behavior back to alerting to you.
For maintenance purposes, the dog should be brought back to the trainer every 3 to 4 months (or as needed) to be re-freshed on the allergen since the handler cannot handle them due to exposure to the allergen. Dogs do have good memory for scent and this is what we are relying on for their alert.

Many of SDTI students suffer from anxiety and this is why they have a service dog. They and/or their dogs may be sensitive to background noise or they live in an apartment with neighbors coming and going. A white noise machine is often suggested in such cases. I have a better suggestion! Consider keeping an aquarium (AKA fish tank)!

The sound of water flowing is a soothing sound for most people. Bubbling water is great to cover background sounds. The color green in plants is calming and reassuring. It relieves depression and nervousness. The sight of fish swimming smoothly is calming and relaxing. Taking care of live creatures can be anxiety-relieving as well. Keeping fish also helps fill a need for many people who don't have the opportunity to connect with nature. These all can help relieve anxiety. 

They are also health-promoting. Having moving water in your home increases the humidity in the air. Moderate levels of humidity (40-60%) improve your body's ability to protect itself from viruses.  The lining of your nasal passages when kept moist, is your first line of biological defence.  

If you are able to take care of another creature in addition to your service dog, you might want to consider the benefits of this idea. 

There are a number of ways to approach this idea. Let's start with the simplest and work to the most complex, just like we would when shaping a new behavior with a service dog. 

1. Listen to the sound of water to see if it is something that is soothing to you. Play the linked video in the background while you hang out in your house or room. Turn the volume to a level where it masks background noise without being annoying. 

Also spend some time watching the fish in the video below. Does this interest you at all? Does their smooth movements calm you? Do you enjoy the colors? Beware! This is the video that got me started again to set up aquariums after a few year's break.

2. If you think you might prefer real water and want to add humidity to your home, think about purchasing an indoor waterfall. There are many sizes from small table top ones (about 6 inches in size)  to large floor waterfalls (3 feet tall or larger). You can buy them new seasonally at most big box stores or second hand. Check Facebook Marketplace or other internet classified ads like,,,, etc. Here's a site that gives 10 examples to get an idea of what they can look like. (I am not affiliated with the link.)

3. Set up a small aquarium but keep only aquatic plants in it. You can use realistic plastic plants from the dollar store or real pond plants or purchase aquarium plants. 
These options need much less maintenance than a fish tank with live animals in it. You get the benefits of the sound and humidity as well as green plants. You will need some sort of water pump and having a good light or choose plants that have low light level needs is key. You could use a submersible water pump, air pump with tubing or hang on back filter to circulate the water.  Here's is a short video showing the top 5 easy aquarium plants. (not my video)

Here is my 20 gal planted tank. I integrated plastic plants (left and the one with pink in the middle) and live native plants. I love the shades of green!The frilly plant is a 'hornwort' and the dark-leafed palm-looking one I believe is white-stemmed pond weed. Both grow locally in lakes. The green mass on the lower right is Susswassertang (a freshwater fern) The plant on the front right is in a pot above the water (wandering gal). It has two sponge filters and a light. No heater. All of these plants do well with low light levels (just regular 60W compact flourescent bulbs) and were easily available to me that is why I chose them There is also duckweed on the water surface but it doesn't grow well as it needs full spectrum light. 

The variegated plant at the back right side of the tank is a Pothos or devil's ivy. The roots are growing in the water n the right side of the tank above.

4. If a 'plant only' tank isn't enough interest for you, or you want to graduate to some live critters, consider adding some aquatic invertebrates from a local pond or lake. Snails, caddisfly larvae who carry their house with them, and backswimmers are some easy additions. These can be fed sinking pellets. There are many aquatic larvae that will capture your interest as well. Make sure to find out what they eat and provide them with their natural foods to keep them healthy. You will also want to have a lid on your tank as many aquatic larvae transform into flying insects such as beetles. Be aware that most regions have laws protecting vertebrates such as minnows, tadpoles and salamander larvae so leave them where you find them.

5. Set up a 10 (20 inches x 12" x 10") to 20 gallon aquarium for a few fish. If you are adding fish, things get a little more complicated as you have to make sure their needs are met. This involves having a water filter, a heater (if they are warm-water fish), plants, doing regular water changes and feeding once or twice daily. I wouldn't buy a tank any smaller than this as fish need space to swim. Ten gallon tanks are the smallest I would go as they are big enough to maintain temperature and also the water will stay clean so you don't have to do as frequent changes. 10 gallons also give your critters some space so they aren't cramped. Going with a tank larger than 20 gal makes it hard for one person to move it from place to place and many rental contracts have a size limit on tank size as well.

Here's a simple 10 gallon guppy tank. The tank has a glass top to keep the fish from jumping out. There is a desk light and on the lower right is a green sponge filter that is powered with an air pump. There is no heater as the room temperate stay about 68F-72F most of the year. The floating plants are plastic and on the bottom right is live willow moss. My spider plants are rooting in the upper right. They will be potted up at a later date. A small piece of drift wood in on the lower left. I got the guppies off I feed flake and sinking pellet food along with tiny white worms and mosquito larvae I collect from containers outside.

For best success, choose hardy types of fish that come from the same water conditions as you have locally. For example, on the west coast on North America (Oregon north to BC) we have soft acidic water so we keep a betta, Corydoras catfish and 3 kinds of tetras who thrive in similar water conditions where they are found naturally. If you have hard water with many minerals (have white scale on your tea kettle or toilet bowl), then choose smaller cichlid species that come from hard water rivers and lakes like livebearers and the ones suggested in this video. If you don't want the hassles of heating the water, then consider fish from these types of water that thrive at cooler temperatures. Avoid fish that get larger than about 3 inches long like goldfish, Oscars, many of the cichlids and plecostomus. You need to upgrade to really big aquariums or even outdoor ponds to keep them successfully. Also consider keeping large snails, crayfish, freshwater shrimp and even aquatic amphibians like dwarf aquatic frogs! These are all fun to watch! Avoid keeping too many in one tank though as some eat others!

If you are new to fish-keeping, you will want to pair up with a mentor as there is a learning curve. Check Facebook groups for a local hobby club. Partner up with someone who is willing to help walk you through tank set up and maintenance and answer your questions. I write a blog about small critters and crafts.

You can also book a web cam session with me, or if there is enough interest, I can do a webinar where you can ask questions live! Find out realistic costs, how much maintenance is needed to keep the tank healthy, help choosing what specific might work for you etc.  I have had tanks and kept and bred and raised a variety of fish most of my life and so has Bruce! This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you are interested in such a webinar! I can put you on a interested list.

Finding new ways to relieve your anxiety or cover background noise gives your service dog some down time to relax. He will thank you for it!

While shaping is usually used to teach a new behavior to a dog, it can also be used to fine tune a behavior or even reshape an old one or parts of a known one. Shaping can be applied to large behavior changes or fine tuning behaviors.

Think of shaping a behavior as a process of revision. Rewriting a book is shaping that book into a different form to a higher degree of detail. For dogs it might be teaching your dog to walk on a loose leash. Heeling is a finer precision of walking on a loose leash.

How do you do this?
1. Select which criteria you want to improve.
Every behavior has more than one part that makes up the whole behavior. This is criteria. Is it timing, movement, speed of response, finesse, accuracy of a behavior? Do trial of 10 repetitions for one behavior. Note your dog’s proficiency in it. Is the whole behavior where you would like it? Is there a part of it you would like to improve? Note which ones your dog needs improvement with. You can shape each of these separately.

2. For each criteria, select for the better responses.
Repeat 10 repetitions and see how many times out of 10 that your dog actually does the criteria to your satisfaction. Is it 5 out of 10? To move to the next level you want it to be at least 8/10.
Dogs are not computers and each time they do a behavior there is variability in how they perform it. A behavior might be harder, longer, more focused, superfluous etc. It is this variability that allows us to shape behaviors.

3. Practice only that part of a behavior you want to improve the criteria, this time clicking/treating only for those behaviors that meet your slightly higher requirements.

So to reshape your dog to be more gentle with his teeth (and more aware that there are toes under your sock) focus on the first part of the pull only. Maybe in 10 repetitions, your dog grabs your sock roughly 4 times and slightly more gently 6 times before pulling it all the way off. Click only the more gentle grabs and he need not pull the sock all the way off. Keep practicing until you notice that your dog is able to offer the gentler grabs 8/10 times.

Tip: If you raise your requirements too fast, your dog will not get c/t and will get frustrated and may quit. You must be observant to ensure that you are raising your criteria at a level appropriate to your dog's current abilities so she can still have success but start slightly modifying her behavior to match your shaping plans.

Now increase your requirements so this time your dog takes the sock a little more gently 8/10 times (or more). Increase your requirements slightly again. Does he still need more improvement? Keep practicing and increasing his required gentleness and only select those behaviors which are slightly more gentle.

Keep upping the requirements in little steps until your dog is able to offer the behavior you desire consistently. Then add the new criteria as part of the whole behavior.

Example 1:
Placing a coin into a small container is really an exercise in shaping. You need to work on two different shaping criteria separately.
1. Size of object being retrieved and placed.
2. Size of the opening the object is being placed into.

1. Size of object being retrieved and placed.
Start with an object that is comfortable size and familiar to your dog. Practice with this until he is successful 8/10 or more. Then choose a slightly smaller object and practice with that until 8/10 successful. Continue in this vein until your dog is able to pick up and carry very small items such as coins (start with largest coins and work down), a chain of paper clips, a ring etc. If you are introducing a new material to your dog, you may need to do some separate training until your dog is comfortable it before decreasing size of object further-metal is a good example)

2. Size of the opening the object is being placed into.
During a separate training session, start with a laundry basket your dog can easily reach into. Then when he is successful placing objects into that, try a slightly smaller box. Then a smaller one, then a plastic bucket, then a plastic container with a smaller opening. Notice that you are slowly decreasing the size of the target area where your dog drops the object. At some point you will need to switch to smaller and smaller objects so do that training first. Train your way down in size to the narrow-mouthed container.

Now you can combine the criteria to finish with the final behavior-your dog retrieves a coin and places it into a narrow-mouthed jar. Congratulations, you have just shaped two criteria and put them together to get a finished behavior!

Example 2
Don’t like the way your dog delivers retrieved objects to you? Reshape that end part of the retrieve. Start from where he is at, and determine what criteria you need to work on. Is it how accurately he can target your hand? (see above for process) or that he lets go as soon as he touches your hand with his nose? Work on only that part of the skill before you start adding it to the whole retrieve behavior chain. The dog must learn to push objects into your hand and hold them there until you to give a release cue.

Why do You Retrain Only One Part of a Complicated Behavior?
If you wait until the dog has completed a whole behavior to click, he has no way to know which part of the behavior he did well and which part he did substandard. Was was too boisterous in running to get the object? Was he sloppy in picking it up? Was he slow in returning to you? Did he drop it on the floor at your feet? Because there are so many parts to a behavior, you really need to zero in on the part that he is not performing as well as you would like. Work on that, then integrate it by chaining it back into the larger behavior.

What Behaviors Do you Want to Improve?
Break them down into their criteria and reshape each part as necessary!

Click here to see a previous post on Shaping.  Want Some help with Shaping? Book a web cam session with Donna

Shaping: The Most Powerful Use of the Clicker

In its broadest sense, shaping occurs anytime we modify a behavior from one form into another using small steps. Changing a child’s yelling behavior in the house to talking quietly. Shaping your teenager from leaving clothes on the floor to placing it in the laundry basket. Realisitically, you don't expect the changes to happen becasue you said so, but they will happen in small increments of change, especially when your kids are reinforced several times at each level.

With dogs, shaping can change a dog’s physical behaviors and emotional reactions.

It can even be applied towards changing behaviors and emtions to environments, other dogs, people, animals etc. Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt is an awesome training program that shapes your dog feel more relaxed and focused in any setting by shaping a variety of criteria such as stress levels, focus, physical barriers, dog activity levels etc. When they all come together, they result in a calm, focussed dog that is ready to work.

What is Shaping in a Clicker Training context?
Before we can answer that we must understand the three ways of getting behavior.

1. Luring
You can get a behavior by using a treat or toy in smelling distance of your dog and moving it from place to place. Your dog will follow it if he is interested in food. For example, luring a dog from a sit into a down you hold the treat at his nose and draw it down and back between his front legs. Hold it there and his front legs will slide forward so he can reach the treat. Or luring him a round an object or over a jump. Tha danger with this method is that the dog may become too focussed on the lure and not paying attention to what he is doing and/or he may not do the ebahvior without the reawrd. It can be a handy way to jumpstart of behavior if it is needed, as long as the lure is phased out quickly and a hand cue replaces it. Targeting is a form of luring.

2. Capturing a behavior.
Capturing makes use of behaviors that dogs commonly do. The dog lays down and you click the instant his elbows hit the ground. I think it helps to think of it as taking a picture of a specific behavior (sit, down, scratch nose with paw, look at you, bow on front legs etc). If the click was a camera, you would have a photo of your dog doing the particular behavior when you clicked. Thsi works well for capturing any compete behaviors a dog naturally does: sit, down, yawn, cover his nose etc. Capturing is also an integral part of shaping. Practice this first and it will help you with your timing for shaping.

3. Shaping a Behavior
The dog learns to play a game of "Guess what my trainer wants me to do?" The dog offers various behaviors until he gets a click and reward that says "Yes, you are on the right track!" Yes, most dogs enjoy being shaped especially if their trainer is good at it too!

Think of shaping as capturing a series of behaviors that lead to a final behavior. For our photo analogy, you take video footage of a behavior, a down, and then select out 10 still photos in that sequence that lead to the final behavior. Each of those intermediate behaviors gets captured and rewarded before the dog gets to the final behavior you want.

For example from a sit to a sphynx down, here are the 10 photo stills you would see (and the behaviors you will capture):

Dog is sitting.
The dog leans forward a little. Click/Treat (C/t).
Then he lowers his head a half inch. C/t.
Lowers head 2 inches, C/t.
Lowers head 6 inches.C/t.
Touches nose to ground C/t.
Shifts weight off front legs, C/t.
Shifts front feet forward.C/t.
Pushes front legs forward a little. C/t.
Pushes front legs out in front alot. C/t.
Places elbows on ground. Jackpot reward!

When you are shaping, your job is to capture your dog doing each of these between and mark the exact moment that he does them- in a progressive order so he can successfully complete the down.

Tip: The important thing is that you click when the dog is moving, not when he is still.

You will need to anticipate his behavior a little as well as observe his behavior closely. Your dog doesn't know you want him to go down, he only knows that if he keeps offering behaviors in the direction of a down, he gets rewarded. A light bulb may go on in his head and he offers exactly what you want. He then may offer several previous behaviors, then the behavior again just to test to see if THAT was what you really wanted.

You need to be aware that he may skip some steps, combine behaviors, add some extra ones in or do something other than what you thought he would do, and you need to be prepared for all these possibilities. That's what makes it so powerful! This irregularity in what the dog offers is what allows you to capture some simple offered behaviors and shape them into really unique and useful finished behaviors!

Shaping is the most powerful use of the click and treat training technique. Your dog remembers the new behavior because he has physically worked his way through it step by step.

Here’s a Human Example:
When you follow someone else in a car to their home where you have never been before, can you find your way back at a later date? Do you even know where you are?

Contrast that with navigating your own way to their house. Could you find your way there again?

In the first example, you are so busy just following the other car that you are missing important landmarks, maybe street names and not able to see the bigger picture of where you are going. When you navigate on your own, you are not only noticing but are actively using the landmarks and have a broader understanding of where you are going.

Dogs Shape Us all the Time!
Our dogs know shaping is powerful because they use it on us all the time! How do you think your dog ended up on your lap while you type on the computer?

With no comfy dog beds in sight, the behavior likely started by him noticing one hand on your lap and him coming over to investigate it. A simple nose touch and he gets a scratch on the head. After a few times of that, the chin is cautiously placed on your lap. That too gets a warm hand tousling his silky fur. Next, he ventures a paw up on the chair and waits to see what reaction he gets. A gentle push off reinforces that (he IS getting touched) so he tries it again. Now he’s standing with both paws on the chair edge and his bright eyes are staring into yours. A slight push with his back legs is all he needs to get all four feet standing in your lap and it’s a short step to settling in and becoming a lap warmer. So, can you turn the tables and shape your dog to what you want him to?

Benefits of Shaping
Using shaping instead of luring or targeting allows your dog to explore new behaviors in little steps (he gets rewarded at each step in the development of the new behavior) and he is actually thinking about his behavior instead of just following a lure or target.

Another benefit is that shaping is often physically easier on the human. The trainer gets to stand or sit still. No more running with the dog back and forth luring him into place (and getting dizzy in the meantime. etc) to get the repetitions needed for him to learn the new behavior. Instead, he learns how to interact with an object or place and also learns to work at a distance from you.

Once both of you have some experience with shaping, you will be able to take him to a new environment and teach him a complicated behavior in a much shorter period of time than it would take with traditional methods. One trainer attended a Rally Obedience trail and noticed that because of the small size of the field, and the fact that the fencing was presented right in front of the dogs at the end of the course, dogs were moving out of heel position and away from their handlers because they didn’t want to run face into that fence.

One shaping savvy competitor noticed this and took 5 minutes to take her dog aside, clicked/treated him to interact safely with the fence, and quickly reshaped a heel almost right into the fence. Hers was the only dog in that trial that successfully qualified that course!

Another trainer (Sue Ailsby) used shaping to teach her dog the basic skills of some pretty complicated behaviors such as fly ball, search and rescue etc during a conference. Everyone was astounded at how quickly her dog learned. It was simply a factor of her and her dog having good teamwork skills, having some previous knoweldge of basic behaviors and using shaping to get the desired behaviors!

Dogs Enjoy Being Shaped
Once they understand how to play, and have several behaviors to offer you, dogs love the shaping game and willingly offer new behaviors. “Will THIS get me a click? How about this? Maybe this!” By marking and rewarding the tiny increments that lead to the final behavior, your dog more quickly understands what is being asked of him, just as you succumbed to his sitting on your lap.

The Challenge of Shaping
Here’s the tough parts of shaping and why some people balk at it or take a long time to get around to learning how to use it:

Shaping can be a conceptually difficult thing for trainers to understand and learn. There are few people willing to show you how to do it and so most people are self-taught.
You must be willing to develop your observation skills to see really subtle behaviors. Most people like to group things into pieces to help them understand (called lumping behaviors). With shaping, you need to think in smaller pieces (called splitting behaviors).

The saying “Yard by Yard Life is Hard, Inch by Inch, It’s a Cinch” is so very true in shaping! If your dog does not understand a chunk of a behavior (lump), you must break it down into its simpler form (split) so he can successfully achieve each of say 4 steps instead of one bigger one. Or that same behavior might need to be divided into 10 steps instead of 4. (finer splitting)

Once you understand shaping, you can apply it to teach other dogs, animals and even people how to learn a new behavior or reshape an existing one. A very useful skill!

See the next blog post on this topic: Object-based Shaping!
Monday, 14 December 2020 09:47

Using Free Shaping to get New Behaviors

Using Free Shaping to Teach a New Behavior 

Free Shaping
Free shaping allows the dog to offer behaviors, no matter how small, toward a final behavior. The trainer captures them by clicking and treating at the exact moment the behavior occurs. There is no luring and no cuing. It is a silent process with only the clicker and treats doing the talking.

It sometimes helps the human part of the partnership to use a visual marker to measure increments of behavior. Pieces of tape on the ground, a pattern on a floor mat, chalk marks on a wall, a string marking a height, a watch timer in seconds etc.

For this type of shaping, it is really important to define your final objective, and brainstorm the step by step process your dog will likely do to get there.

You can click ANY behavior that is the slightest bit towards the final behavior you want to see. A glance downwards, a head dip both start towards a down. An ear flick in your direction, a neck muscle twitch, a slight head turn, an eye blink, an eye closed, the twitch of a leg muscle prior to actually moving, the dip of a bum, etc. The finer behavior you can click, the more aware your dog will be of both his body and what behavior he is offering and what you are paying for.

Once your dog has some shaping experience, you can select for bigger behaviors as you know that if you wait for them, the dog will offer it if she doesn't get clicked immediately. You can also go for some of the subtle or difficult behaviors.

Some tips:
* Shaping takes a lot of concentration so you should choose a reward that motivates your dog to concentrate on you, but not be overexcited about getting the treat. Soft treats that can be eaten quickly allow him to get back to the shaping game quickly. Crumbly ones slow the process by distracting him.

*Always start shaping a new behavior in a quiet environment with no distractions. Even experienced shaping dogs need to have some quiet space to learn.

*Start new dogs by free shaping behaviors they already know on cue. Sit, down, spin etc. You will find they retain the behavior better and will be quick to offer it as part of a different shaping process at a later date.

*Use wait time to your advantage: Waiting for a repeat of a behavior before clicking usually causes results in an increase in the behavior out of frustration (waiting for a second nose push will result in the second nose push that is harder or longer, asking for two grabs of a stick will prompt the second grab to be longer or harder, waiting for a second paw touch with result in a scratch with the nails or a larger paw swipe, waiting for a second bark may get you a louder bark.)

*The first few times of free shaping, help your dog by making his task easy as possible. Start with a narrow channel to get a straight back up, a small space to get eye contact, create a limited area for you dog to move so the choices are fewer, place an object in his way so he has to move around it to do the desired behavior etc. Be creative!

* Slowly build up the number of clicks you do with your dog between breaks. Start with 10, take a one minute break. Then do another 10, give a break. Do another 10 and quit. Build up number of clicks per training session slowly as your dog develops his attention span and shows that he is enjoying the sessions and is eager to offer more behaviors.

* To speed shaping OF very complicated behaviors, you may want to train similar behaviors that will help your dog to more quickly get the idea of what you want. For example, alternate playing a game of pivot back feet around a phone book with sessions of eye contact helps your dog to more quickly learn that he must move his back legs to swing his bum around to your left and into heel position (called a swing finish). This is called crossing over behaviors, and your dog will blend the two behaviors.

* Watch for signs of frustration at a particular step. These may include scratching, stretching, yawning, sniffing the ground, barking, easily distracted, laying down when it's not appropriate, refusal to offer more behaviors etc.

* Stop a training session while your dog is still eagerly offering behaviors and is having fun. If he gets too frustrated, s/he will stop playing the game, walk away, stop offering behaviors or get too physical with you, demand the treats etc. Use a cue such as “game over” to indicate he is done.

* Have fun with shaping!

Some Behaviors That Lend Themselves to Free Shaping:

Backing up
Standing in front of you facing you close in
Eye Contact
Loose Leash Walking
Come (all the way to you in a sit position and you hold the collar)
Pulling off socks (shape a gentler and gentler approach with teeth)
Shaping a positive reaction to another dog, or child or fearful situation.
Shaping a calm behavior on a mat while stimulating things are going on around you.

Free-shaping can also be using with object-based shaping.

Don’t forget that you can also shape just part of a behavior and then chain it with several others to create a new behavior.

See also our post on Object-based shaping.
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