Too Much of a Good Thing: Overexcitement in Exercise

Physical exercise is necessary and healthy for all dogs. However, there are a few common problems we see in client’s dogs who are not exercised properly. Today we’ll discuss one of the biggest problems, overarousal due to exercise, and the myth that you should exercise “crazy” dogs more.

Layla adores lure coursing, and it's great exercise for her, but it also makes her overly aroused.

Arousal refers to a dog’s level of excitement and emotional control. A highly aroused dog will be very excited, with a fast heartrate and respiration and poor impulse control. He may have dilated pupils or chatter his teeth. He may pant, jump around or on you, or vocalize incessantly. He may become grabby or mouthy. Alternatively, he may become “locked on” to an activity, freezing in place and staring intently at the object of his obsession, spinning in circles, or pacing.

Highly aroused dogs are stressed. Remember that stress is not necessarily bad. When we think of stress, we often think of negative stress, or distress. However, there’s also positive stress, known as eustress. Winning the lottery and having your home foreclosed on are both stressful activities, and your body actually responds to them the same way even though your emotional response to each is different. This point is important for us to understand as it relates to our dogs, because happily exciting events still create a physiological stress response in your dog’s body.

Why does this matter? Stress causes physical changes in the body. When you or your dog become stressed, your body releases certain stress hormones into the bloodstream. These stress hormones don’t just instantly dissipate. They hang around for awhile (the most commonly quoted length of time is 72 hours, but estimates range from mere hours to an entire week depending on who you ask).

Consider this, then. If you engage in activities that cause your dog to become aroused, and therefore stressed, every day, your dog will always have high levels of stress hormones in his bloodstream. High arousal becomes the new norm. Consider how you would feel if you won the lottery, rode a rollercoaster, or attended your favorite band’s rock concerts every single day. Our bodies aren’t built for prolonged periods of excitement, even when the excitement is positive.

What does this have to do with our dogs? I’m often called in to work with dogs who have trouble controlling themselves or calming down. These dogs are often reactive and hypervigilant. These dogs are also often victims of the wrong sort of exercise. Exercise that amps your dog up is okay in moderation, but allowing your dog to engage in it every day will likely do more harm than good. This is highly individual, but is most commonly seen with ball- or frisbee-obsessed dogs playing fetch every day or highly dog-social and excitable dogs visiting the dog park or daycare regularly.

If this sounds like your dog, there is hope! Cut down on overly arousing activities and replace them with other physical and mental exercise. Save these exciting activities for special times. My dogs both enjoy the flirt pole, but only play with it a few times a month due to how highly aroused they get while chasing it. Layla adores lure coursing above all other activities, but she takes 3 full days to recover after just a few runs after the lure because she becomes so over-the-top waiting for her turn (words cannot describe the bark-scream-screech sound she makes in line). Dobby loves to play fetch, but two days in a row with the chuck-it or frisbee creates a dog who’s not very pleasant to live with.

In future posts, we’ll discuss other common exercise pitfalls as well as some great ways to exercise your dog. Have you ever had to limit an activity your dog adored because it caused him to become too overstimulated? Please share your stories in the comments below!

56 responses to “Too Much of a Good Thing: Overexcitement in Exercise

  1. Interesting. My dogs play fetch every day, but don’t get over-aroused. They get hard to live with if we DON’T play fetch! It’s a good thing this works for us. We have basically zero other physical exercise options, since neither dog can really be out in public and we live in the city.

  2. Layla is super excited with lure coursing. The hardest part is holding her back till she is suppose to start.

  3. Alicia Graybill

    Thank you! I’m a dog trainer and one of my number one pieces of advice to clients is to give their dogs more MENTAL exercise. Excellent article.

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  7. Karen sodrick

    Interesting post. My dog can get extremely stressed if she has to watch other dogs play and can’t participate. Gets very aggressive, barking and lunging. I would like to help her learn self calming techniques and have been working with a clicker while she plays with her favorite ball which also causes her to become highly aroused with some positive results. I would welcome any suggestions from readers

  8. So maybe leaving my improving papillon with his former pack for a day or so a week is a bad thing? Doh! I’ll have to find a way to calm him down…

  9. Wish I had read this when I adopted my guy (who looks like the dog in the picture). I took him to daycare frequently because he was so hyper and they would remark that he would play straight for the 7 hours he was there, and he was only 5 months old when he started attending. I walked him 3 hours a day when he didn’t go to daycare because he drove me nuts if I didn’t. Then he got kicked out of daycare for being too reactive. I wasn’t sure if it was possible to make him tired. It is going on 5 years now and I still have to be careful to regulate his activities; he is an adrenaline junky.

  10. Great article. Looking forward to the follow-ups. I have 2 GSDs that we take to the dog park every day and they do great at the park. Getting into the park, however, is a different story. Actually, going for rides anywhere is the different story. The over-excitement, bouncing and bark/screaming can get crazy but quickly subsides as soon as we enter the park.

    • Their crazy behavior in the car subsides because you’ve just rewarded that behavior by arriving at the park/letting them into the park so their anticipation (arousal) is allowed to go down. This isn’t appropriate behavior anyways, but because you are rewarding it, in your dog’s mind they will stop the arousal because they are being rewarded by arriving at the dog park. But you just have to decide if that level of arousal in the car is okay with you, or if it’s something you want to correct. Just my opinion…

  11. Great post. I’d say one key is to find ways to combine physical and mental exercise. Or to put it slightly differently, to make sure the dog’s task is at an appropriate level of cognitive as well as physical challenge – not too easy, not too hard (both lead to frustration and over-arousal). Examples might include tracking or searching for toys over somewhat rough terrain, some types of frisbee workouts, physically challenging trick training/”canine parkour”, retrieve work (land or water) which incorporates steadiness, marking and directionals, *appropriate* play with suitable dogs, and of course (good) agility/obedience/schutzhund etc. training.

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  13. Interesting article! My dog use to get super over excited from playing fetch or chewing on raw hides. She didn’t know when to stop or how to stop. I like how you describe the situations.

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  15. I just read this post and enjoyed it very much. I have an over-the-top rat terrier who goes over the 6 ft. privacy fence in my backyard. She has accompanied me on runs up to 14 miles…loves, loves, loves to run. Like Layla, Zoey gets more worked up in anticipation of the run than actually running. We take frequent water breaks, so it is interesting to observe her actually calm down on the run and take less water than she does after our first break where she is recovering from her anticipation excitement.

    I also have a permanent foster in the form of a senior JRT who goes nutso if given the opportunity to play with her basketball. She rolls it around the backyard until it gets stuck. Then she barks until she or I can shift it. I do not let her play with the basketball very often, just special times. She’s less intense with a tennis ball. I keep the balls put away and she lies around and sleeps.

    Am eager to read your subsequent posts on this topic.

  16. MonsterandtheBear

    I have a very active border collie x kelpie who I used to exercise profusely – he would get 10 minutes of agility training, an 8km walk and then free running in the paddock for an hour every day. And he would never stop. So I would increase the exercise even more thinking I had to tire him out somehow. Then I worked it out! The free running was just working him up higher and higher and higher and it seemed like he could never get enough, then he would come inside and cause fights with all the other dogs! He was completely unable to come down emotionally and mentally. He now gets agility training for about 5 minutes 3-5 times a week, and a 5km walk on lead every day. He still gets let loose in the paddock as he loves to stretch out his legs and run, but only for short stints a couple of times a week. The steady walk at a fast pace is great for him as it exercises his body but calms his mind as opposed to running free where there is nothing calm happening. Today we went to the beach and I allowed him to run free – after about 20 minutes he came back and trotted beside me for the rest of the walk. Much happier dog :)

  17. Couldnt agree more. I am currently working with 2 v energetic and easily overexcited large shelter dogs. One thing I like to do is taken one to the park (at a quiet time) and break up periods of arousal – sniffing, meeting other dogs, playing with toys etc. with quiet time just sitting under a shady tree, doing some simple training exercises or just watching the world go by and rewarding calm behaviour – i find those quiet times invaluable for the dogs, for me and for future owners.

  18. Something along the same lines; my shar-pei/lab mix loves to play with other dogs at the park but sometimes she will click into an over-excited mode and begin to growl. I can see her eyes widen and something about her body language, as well as the noise she makes, tells me she is too hyped up. When this happens, I intervene, giving her the “go down” command which means she must lay down on her side. I go sit with her and make her lay completely on her side (including head down) for about 5-10 seconds (unless other dogs are bugging us, in which case I move her to another part of the park and just let her sit for the next phase), then I let her up with the “okay” command, praise her and bring her back to the bench and have her stay with me until she calms down. She will be panting and have wide open eyes and her movements will be very quick, such that, even though she is sitting with me, she will be intent on rejoining the fray or just watching everything else going on at the park. Anything but focus on me. So I just keep her with me until the breathing slows down and she can stop being so antsy. Since this usually happens after we have been at the park for a while, it is often the signal for me to head home. This is a system I developed after both observing her and paying close attention to dog training methods. Each dog I’ve had needed something different.
    Reading your column, I realise that I might have done better to always just leave the park when she got wound up like that, and I think I will do so from now on. It was very insightful and helpful. I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing or not by making her go into the down position, but she responds immediately to this command despite being wound up, whereas she won’t respond to my calling her name. For me, the “go down” command has been useful especially because, when there are several dogs growling and that only-too-common scene at the dog park where all the dog owners start moving toward the dog pile, I can get my dog out of there quickly without having to put a hand anywhere near dog jaws. Usually the roughhousing cools off quickly but there have been a few times when I have been glad to get my dog out before the full-on fighting started.
    I think that most, if not all, of these situations are multi-dog responses. What do you think? What I mean is, when I see my dog beginning to display the signs of stress, as I mentioned above, it is usually when she is playing in a group and it is hard to say which dog is tipping the scale from play to fight. My feeling is that the pack is feeding off of each other, so to speak, and there is no single dog causing it. However, the human behaviour at the park has always been to place blame. My dog doesn’t get blamed because I get her out in time and she responds so well to my commands that, as far as I can tell, no one thinks she was the cause, but I do feel she had as much responsibility for the aroused situation as any other dog. They were all in there getting to that point together. Big dogs, little dogs, they all were taking part. I’m not saying they should know better than to let it escalate; that’s our job; but I’m saying that no single dog is to blame and it bothers me when I see the person with the biggest, most aggressive type of dog getting the glares and sometimes being yelled at, while the little dog was probably going at it just as much. It’s our human nature to protect the little ones but I just would like to see less blame/guilt laid on the big dog owners. What do you think of this? What do you know of this kind of dog-dynamics? How aware are dogs of size, especially in a pack frenzy? Why don’t the little dogs run for their lives in these situations? Do they think they are big?
    Well, thanks for the great articles, they are really eye-opening, down-to-earth and helpful. If you think I should try something different with my dog, I’m very open to hearing about it. She is about six and I got her at about eight months. I also have another dog, a 13 year old chow mix. (and three cats, three chinchillas and a hamster…yoiks)
    One thing I will do, and actually have been doing just by chance over the last couple of years due to my schedule, is take a mellower walk for a few days after my dog has any of these wound-up play sessions. I like to vary our outings, so the dog park is not the only place we go for recreation. I live in Berkeley, California, so we can hit the beach, the trails, even the snow in the mountains if the desire takes us. I also like to just explore the neighbourhoods. Or sometimes we will go to the City (SF) and do some lead walking in the crowds. Whatever strikes our fancy.
    I’m glad I found your site and am going to share it. You’ll be rich and famous, mark my words…

  19. Rebekkah, you might enjoy watching Nicole Wilde’s new DVD Too Much of a Good Thing http://www.dogwise.com/ItemDetails.cfm?ID=DTB1289 Much of that footage is filmed a dog park. She recommends taping your dog’s interactions and slowing the film down and observing the many signals that dogs give each other. There are some dogs who are plain rude and lack the doggie social skills of others. Then there are handlers who are slow to respond to their dog’s behavior and allow the dog to get over threshold. I see that happening more than any size bias or finger-pointng at large dog owners. But that said, don’t most good dog parks have separate sections for large and small dogs to play and don’t let them run together?

  20. Krista Bertsinger

    I have a rescue like this. He’s very smart but I call him my ADHD dog, If he has his Kong, your better off talking to the wall.

  21. Nope,my bc looks like have understtod that xcitment is for outdoors ( we go running, agility, obedience etc) but at home just intelligence games are allowed.. So she can be equilibrated… Nice post!

  22. My dog is a border collie and it can take her three or four hours to come down from an agility lesson with just three other dogs. After a show day we have a quiet day where we walk in a quiet place and don’t do any overly stimulating activities.
    I reward calm behaviour when I can and give her mental exercise such as rally obedience. I tried relaxation protocol and this worked to a certain extent but it takes a lot of time and patience.. I have to be very with her careful in hot weather. If she gets too excited she can collapse.

    • Rally isn’t really much of a mental exercise for a border collie. It quickly becomes very repetitive. Try getting some mental games like Nina Ottoson’s games, teach her NEW tricks all the time. Look for novel things to do. I was going to observe that I have 3 border collies – none of whom are nutty like the stereotype these days. It is largely because I expect calm and don’t amp them up with wild physical activities. I have worked with other people’s border collies who are amped up. When they work with me, I expect and reinforce calm happy behavior. And almost immediately I get it. Not because I tire them out physically but because they are mentally tired and fulfilled.

      • My BC mix LOVES Ottoson’s puzzle games! They aren’t that challenging after a short bit, but he’ll do them over and over happily anyway. He doesn’t seem that hyper by nature (more just active), but he gets lots of walking, obedience and trick study daily, and puzzles and games almost every day. He also gets to go on lots of outings, like to farmers and craft markets, which keeps his brain active checking out and adjusting to new things. As rescue BC and BC mixes go, he’s easy! Or maybe I’m just crazy enough to put the time in he needs to stay happy and relaxed. Many, even friends, think the latter. :)

  23. Really interesting. Makes total sense & supports the personal reservations I have about lure coursing/flirt poles being suitable exercise for my particular dogs.

  24. Had a foster I had to do a lot of calming with, and having been on weim forums for some time, its been one of the issues that use to come up a lot – I kind of dubbed them ‘adrenalin junkies’.. to side slide a little, anyone else notice that dogs ‘high’, tend to produce a softer yellow stool? I worked really hard with Jimmy and eventually got him stable in the mornings before our training sessions and in the evening after a relax, but once we were out walking it would go straight gto his stomach and his poo would go like this. I had the same quite often if my weim Cindy (died in Nov last year of mast cell cancer) was walking with friends – I always put it down to excitement.

  25. Great post! I found this out accidentally when my dog suffered an injury and was benched from playing fetch, which we did 3-4 times a week. What I found by walking him on a long line and allowing him to ‘stop and smell the flowers’ and enrolled him in a rally class (instead of his normal weekly agility sessions) was that he became an easier dog to live with. He chilled out faster and overall, seemed much more relaxed than when I over exercised him (which I had no idea I was doing). Big lesson for me! We will start back in agility in a few months, but the chuck it has been retired, and I am giving him more mental workouts with obedience, and he seems happy with that.

  26. This is a great post! I would like to obtain permission to print it in our national club quarterly publication, for miniature bull terriers, with credit given. How would I go about obtaining permission?

  27. Reblogged this on The Balanced Pack and commented:
    Over excitement and this type of stress is almost 100% of what you will see at large scale doggy daycares.
    I speak from experience!
    90% of the time, Your dog is never properly told how or when to relax, even if they do, they won’t have much success with all the other dogs stressful excited energy weighing in!

    That is NOT proper socialization.

    *note* some places will even Advertise your dog coming home exhausted for up to three days after leaving the facility.
    Think there’s any connection..between that and the 72hr come down off the stress hormones..

    The constant, rigorous, excitement and over stimulation will undoubtedly create behavioral issues that come home with them.

    And Dogs In this excited category who attend those Daycare’s 5 days a week, may never, ever fully come down off those stress hormones, that the article states can take up to 72hrs to ware off. Living in constant stress, good or bad.. can you imagine!!

    This is what constantly flabbergasts me when talking to people who do take their dogs to these places, they see them as purely excited and happy to be there, because it’s such a ‘great’ place. When really, it’s a very stressful experience. They spend their days on a constant roller-coaster of emotion

  28. great post and a misunderstood issue. I have just seen a dog I assessed in his new home returned to rescue as he was spinning and screeching to get to oncoming dogs. His new owner perceived it as aggression which it was not and they were unwilling to work with him. On his return to foster he was deemed to be living a miserable life of over-anxiety and PTS. What a tragic outcome when he could have been helped with the right owner and program. I was heartbroken.

  29. I have to be careful when I let my Boston Terriers play with the hose/sprinkler as it gets them in a frenzy and they become mindless!! One of them has the same problem with playing fetch and/or tug-of-war.

  30. High arousal is often times very reinforcing for the handler, who sees a dog being excited and happy and driven. I have noticed that Arie gets more impulsive toward the end of a long agility weekend, and she LOVES agility. I’ve worked to decrease her arousal around agility, and am thinking I’ll try to add in some nosework or other low arousal activity when we are at a longer trial. I’ve also been working on making sure I feed her throughout the day, since self control is related to blood sugar levels.

    One positive shift I’ve seen, at least in the agility world, is people starting out their young dogs in Control Unleashed based programs (or similar during foundation programs) before there is a problem, so dogs are learning self control and to moderate their arousal levels early, before learning the fun agility stuff that sends many dogs over the edge.

    One additional note, that regardless of whether the stress is “good” or “bad” the effect on the body is the same. This includes the effects on the developing fetuses in pregnant bitches, which is why I chose not to compete or do highly arousing things while Arie was pregnant, as stress hormones are highly implicated in epigenetic changes that affect the ability to handle stress in future generations.

  31. I own a dog daycare and it’s entirely true that some dogs overexercise if not properly supervised. The answer isn’t necessarily to avoid daycare, however. A better solution is to have a conversation with the person responsible for supervising the daycare attendants about levels of arousal. Does the employees know that all excitement isn’t okay? What would they describe as stress-inducing excitement (how does it look?) What do they do about play that doesn’t look healthy?

    I constantly remind our staff to break up all play periodically and redirect attention (preferably to a calm human,) to avoid excessive arousal. If a dog won’t let up when redirected, we crate him or her for a few minutes. Interestingly, many of our high arousal dogs seem grateful to lie down for a bit when we crate them and are calmer when we return them to the group. Please, don’t give up on dog daycare – rather find out if your places’ staff has the proper training to handle dog play. And if there are human attendants circulating through the play groups and interacting with the dogs all day long, as there should be.

  32. Reblogged this on PUP Dog Rescue and commented:
    Excellent article.

  33. I’m glad I read this! I knew some things about bad stress, and even that the hormones stay in your system for days, but I never really thought about that in the context of happy stress. I didn’t realize good and bad stress were kinda the same thing, even though the emotional aspect is different. But it totally makes sense! It clears up a lot of things in my mind that I hadn’t made connections between before. My GSD is high-energy, so she needs a good physical workout everyday to be content – however, I have noticed at times that if we repeat fun activities too frequently (like chuck-it, dog park visits, etc.), she seems to get more snarky with other dogs (even our other dog), and hyperactive with people (runs back and forth with a toy in her mouth, can’t sit or settle down). All of that is probably directly related to higher stress levels, even though it is stress caused by fun activities. Of course there’s always other variables with behaviour, but this clears up a lot of confusion.

  34. Took Ali for a 6 k walk for just over an hour. After we got home she wanted to play frisbe which she barks at mid air. I had a cup of tea first. Amstaffs play hard.

  35. Interesting. I was already applying this to my FA dog; not walking him at all if he had experienced too much stress the previous day. I’d also worked out that walking my other dog for too long each day, or letting her have a ball all the time, made her more hyper even in the house. (The only dog sport she does is scentwork, where she most definitely uses her brain and doesn’t get OTT.) However it hadn’t occurred to me that letting her run free and ‘work’ (in her head, anyway, I don’t carry a shotgun!) every day might be making her generally hyper too. LIke several other people are saying she spins and screams and pulls on the way to her walk, even though she can do lovely LLW in a class situation. Mind you last year she had several months of very limited exercise due to an injury and I don’t think it made her much calmer!

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  37. Good post. After moving to a new house with a yard, I learned the hard way that I had to stop playing fetch with my dog at home because she was just always expecting it to happen and her excitement levels at home were through the roof. Even after a long outing, she would run to the back door, ready to play. Since I stopped playing with her, she is back to her old self. She can still run and play with my other dog if she has energy to burn but it doesn’t leave her anxious and over-excited.

    I’ve also figured out the happy medium when we’re out. Sure they could go for 4-hour hikes every day but then they will need 4-hour hikes every day. But less than an hour is really not enough. 1 to 2 hours is perfect:)

  38. THIS IS MY DOG!!!! OMG I never knew!!!!! She is crazy puppy when we go to the park to play fetch & just yesterday she broke away from me to run to a yellow lab who, thank God, loved her! I thought her breed mixes or background caused her “crazy puppy”! She’s a rescue from a puppy mill & is a mastiff/pyro/aussie mix. YOU GUYS ROCK!! Thank you sooo much!!

  39. Reblogged this on Doggywalks – St Albans City and commented:
    Interesting article

  40. What would you say about all Agility dogs!! For like in all sports you need to practice to become great! And Agility is a sport, with a lot of arousal dogs! Both on training and competions! My dogs train between 3-5 times a week depending on if we have a competion on the weekend, if that’s the case we have to days rest, like always! Border Collien as a breed get highly arousal easily since it really loves it’s work! So what would you recommend to these agility dogs? I tend to calm one of my two BCs down before the other one is calmer but has the same focus!

  41. We have two border collies and take them for only two walks a day. Half an hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon. We play ball games then put the ball away for quite walks. The girls love the ball but also love finding new smells. If for some reason we are out any longer one of the dogs gets very hyper and runs around the house like a mad thing. Walking less tires her down much better.

  42. Here’s a video for consideration. Exervcise and Dogs: How Much is Enough?

  43. …Yep this is my experience too. I have an adrenaline nut with obssesive fetching and the best thing for him is obedience walking as well as disc practice…I’ve heard it referred to as “piano lessons” for them by Cesar M. (and anyone who has endured piano lessons as a kid can relate to this concept.) The dogs need both….good artical!

  44. oh oh this is great reads! I have a wiemarnaner who is so high energy, so focused on a ball and her eyes are big and black, she gets so worked up she cant even think straight, when we get into the car she freaks out panting and pacing back and forth “i cant stand it” i have taken her in the car and not gone out to the running place because i thought that this would help if she didnt get that reward, but she still continues to do this, i tell her to lay down she will for about 2 second or so and then is back up. we do rally O and im amazed how well she listens out but at home she is horrible to live with. i need help! lol i have never had a dog like her and i have had many wiems in my life time, i almost said i would never get another one if they are like her. and i love this breed… she is over the top with everything! i want to help her she is full of anxiety and stress :( i try to be calm but she drives me nuts, and this is all my fault why she is like this and i dont know how to help her. but good reads thanks guys.

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  46. I have certainly found this to be true with my high-energy JRT/Border Collie mix. She does much better with a balance of focused brain work and moderate exercise. Thank you, I am re-posting this to Facebook!

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  49. Wow. I think this is my dog. I just remarked to my husband that his “worst behavior” days are the days when I’ve spent the most time with him exercising — (ball playing, walks, doggie dates) thinking it would help to calm him down…and instead he comes inside and gets the “zoomies” with those wild eyes and grabs pillows off the couch trying to get me to play “chase” with him. One day when we had company, he played fetch for two hours non-stop. The dog is insatiable. We do intersperse some training and mental energy, but I’m going to try to be more balanced from now on.

  50. My 6 year old mutt gets super excited for walks, but by the end, she seems drunk and pants for a long time. I run with her brother, a 4 year old husky, while my fiancé walk/runs with her. We beat them by a lot. It’s 1-2 times a week. This last walk, she laid down next to the car and wouldn’t get up to get in. When getting out, she dragged a back leg, as if it was dead. She went straight under the bed and puked a ton of water there. I don’t know if she still seems slow or if I am just worried about her. But, she does get way excited about walks!

    • Hi Shelly,

      This would be a good question to run by your vet. You may want to search online for more information on EIC (exercise induced collapse) to see whether this sounds like the symptoms your 6-year-old experiences.

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