How do you build trust with a dog that is scared of you?
December 16, 2008 6:58 AM   Subscribe

DogFilter: How do you build trust with a dog that is scared of you?

History: Greta is a ~13 month old Italian Greyhound rescue. She was picked up as a stray and fostered for three weeks by a regional rescue originization. When we picked her up we were told by her foster family that she wasn't comfortable around men, but would most likely warm-up. Beyond that, they didn't know anything, so there very well could be something in this dog's past that has scarred it.

I am comfortable with the fact that I will have to work for her to trust me. I am prepared to put in the time and effort required to make it happen. If patience is the only real answer, then so be it. What I would like to know is if any of you have had similar experiences with your dogs and if there were any steps you took to help them begin to trust you? Everyday feels like Bill Murray's Groundhog Day - it seems like we make progress and then the next day she forgets who I am. I am afraid I'll never gain her trust. Read on for more.

My SO and I have had Greta for 1 month now. My SO is home all day and has been working on basic training for Greta (Positive Reinforcement). She is generally very receptive to my SO, and will "Come" and "Sit" on command. Greta follows her around most of the time. Here are some scenarios with which we are having difficulty:

We share our bed with Greta. When it's time for bed, she runs in the room and hides behind the bed. As I'm brushing my teeth in the attached bath she'll bark at me. If I poke my head out, she hides behind the bed again. It's not until I am in bed, under the covers that she comes up and curls right up next to me under the covers (regrdless of whether or not my SO is in bed with me).

We attempt to correct her behavior by consistently using a swift "Shhh" sound when she is doing something we disapprove of. This is fairly effective in other areas, but doesn't seem to help the barking. Sometimes redirecting her attention to a "Sit" seems to help with the barking, but it isn't a consistent behavior as of yet.

When I wake up (generally 5:30AM), I sneak downstairs for breakfast. I quietly return upstairs to brush my teeth and she barks the whole time, waking my SO. On my way out the door, I put food in her bowl. She races downstairs and barks some more, as long as she is aware that I am around.

When I come home, it is more barking and she runs away. She does not appear to be aggressive. She seems to be more frightened than anything. I do not approach her directly, but if I walk into the room, she hides in the corner. Once I sit down she stops barking. As long as I am calmly seated and ignore her she becomes interested in me and will slowly begin to sniff and approach me, eventually having a seat next to me allowing me to pet her (at which point I provided positive reinforcement). But a sudden move will make her bolt. If I have a blanket on my lap she can sneak under, this process is expedited.

We have determined that I would feed her, so that she makes the connection between food and me, hopefully putting me in a positive light. However, whenever I put food in her bowl she barks at me, like "get away from that!", but she doesn't defend it. I carry treats so that when she comes to me on her own she is rewarded. However, when she takes them she adds distance between us and keeps her eye on me while she eats it. Sometimes she won't take it from my hand at all and scurry away.

She'll play with me on the floor - mostly tug toys. However, I need to lay fully on my side. The moment I move to a seated position on the floor, she bolts. I try changing my position slowly through the course of play time, but it never fails to spook her once I reach a certain stage of uprightness.

On a positive note, she will walk with me, but I have never done this alone - only with my SO present. I would like to walk her alone, but I would have to hold her to put her lead on and carry her out the door. This would require me to have her on my lap so that she was in a position where I could actually hold her without her running from me. With my SO, she will come to her and allow her to put her lead on while seated calmly. I'm realizing now that I should really try to build a walking routine with just her an I.

At this point, the only "quality time" Greta and I have are: when she sits on my lap (on the couch, under a blanket) and when we're playing on the floor. Otherwise, she doesn't positively interact with me much. I've grown up with dogs and am used to having them excited to be around me. I guess I'm just having a tough time with Greta and want to hear that things will eventually get better. Additionaly, I am trying to figure out how to approach barking in the morning when she "hears seomthing" (me) downstairs. I want her alert and to bark if something catches her ear, but I don't want her to bark at me. On a side-note, we are also planning to take her to classes so we can begin working on socialization.
posted by bwilms to Pets & Animals (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
My girlfriend's (now wife's) dog did not like me when we started dating on account of her last boyfriend abusing him (bye bye boyfriend). He was a male dog, so I think the dynamic is different, but my wife would show me a lot of affection around him and include him - i.e. put him between us whenever we lay down. After a while she would put him on his back to increase his vulnerability (e.g. letting him know it would be okay). We called it "putting him in the sandwich" and we would just dote on him. After a while, I could put him on his back and rub him down, until one day he started licking my face. From there, the spit ruled. Every morning he demanded a lick, and if he didn't get it, he would revert. Thank god we're beyond that now, but it really was a matter of slowly introducing greater intimacy between us that was sponsored by my wife, who he trusted. I still have to be careful disciplining him because a harsh word from me destroys him - he'll run straight back to our bed and hide like his life depended on it. The funny thing is that I was very much not a dog person (at all) so it really changed his life and mine.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:20 AM on December 16, 2008 [4 favorites]

Oh, and this process took about nine months (from the time we started dating to the time we moved in together).
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:22 AM on December 16, 2008

This show deals with the issue a lot. May be something here, or email them.
posted by nax at 7:29 AM on December 16, 2008

My parents adopted a dog who was very fearful of males and it took months for him to get better. Maybe even a year. So it sounds like you're on the right track. The good news is that my parents' dog is fine with everyone now - my husband (a "stranger") can call him and he'll come over to get patted. Initially, he would just hide or stand and bark at my husband when we visited.

I'm not sure about the barking - honestly that's still an issue with my parents' dog. I wonder if the two behaviors are related.
posted by robinpME at 7:30 AM on December 16, 2008

My family recently adopted Maggie, a female dog, from a local shelter. At first, the situation was a lot like the one you're in now: she was frightened of me and would keep her tail between her legs any time I was in the same room as her. She was also scared of sudden movements and loud noises; even something as benign as closing a cupboard door too fast would spook her.

Eventually though, I think she realized that we weren't a threat. She slowly gained trust in us, and now she's just like any other normal dog. So my advice would just be to wait it out. It took about 4 to 6 weeks before Maggie got used to my family, and I don't even think she was ever abused per se, just not treated with affection.
posted by aheckler at 7:33 AM on December 16, 2008

Can't help you with all of your points, but I imagine Greta will run away when you sit up because you suddenly got bigger than she is (or at least, bigger than you were before). Laying on your side, you're in a submissive position, allowing her to be dominant.
posted by emelenjr at 7:35 AM on December 16, 2008

Another situation where the dog we adopted was afraid of men, and just time+treating her well cured her of it. Nowadays she actually approaches men in the dog park, something we couldn't even fathom in the early months of barking at every man around. (Still gotta work on the scared-of-kids issue, though..)
posted by inigo2 at 7:44 AM on December 16, 2008

It takes time. We have a dog who was fearful of all humans. She was part of a stray litter and my husband caught her one day after tempting her with a hamburger. When we got her home she attached herself to our other dog and wouldn't let us touch her. We basically tried to be calm and quiet around her, no sudden moves, no direct eye contact, and let her eventually decide to come up to us. When guest came over we told them to not try and pet her - let her come to them if she decides to. Eventually she got more and more comfortable. It just took lots of time and positive loving reinforcement. Sounds like you're household is figuring it out. Just allow time, be consistent and loving.
posted by dog food sugar at 7:46 AM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

You may have to adopt the attitude that you live with a very tiny crazy person, to help you stay relaxed which will help her stay relaxed. Think of the barking as bad wiring, or a bad filter - she's having an emotion and barking is what she's used to doing when she has those particular feelings. She may be excited (food), anxious (tooth-brushing raises the arm in a striking posture), she may even sometimes be happy. Possibly she just wants everyone to know that you're there, which in her mind is an important thing for her to do.

You are on the right track. Maybe with the walking, you need to start with baby steps. Let your wife do the harnessing (if you're using a neck collar, switch to a harness so she can't back out of a collar if she freaks out; we swear by the Gentle Leader Easy Walk) and get her out to the walking area and walk with you for a little distance before you go solo. Make the solo sections longer over time, and work your way backwards in small steps to actually doing all the set-up yourself. I am firmly in the Dog Whisperer camp on exercise - it really does make them calmer and more responsive, and if she sees you as the alpha dog (which I think she probably does) it will make her proud for you to let her walk with you.

It's hard when a little dog is afraid of your size, as there's not much you can do about that. I would suggest you both ignore her when she runs and hides - commenting or reacting to it reinforces her feeling of fear. You may need to ignore and reward - stand or sit at a height she doesn't like, completely ignore her, and drop treats starting at arm's length and then over a few weeks start dropping them closer and closer to your feet. I would ignore her when she barks at you, as well - it's disruptive, but I think you may be setting up a feedback loop by reacting to it. If she likes chew toys, you might keep a special one upstairs for going-to-bed time. Chewing seems to help blow off steam, and there are some battles better fought by distraction than discipline.

She sounds like she really does like you and wants to trust you, and every day that you don't do the things she's afraid you'll do is a little bit of progress. That part just takes time. We took a poorly-treated dog our neighbors abandoned when they moved out, and she's still weird, but the dog she is now is basically nothing like the one we took two years ago. Our motto is "love makes brain cells grow."
posted by Lyn Never at 7:59 AM on December 16, 2008

I have one of these dogs. I got her when she was a little past six months. She wouldn't eat in front of me and hid in the corner of the bedroom. I had to bring in food and water and then leave. She was scared of people and when we'd encounter other people while hiking she'd give them a good thirty feet of space. She's five now and while still shy with new people, she clearly likes new people and she has confidence in herself and stuff about herself she's really clearly proud of--she's a fast runner, for example, and she likes to show it off.

What worked for her was forcing absolutely nothing. She came out of the bedroom when she was ready. She ate in front of me when she was ready. She came in to the living room to meet newcomers when she was ready (peeking around the corner at us the whole time--what a weirdo.) It took her a long time to stop freaking out about things like the sudden noise of a potato chip bag. She looked like it was a sign of the apocalpse.

When she'd approach strangers for the first time and let them pet her when we met them on the trails, I was so proud of her -- it was such a big step. One day a woman noted that while my dog is shy, she clearly likes herself, and I was really happy about that, too.

I think it's one of those things that's highly individual though--I got a lot of recommendations to take her to training classes and I really think that would have made her completely neurotic. Instead of just charmingly neurotic. But also--this method I could sell, because it's what I would want someone to do for me. If I were a different sort of person, maybe I could sell some other philosophy to her--but for me it wouldn't have felt authentic and she wouldn't have bought it.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 9:22 AM on December 16, 2008

Oh, something Mr. Llama did when he met her, early on, was lie face down on the floor and let her sniff him all over. He was really good about not moving, not reaching out to pet her, just letting her do the driving--it really helped with their relationship. She clearly liked him, but it was still four months before she let him walk her on a leash, and--this was hilarious--she pretended it wasn't really happening. She kept the leash really slack but walked as far away from him as possible while doing so, and pretended not to know h im.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 9:33 AM on December 16, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the responses and recommendations. These are the things I really needed to read.
posted by bwilms at 10:06 AM on December 16, 2008

When we adopted Trai (retired racing greyhound), he was 2 1/2 years old and had been earmarked for the "kill" truck because he was so spooky they thought he'd never be adopted. I won't sugarcoat it - it took many months before he'd walk past, say, a black trash bag in the kitchen to get to the back door. Before he got to that point, we had to remove all "scary" obstacles from his path. He bonded with me first, but I think part of it was because I cooed and talked baby talk to him all the time, which seemed to relax him/grab his attention. Because for the first month or so, he didn't even know what petting was; when we stroked him, he stood stock still, head down, tail between legs, poised to flee. After I started talking to him in a coochy-coo cutesie poo manner for a while, he relaxed, and during the second month started following me everywhere, including the bathroom. Meanwhile, he didn't growl or snap or bark at Mr. Adams, but he obviously feared him. And other men, too, it turned out; whenever my brother came to visit, Trai cowered in the bedroom and bro would ask me "Why don't you just dress that sissy dog up in pink tutu?"

It was probably close to about six months before Trai actually started approaching Mr. Adams for petting or to be let outside. We had a lot of two steps forward/five steps back progress in those six months, but by the end of the first year, Trai would get excited and wag his tail and greet Mr. Adams at the door when he came home from work. By year two, he wasn't afraid of either of us, but would still cower if strangers approached us when we were out walking him. I lost track of his "milestones" after that, but we had Trai for 11 1/2 wonderful years, and he did indeed eventually become a "regular dog." He developed a personality (he was truly a "blank slate" when we got him) and not only lost his fear but also developed a sense of mischief. I wish you the best of luck with your girl!!
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:10 AM on December 16, 2008

I have to deal with this every day with lots of different dogs.
While there's some dogs that just won't like you, I find that's pretty rare. There's two things that help build trust in my experience: first, getting in somewhere that the dog is comfortable, like you have been in bed or on the couch. You don't need to be trying to play or anything, just being near and possibly touching while the dog is relaxed.
The second trick: if the dog knows it's name, say it a lot. Talk to yourself saying only the name, sing the name, whisper the name, whatever, as long as you don't sound angry.
I've had dogs that no one else could touch be my best buddy after a couple hours of relaxing and name calling.
posted by gally99 at 10:50 AM on December 16, 2008

I'm dealing with a somewhat frightened adoptive dog now, so thanks for asking this question. We've been inviting friends over more often, to get her used to the idea that new people that enter the house aren't there to attack and kill the dog. I give each person a baggie with a few morsels of her favorite meat-product (something we call Dog Log; it's a big sausage of meat dogfood). Then they are free to give them to her throughout their visit. She barks and barks at first, but settles down after a while. Last weekend was a bit of a test, as we had a small party. By the end of it she was wandering around from person to person, getting treats. I was so proud. Good luck with your dog, and be patient. She'll be fine!
posted by TochterAusElysium at 12:56 PM on December 16, 2008

We've had our two-year-old rescue dog for seven months. She seemed a completely different dog at three months (at which point we thought she had leveled off to her true personality)... and then at six months we realized she was almost a completely different creature yet again - all gain, gain, gain. Spectacular gain. She was afraid of many things, and very wary of men at first, and it took her a little while to warm up to my husband, who she is now utterly, hopelessly gaga over.

We did basically the same sorts of things you are doing: since I was the one home with her all day, I'm the one she bonded with the soonest, and as the principal caregiver and trainer, I'm alpha, so I would have my husband give her her meals whenever possible. While I would only give her treats during training exercises as rewards, he could give her treats when she came to him for attention (without going overboard, of course). We don't give her food from our plates (because we don't want her to beg while we're eating), but my husband could give her a special tidbit from his plate occasionally, away from the table. I almost never give her bits and bobs while I'm cooking, but when he cooks, he can. We would walk her together whenever possible, and he would take the lead... we still do this - whenever it's the three of us, he has the leash, because I walk her all the time. I usually give her some kind of treat when we return from a walk so she has something to look forward to at the end (she's a little reluctant to come back unless it's a really long walk), but if my husband is home (or walks with us), he gives her the treat. (Also walking is her best, most favorite thing in the whole world, so we took every opportunity for my husband to walk her on his own, too, so she would connect him with that happyhappy thing.)

He does sweet-talk her, too.

And something silly, maybe: when we first got her (and my husband was out of town during the first few days, which made the beginning bit more difficult) we both did something I read somewhere, which was to chew a bit of bread and then feed her the masticated lump. It's probably total hogwash, but it couldn't hurt, so we both did that a few times in the first week.

Our girl was not a terribly hard case... she warmed up pretty quickly, but now she is a complete lovebug, and literally does flips of joy when my husband comes home from work - and they have an all-out five- or ten-minute lovefest on the couch every time. She's also not as frightened of men in general (or anything, much) any more... it's really been an amazing transformation.

She's not a barker at all, so I'm afraid I don't have any experience to share there.

So keep doing what you're doing - love, patience, rewarding interaction... she's going to adore you, I'm sure!
posted by taz at 1:00 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

If it makes you feel any better, we've had our very fearful, terribly abused, severely traumatised boxer for two and half a years, and last week was the first time she's ever come to sit on the couch with my husband without me being there.

My husband describes the dog's attitude towards him as "Is Daddy dead yet? Daddy SUCKS."

However, she has very slowly warmed to him, and like your dog, she enjoys playing with him in the mornings in bed (that took a year) and playing with him in the park (about six months.)

It's early days yet; give it a lot of time, and don't take it personally.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:16 PM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

My rescued Chow/Collie mix was like that when he first came to live with me, though he did less hiding and more growling, snarling, etc..He would just stake out a spot and not move, and let me know when I was getting too close for comfort.

I gave him a lot of space, rearranged the furniture so the house was more open and there would be less opportunities for misunderstandings, and basically learned to move around the house in a way that was non-threatening, but that did not seem contrived in any way. For example, at feeding time, I would go into the kitchen and put food in his bowl, then move to a spot where he could keep an eye on me, all the while ignoring him. He would go into the kitchen and eat, then return to his spot and square off. Very trying!

Fortunately, I have a fenced-in backyard. Every morning, I would open the back door and leave it open, then, again, move to a spot in the house where he could keep an eye on me. Once he went outside, I would make coffee, grab the paper, and head out to the backyard and sit on the stoop. In the afternoon, I would sit and read a book. In the evening, I would make calls, read, have a few drinks, whatever, all on the stoop, all in the company of my new, snarly, growly pal. But I didn't pay any attention to him other than occasionally talking to him, reading things out loud from the paper--I made no demands.

At first, he would stake out a spot about 20 feet away and lay down. Over time, that distance started to decrease. Occasionally, I would look up to find him sitting a few feet away just staring at me, so I would talk to him in calm, soothing voice. Once in a while he would forget himself and follow me back inside too quickly, then skid to a halt about halfway and head back out to re-assess the terrain--"Where is that guy?"

One day, after about a month, he walked over to the stoop while I was reading and sat down a few inches away. I said hello and kept on reading, or pretending to read, and he reached out and sorta nudged/poked my hand with his nose, a gesture he now uses quite often. It was very brief, but it was the beginning of the enduring bond that now exists between us.

That's how I did it. I'm not sure why I did it that way, other than it just seemed like the thing to do at the time. Beats me why it worked, but it did.
posted by halcyon_daze at 3:07 PM on December 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

I could have written this post a month ago!

Our dog Charlie (pic in my profile if anyone's interested) was my grandmother's dog, and when she passed away in October we took him in. My grandmother was too old to take him out for daily walks, so she used to just let him have a run of the yard when he wanted to go outside. So basically the only person he ever interacted with on a daily basis for 4 1/2 years was my grandmother, which meant that when we took him in, he was wary of me and hated my husband. Charlie would growl and bark at my husband whenever he came home from work, or if he even just shifted positions on the couch!

I bonded with Charlie soon enough, because I'm around all the time and I probably resemble my grandmother in ways that dogs can pick up on, and he loved our son from the beginning because he used to visit my grandmother's house often and was a familiar face. But my husband? Wow. When Charlie growled and barked (and almost bit once) at my husband, he looked so afraid and desperate that I almost began to think that we'd have to find another home for him, with a person he didn't have to be afraid of all the time.

But my husband wouldn't hear of giving Charlie away. He, he continued to feed Charlie every day and walk him on the weekends, and whenever possible, he petted him and sweet-talked him. Now, after only two months (lucky for us), Charlie isn't afraid of my husband anymore. He still won't go for a walk with my husband alone (either I or my son have to be around), but that's about it. They're pals now and Charlie looks relaxed and happy around all of us, which is something I didn't think was possible when we first got him. He still doesn't like strangers and will bark at them, so I have to be extra careful during our walks, but he's improved considerably in this regard as well, and I'm hopeful he'll get over it completely someday.

You've already got some great advice above and I really don't have anything to add, but yes, patience is the key. You sound like you're doing everything you can, so just give it more time. I know it's tough living with a creature who doesn't feel comfortable around you, and the days feel like months really, but I'm sure Greta will learn to love you. Good luck!
posted by misozaki at 7:24 PM on December 16, 2008

There's a lot of good advice here. I'll add that the we gain confidence is by learning how to do something, and doing it successfully. This will work for Greta. It's already working with your SO.

Don't push the dog. Work at her pace and train her to do things - anything. Just teach her that responding in a certain way has a certain result. She will know the rules in the house, she will know who she is and how she fits in. Teach her to go find her hot-dog toy, or to hold a pencil in her mouth, or balance a treat on her nose. Whatever you think she'd be inclined to do.

You might also try some relaxation techniques. Google around or go to the bookstore - there's plenty of information. (However, if she doesn't respond well to touch, don't use massage or T-Touch.)

I wouldn't do anything about the barking. You have a friend with a nervous twitch, don't draw attention to it. (And if you are using "a swift 'Shhh" sound' when she barks, you could be "barking" back and encouraging her.)

It might be helpful to tell her where you are and what you are doing - she won't understand the words, but you will be mindful of letting Greta know when you are leaving or coming into her space. Seriously, say in a calm, even voice, "Grata, I am coming up the stairs." (You may feel like an idiot. Your SO may mock you. Dogs and children will always make you look stupid. It's part of their charm.) Unless you are sneaking around so your SO can catch more winks, be more obvious.

As people have said, these things take time - and as they've said, they got there eventually. Nothing in your post indicates that you have a deadline. She's a young dog. Slow and steady wins the race.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:59 PM on December 16, 2008

Just another thought... "whenever I put food in her bowl she barks at me"; I'm thinking it would be better to remove the bowl to the countertop (if she's barking at this point, ignore her and wait before doing anything more until she doesn't seem concerned with the bowl), then fill the bowl there, and put it back. Maybe even elaborate the whole process a bit to make it more of an identifiable action. And if possible, return the bowl at a point when she's not barking (obviously, that may be difficult at first if she's mostly barking the whole time).

I'm not sure why I'm saying this, but I have the feeling that it makes it much clearer that you are providing the food, as opposed to a sort of indistinct hovering for a moment over her special, sacred spot, and then oh, huh, there's food. She may not really be getting the connection of you + bowl = yay food!

When you have the time to do it, you might even want to draw it out by separating the full portion into thirds or fourths, so you feed her a little bit, she sees you take the bowl, she sees you doing some kind of preparation, she sees you bring and set down the bowl, and there's more food! Repeat, repeat, and I think she'll be very much connecting you with good stuff regarding her bowl and space, and understanding that you are the provider.

Also, I'm thinking it may be helpful to get a crate for her, if your haven't, since so many owners talk about how it ends up being their dogs' safety/comfort place. Drape fabric around the outside and put comfy blankets and favorite toys inside, etc. We didn't do the crate thing because of lack of space, and we didn't need to do it for behavior or potty training purposes, but our dog has a few "safety" spots that she's picked out: under the kitchen table (where I sit with the laptop; but now it's become a default safe place for her, whether I'm there or not), under the desk in the living room, and beside our bed, where she sleeps.
posted by taz at 10:52 PM on December 16, 2008

Response by poster: I can't thank everybody enough for their feedback and suggestions. We've already started changing some of our actions and using some of your tips. Your stories have assured me that progress will come. Thanks again!
posted by bwilms at 5:02 AM on December 17, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, has it been 6 months already? Just as a little update, everything everybody said was true, patience is the key. With patience and being consistent, we are overcoming many hurdles. The dog that used to hide in the corner and bark when I fed her now wants my attention and is silent at dinner time. A couple of things that helped us the most:

- she knew she was going to be fed when I left. I decided to feed first thing when I awoke (instead of as I was heading out the door) and magically, the morning barking stopped.

- I used commands she knew (sit, down, stay) to redirect unwelcome behavior. So, she would have to stay in her down position for a period of time before food was placed in her bowl, to which she responded very well.

- Routine routine routine. Greta thrives on routine and becomes more and more comfortable with me because of it. She goes outside. She gets fed. She gets a walk when I come home. We play. She gets fed.

We are facing new challenges now, but with a history of success we are confident we can continue moving ahead. Thanks again!
posted by bwilms at 7:43 AM on June 1, 2009

I love follow-ups! Thanks! (This thread popped up in my Recent Activity tab. Great feature.)

Great to hear Greta's doing well. Our dog Charlie's been doing great, too. My husband can take him out for walks alone now (though only if I'm not at home)! Charlie still hates strangers, but he's mellowed out considerably in the 8 months we've had him. So yes, like you said, with a history of success, we're also confident that we'll see more changes in him in the years to come.
posted by misozaki at 8:25 PM on June 3, 2009

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