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News: Guest Posts
Paradigm Shift for Seeing Eye Dogs
Deploying a clicker and treats to help a hesitant guide dog

Five months ago (has it been that long already?) I returned with my new dog from the Seeing Eye School in Morristown to piles of snow here in Chicago.

Poor Harper had never trained in snow. Was that why he was cowering on our walks to the Loop now? Does he miss the snow? Or maybe it’s a delayed reaction to the van that turned right in front of us. The driver didn’t see us crossing, she said. Her van brushed Harper’s face, and he pulled me back from harm so strongly that I fell. My head crashed on the concrete. Maybe that near-miss still has him scared.

Harper’s cowering started one day when I had a meeting downtown at Willis Tower. Halfway there, along a normal length of sidewalk, Harper crouched to the ground. Wouldn’t budge. Not forward, not backward. After trying everything I could come up with to get Harper to move, I finally accepted help from a stranger. The man walked Harper and me to Franklin Avenue, and when Harper caught sight of the Willis Tower he took off like old times.

On the way home, though, he cowered again. Four different times. Then he cowered on the way to and from the memoir-writing class I teach, on the way to and from the pool where I swim, on the way to and from the train station to visit my mom in the suburbs. We eventually got to all these places, but it was like driving a car that stalls all the time. It was miserable—both for Harper and for me.

“It really doesn’t matter why he’s acting this way,” the instructor from the Seeing Eye said when I called the training department for help. “He just can’t act like this.” They arranged to send an instructor out for a home visit.

Nicole spent her first afternoon with us just observing. Harper did not hold back. In one short walk, he refused to go all the way to the corner at an intersection, he veered right when we crossed, and then wouldn’t follow my command to turn right so we could take a walk to the park. He did get me home, though, and over a cup of tea Nicole assured me I hadn’t done anything wrong to cause Harper’s behavior. “We’ve just gotta work on how you react when he behaves like this,” she said.

Nicole suggested we try clicker training. Award-winning Seeing Eye instructor Lukas Franck had taught us clicker training while we were in Morristown last December, and I’d used it at home to teach Harper to find the elevator button in our hallway.

Clicking and giving Harper a treat to reward him for getting to the curb went counter to everything I’d learned when training with my previous Seeing Eye dogs Pandora and Hanni. Back then we were strongly discouraged from rewarding our dogs with food. Heap on the praise instead, they told us. Guide Dogs are allowed in restaurants, amusement parks, receptions, food courts, you name it. They have to be able to keep on task without being distracted by food.

Lukas—and then Nicole—assured me that the Seeing Eye had tested the clicker-training method extensively. I could use treats as rewards and still expect Harper to ignore food distractions in restaurants and the like. I was skeptical, but desperate. I decided to give it a try.

And you know what? It’s working! For the past couple weeks, I’ve been clicking the clicker every time Harper gets me to the end of a block. He understands that the click means “you got it!” and he knows that the sound of the click means he gets a small treat. Harper hardly ever cowers anymore; he’s in such a rush to get to the end of the block to collect his reward!

Harper’s work is not perfect—well, not yet, at least—but it has really, really improved. This week I’ve started weaning him off the clicker—in other words, I don’t click at each and every curb anymore. So far he’s still getting me to the end of each block without cowering, and his tail wags with pride when he does. Atta boy, Harper!

News: Guest Posts
So You Think You Want to Train Guide Dogs?
A challenging and rewarding career

Earlier this month, my Seeing Eye dog Harper and I gave a guest lecture to an animal sciences class at the University of Illinois. I told the students what it’s been like transitioning to a new Seeing Eye dog, and I went over some of the qualifications necessary to become a Seeing Eye trainer/instructor.

Trainers at the Seeing Eye need to have a college degree, and then they can apply for an apprenticeship. While some instructors go right from college into a Seeing Eye apprenticeship, most of the instructors I’ve talked to worked at other jobs before deciding to train dogs.   From the Seeing Eye website: “Staff instructors are full-time employees who hold college degrees from various fields of study and have successfully completed three years of specialized on-the-job training. They relate well to dogs and people and are physically fit, since their jobs are physically demanding and involve working outdoors in all weather. Some of our current instructors came from teaching, business consulting and rehabilitation fields. Some were in the military and worked with dogs before, and many started out as kennel assistants here at The Seeing Eye.”   Steve Newman—the very handsome (from what he told us) man who trained Harper and me—earned his college degree in accounting. He has his CPA, too, and worked as an accountant until he realized he likes working with people more than numbers. He found a job as a headhunter, but when the economy went sour, so did that career. After that, he spent a lot of time at a Starbucks, using his laptop to apply for other jobs.   Turns out that Steve’s Starbucks of choice was the very one Seeing Eye trainers use to teach dogs to navigate tight places. He was so taken by the string of beautiful dogs coming in and out of the coffee shop that he asked one of the trainers what it took to become an instructor.   “I knew I loved dogs,” he says. “And I like working with people, too, so I decided to apply.” During his interview, Steve was warned about the long hours (including some overnights when the students are first matched with their new dogs). “I’d worked as an accountant,” he says with a laugh. “Long hours didn't scare me.”   Steve got the job, passed the three-year apprenticeship, and has been training Seeing Eye dogs ever since. It was my great fortune, and Harper’s, too, that Steve was the one assigned to my group of four last December. He’s a smart man, loves the dogs, is good with all sorts of people and is easy to laugh.   During my lecture at the University of Illinois, I reminded the college students that guide dog instructors don’t just work with dogs. They work with people, too. We blind folks are all different ages, and we have all sorts of different backgrounds and experiences behind us. Some of us are newly blind and still adjusting, others have been blind our entire lives. Although some of us might be easy to work with, a lot of us are brats. We test our teacher’s patience. God knows I tested Steve’s, and he passed!   The Puppy Place (a website created by a group of volunteers who raise puppies for guide dog schools) says it well:   “Guide Dog trainers must work with a variety of dogs within a given size range. A great deal of walking and upper body strength is required to mold hyper young dogs into responsible workers. In the beginning, when working with dogs alone, this may not seem bad, but soon the apprentice must team dog training with people training. You can’t leash correct your blind student, or give him/her a dirty look and expect the undesired behavior or wrong actions to stop. You must verbally communicate while physically managing to keep up with the dog. Coming out of yourself to work with both dogs and people is a special skill and not one to be taken lightly.”   Schools receive hundreds of applications every year from people who want to train guide dogs, so even opportunities to become an apprentice are rare. Most guide dog schools do require instructors to do an apprenticeship, and some apprenticeships last as long as four years. From my observation, apprentices work very hard. And from what I hear, salaries are quite low.   I have no idea what people are paid once they pass the apprenticeship and become full-fledged instructors. Considering that guide dog schools are nonprofit organizations, I would guess the pay is far below what a lot of today’s college-educated people expect to earn. If you’re looking for job satisfaction, though, this kind of work must be pretty dang rewarding.   For general information about working as a dog guide trainer or instructor, check out the various dog guide school websites. That, or just start hanging out at the Starbucks closest to the school you want to work for!

 

News: Guest Posts
The Whirlwind Life of a Guide Dog Puppy—with Video
Caleb’s first plane trip, photo shoot and evaluation

Last week was a big development week for Caleb. He took his first plane trip, met our delightful friend and photographer Amanda Jones (video below), explored San Francisco, and had his six-month evaluation with our field representative from Guide Dogs for the Blind. 

While in theory it would be great to have our dogs always travel with us, I can tell you from years of experience it’s not as easy as it looks! Guide Dogs for the Blind puppies under six-month-of-age are not permitted to fly and approval is required to ensure the experience is a positive one for all involved.   Travel can be very stressful for dogs, and pets in general, so I take into account as many of these factors as possible. I gauge if my puppy can handle not relieving himself for a number of hours. Can my puppy navigate crowds and airport security? Will I be staying in a location where my puppy will be comfortable? Will I have access to a fenced yard for him? And, finally, is it a worthwhile training experience?   When I travel with a dog I change my schedule to accommodate his, I fly at non-peak times on slow travel days, not during meal times and always on direct flights. In this case, I had to be in San Francisco on a Sunday so Caleb and I took a Saturday afternoon flight.   Clearly all of the other socialization activities Caleb’s been exposed to up to now parlay into his ability to accept the stress of traveling on a plane. If you plan to travel with you dog on a plane please consider if it’s the right thing for your pet; how much travel your dog been previously exposed to, noise sensitivity, stress triggers, age and most importantly be sure you are willing to drive home if air travel proved to be too much for your dog to handle.   Flying out of a small regional airport means I know the staff by name and they know I often show up with a dog in tow. Security is relatively easy to navigate, but we also have to walk directly onto the tarmac where the noise and planes can be daunting for a puppy. Caleb handled it all like a champ.   The flight was only about half-full, which gave Caleb some extra room and the flight crew was accommodating as always. Once on the plane, I brought out a new toy for Caleb and he settled right down under the seat. At not quite seven-months-old, Caleb’s the youngest pup I’ve taken on a plane. He’s also the only one to sleep from before take-off to after landing. Neither the noise nor the motion bothered him at all, as I’ve said throughout this series as long as he’s got a pair of feet to curl up on he’s fine.   Once in San Francisco, we had to make our way out of the airport to the pet rest area and then rode the tram to the rental car center—all of which were very new experiences for the little man. The week provided the opportunity to give Caleb many new experiences: We stayed in two different places both with resident dogs of their own, took the ferry from Marin to San Francisco, and enjoyed dinner in quaint downtown bistros.   But my favorite experience I shared with Caleb was having a photo session with Amanda Jones, a frequent Bark photo contributor. Now, Amanda’s not only the most talented, photographer but also a dear friend who always finds the time to fit my pups into her busy schedule. These photos are my keepsake of my short time with these amazing creatures. I see it as a present to myself for the love, hard work and heartache that comes with each puppy. Here’s a video snippet from the shoot.  

  By mid-week we were ready to head home, which proved again to be a walk in the park for my little travel companion. Even the busier San Francisco International Airport security process could not shake Caleb’s confidence. We followed the same rules of travel for our return home: off-hours flight, slow travel day and new toy for the flight home. Although he was asleep before we hit the runway. All in all, it was a perfect introduction to air travel for Caleb and a great training opportunity.   Caleb also had his six-month evaluation with our field representative from Guide Dogs for the Blind. Each month puppy-raisers complete a report that helps provide development and socialization feedback for the staff. In addition, puppies have two annual evaluations, at six and twelve months. This provides raisers with the opportunity to ask questions and gives field reps time to assess any problems or concerns and also to implement any new training techniques.   Caleb and I met with our rep at the local library where we reviewed paperwork and then set off on a walk to see how Caleb behaved out in public with other dogs and environmental distractions. He was nearly perfect—I was told he already acts like a Guide Dog! Caleb only has one slight issue with some dog distractions, so he was put on a food protocol to help change the behavior and its already working. It never fails; food is the great motivator.

 

News: Guest Posts
We Love Our Puppy Raisers
Rutgers students volunteer with future Seeing Eye dogs

I’ve been home three months with my new Seeing Eye dog Harper. He’s a two-year-old yellow bundle of Labrador energy, and not a day goes by where I don’t think of—and thank—the wonderful volunteer who raised him as a puppy. Harper and I trained for three weeks at the Seeing Eye last December. Before we left for home, our instructor read me Harper’s “puppy profile.” Each person who volunteers to raise a puppy for the Seeing Eye is asked to write up a little report. You know, to let us in on what our dogs lives were like before we met them.

  Here’s an excerpt: Harper was attending classes at my university (including attending the graduation!), going on buses and trains, attending other club meetings, university equestrian team shows with 20-plus horses, a trip to the airport, going on a plane but not taking off, emergency vehicles, malls, stores, fairs, the beach (his favorite), on a boat, in pools, overnight charity events, elementary school presentations, a retirement/recovery home, soccer, football and hockey games.   Whew! Harper is one well-traveled dog, and he did all that even before he was a year-and-a-half-old! And yes, you read that right: He was raised on a college campus; he’s a Rutgers grad. An article on the Rutgers University Seeing Eye Puppy Raising Club website describes these generous students who volunteer their time to raise puppies for us.   “To truly stop and spend a few moments observing the volunteers of the Rutgers University Seeing Eye Puppy Raising Club, you’re struck too by their obvious affection for and commitment to their charges—cute, adorable puppies with names like Elroy, Yankee, Harper and Oz.”   Did you read that? The article mentions Harper! What a sweet little puppy he must have been; imagine the attention he got on campus. College students at Rutgers have been providing a welcoming home for Seeing Eye puppies since the year 2000, when the Rutgers chapter of the puppy-raising program began.   After leaving the Seeing Eye breeding station, seven- or eight-week old German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and crosses of these breeds are placed with puppy raisers until they are 16- to 18-months-old. Raisers train the puppies in basic obedience, house manners, how to walk on a leash, and expose the dogs to real-life situations they might encounter once placed with a blind person like me.   But back to Harper’s puppy profile: His puppy raiser said Harper loves squeaky toys, so we knew to give him some of those when he came home with me to Chicago. She also said that he loves being talked to in a singsong voice, so just imagine how much I sing to him now. My favorite part of Harper’s puppy profile: “He is the coolest dog I’ve ever had. His personality is a great combination of independence and affection.”   Amen to that. THANK YOU, Harper’s puppy raiser. And thanks to all the other wonderful, generous volunteer puppy raisers out there. You are our heroes.

 

News: Karen B. London
Service Dogs Named After Fallen Soldiers
They honor and assist those in the military

Fleet bears the name of one soldier and serves as the legs for another. He is a 15-week old Golden Retriever who is being trained as a service dog for Josh Craven. Craven lost one leg while serving as a soldier in Iraq and has had six surgeries on the other leg. When he returns home from Walter Reed Medical Hospital in a few months, he will be joined by Fleet who by then will be a fully trained service dog. Fleet’s jobs will include opening doors, turning on lights, getting food from the fridge and giving Craven his keys.

  Fleet was named after James Fleet McClamrock, a soldier who was killed in Iraq last September. McClamrock’s parents feel that every time Craven says his dog’s name, it’s a tribute to their son, and that he will be remembered.   Fleet is one of many dogs who owes his training to the Carolina Patriot Rovers, an organization dedicated to providing service dogs to veterans in need of one, and therapy dogs to those veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.   Carolina Patriot Rovers rely on donations since they do not charge the servicemen and servicewomen for the dogs or the dogs’ training, which costs thousands of dollars. The dogs are named after either soldiers who have lost their lives in service to the country or after military groups. The names of some of the dogs trained recently are Ryan (after Christopher Ryan Barton), Noah (after Noah M. Pier), Wyatt (after Christopher Wyatt McCullough), Ivy (named for the 4th Infantry Division), and Deuce (named for the 22nd Infantry.)   “One of the things in losing a child is you never want them to be forgotten,” says Susan McClamrock, whose son’s middle name was Fleet.” These dogs help veterans as both service dogs and therapy dogs and honor fallen soldiers, too, which is a comfort to the families who have lost a loved one.

 

News: JoAnna Lou
Borrow a Dog at the Library
Yale Law lets students “check out” the resident therapy pup

Last week, Yale Law School’s library started offering therapy dog services on a trial basis. Interest has been high, so it’s hopeful that the program will continue.

Students can sign up at the circulation desk to “check out” Monty, a certified therapy dog, for 30-minute sessions of stress busting. The Border Terrier-mix belongs to librarian Julian Aiken, so he’s well loved even when he’s “off duty.”

As you can imagine, it’s easy for students’ stress levels to rise at the nation’s top-ranked law school, so the librarians are always looking for new services to offer. After reading about the benefits of therapy dogs, they contemplated the idea for some time.

To keep the peace among any non-dog lovers, Monty is hypoallergenic and visits are confined to a non-public space in the library.

The idea of therapy dogs and college students isn’t quite new. Other schools, which include Tufts University, New York University (where my therapy group, The Good Dog Foundation, visits), Oberlin College, and the University of California, invite dogs to campus during finals, but Yale is the first I’ve heard of that lets students “check out” a therapy dog.

A little one-on-one time with a friendly pup sounds like the perfect way to beat stress!

News: Guest Posts
Big Changes for Little Caleb
Neutering and operant conditioning training for future Guide Dog

It’s hard to believe little Caleb is already six-months-old. He’s become such a fixture in our routines that we all feel a bit off when that routine is interrupted. But it’s something we have to do in order to prepare Caleb for his future as a well-socialized canine ambassador. This month that interruption will be a big one—at least for little Caleb—he’s getting neutered.

 

Not all Guide Dog for the Blind puppies-in-training are altered during their puppy-raising year. But, Caleb being a male Labrador/Golden Retriever cross is not a candidate for breeding. All working Guide Dogs are altered before they enter formal training, however there is a percentage of puppies who are watched throughout their puppy-raising year as potential breeder candidates and there are a number of puppies, such as Caleb, who are altered during that time too.   As I mentioned in a previous post, Guide Dogs for the Blind supports and maintains its own breeding department and dogs. There are about 180 dogs in the breeding program. These dogs live with people who have been selected as “breeder custodians” and spend the majority of their time doing what most pet dogs do—playing and being part of a family. They are a mix of yellow and black Labradors, as well as Golden Retrievers and also female Labrador/Golden Retriever crosses (Caleb’s mom being one of them).   Eighty percent of the breeders are females and 20 percent are males, and they are the epitome of the Guide Dog ideal. Guide Dogs for the Blind also participates in an exchange program with other International Guide Dog Federation schools that promotes the sharing of litters and dogs. Puppies-in-training and breeders have come from Guide Dog schools in Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and The Netherlands and in return these schools have received dogs from Guide Dogs for the Blind. This helps the global Guide Dog community to continue to add new genes into the lineage while maintaining the most important Guide Dog traits, health and temperament.   Speaking of temperament, Caleb is a rock solid star. For the most part, he’s mature enough to go where we go. He can handle an afternoon of errands, an evening of dinner and a movie, a high school basketball game, even a trip to barn to check up on my horse. As long as he can find a pair of feet to curl up between, he’s happy to be wherever we are.   In addition to the fun stuff we do, twice a month we meet with our puppy-raising club to work on obedience and learn from our advisor new and improved way of working with our puppies. All of Caleb’s obedience commands and puppy-handling exercises are rewarded with praise, lots and lots or praise! There are very few instances where we use food rewards for puppies-in-training—in teaching recall and “go to bed” exercise using operant conditioning.   In operant conditioning, puppies are rewarded for offering a desired behavior instead of being physically manipulated to respond to a command. Essentially, it’s a game, a fun and rewarding game for the pups. Guide Dogs for the Blind puppy-raising department uses operant conditioning in the “go to bed” exercise.    Using a mat or crate pad, I walk Caleb by the mat and if he offers the desired behavior of touching the mat I “mark” him with the word “nice” followed immediately with a piece of kibble. The timing is everything as the marker occurs immediately upon the behavior and the kibble reinforces the behavior. After a few rounds of touching the mat, I wait for Caleb to remain standing on the mat, where he again receives the verbal marker followed by kibble.   Next I wait for Caleb to offer a sit and eventually lay down on the mat, continuing to give him a verbal marker and kibble to reaffirm the behavior. I don’t name the behavior Caleb does this all on his own, knowing the verbal marker and food reward will follow. Once the behavior is consistent I add the “go to bed” name and from then on I cue him with the words to perform the behavior.   It’s amazing to see how quickly the puppies pick it up and how this technique becomes a cornerstone of training for dogs when puppies return to campus for formal Guide Dog training. Operant conditioning can be taught with a verbal marker or a clicker and was originally used in the lab and with marine mammals. It took me awhile to get in sync with the coordination of the marker and reward, but now that we have it Caleb rocks this training.   Another big training milestone is coming up next month, Caleb will take his first airplane ride as we head down to San Francisco for Caleb’s photo shoot with our dear friend and Bark photo contributor, Amanda Jones. Stay tuned.

 

News: Guest Posts
Search Dogs Travel to Japan to Sniff Out Survivors
Follow their progress online

A dozen American search-and-rescue dogs are on the ground in Japan to search for survivors after last week’s earthquake and tsunami.

  Riley, Baxter, Pearl, Hunter, Cadillac and Joe were trained by the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) and are based with firefighters in California. They’re currently at work in the hard-hit city of Ofunato. According to a CNN report, another group of six dogs, from Virginia Task Force 1 in Fairfax County, Va., have joined the effort as well.   Both rescue crews have responded to some of the biggest disasters of the last 20 years, from the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11 attacks to Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Learn more about the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation in Lisa Wade McCormick’s story for Bark, “Rescue, Doubled” (Sept/Oct 2009).   The teams will sniff for humans still alive and trapped in the wreckage—even unconscious victims can be detected. Nosing into the layers of rubble, the dogs help “clear” areas as searchers systematically move through the debris.   The dogs’ work is easy to follow stateside: The SDF posts frequent updates on their site and on the group’s Facebook and Twitter pages. There’s even video of the dogs arriving in Japan to begin their mission.   Task Force 1 also reports the latest news on their site. The most recent posting, from Wednesday evening in Japan, said the dogs had concluded their searches in Ofunato and Kamaishi with no victims located.
News: Guest Posts
New ADA Regulations Narrow Service Animal Definition
But will it solve the problem of badly behaving humans?

Starting today, March 15, 2011, only service dogs and trained miniature horses are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Monkeys, rodents and reptiles, among others, are no longer permitted to accompany individuals with disabilities into places of public accommodation.

  Department of Justice regulations (implementing Title III of the ADA) used to define a service animal as “any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to provide assistance for the benefit of an individual with a disability.”   The ADA revisions going into affect today were drawn up after some disability advocates asked the Department of Justice to crack down on people who were faking or exaggerating disabilities in order to get their companion animals into places of public accommodation. Starting today, a service animal is defined as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.”   Notice the specific word dog in that sentence. Aside from one provision for miniature horses, other species of animals (whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained) are no longer deemed service animals.   It really does make it harder for the rest of us when an animal or his handler’s poor behavior causes people to think badly about service animals. I’ve heard stories about helper parrots pecking at shoppers in stores, a therapeutic rat that quelled anxiety in his owner but caused anxiety to others, and comfort pigs going crazy on airplanes. In my own life, however, the only negative service animal stories that have affected me personally have been about dogs.   The last time I went to a Cubs game, I was stopped while trying to get into Wrigley Field with my Seeing Eye dog. The man taking tickets said he didn’t know if the dog was allowed. I pointed to the harness, told him she was a Seeing Eye dog. He was skeptical.   Turns out that a week earlier someone had brought a puppy to Wrigley, claiming the dog was a service dog. The dog misbehaved, and fans sitting nearby complained. After that, the people working the gates were told to scrutinize anyone coming in with a service dog.   In addition to being despicable, faking a disability to gain privilege is fraud. It also results in increased scrutiny of people with legitimate disabilities. I’ve had this happen to me at Crate and Barrel on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. At a jazz club in the Loop. At a sandwich shop in our neighborhood. I was stopped at the door at each place. At the first two, the doorman checked with a supervisor before letting me through with my Seeing Eye dog. At Jimmy John’s, they just kicked us out. We haven’t been back.   As the very first school in the U.S. to train guide dogs for the blind, the Seeing Eye has worked for nearly a century to give guide dog’s public access. I didn’t really have a problem with having this access extended to qualified service animals of any type—helper pigs, parrots, monkeys, you name it, as long as they were qualified.   I wish the powers that be could have somehow revised the law to regulate the behavior of the animal rather than its species. And as long as we’re cracking down, why not start with the species that is most at fault here: humans.  

 

News: JoAnna Lou
Therapy Through a Dog’s Eyes
Seattle hospital attaches cameras to their therapy pups

When I visit the hospital with Nemo, as part of the Good Dog Foundation therapy program, it’s so rewarding to see the joy the dogs bring to the patients. Pets have an amazing ability to cheer up people and it always brings a smile to my face.

Now everyone can enjoy the power of pet therapy, even if you’re not in the hospital.

The Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, Wash., created their own therapy dog program in 2008, called Swedish/Edmonds Therapy Pups (STP). STP recently found a way to share their work through the dogs’ point of view.

STP attaches special video cameras to their therapy dogs and posts selected videos online through YouTube. The videos can be found on their website, and I guarantee they will brighten your day!

 

 

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