Clicker TrainingParnell Hall
PARNELL HALL is the author of the Stanley Hastings private eye novels (beginning with the Edgar Award- and Shamus Award-nominated Detective), the Steve Winslow courtroom dramas, and the Puzzle Lady crossword puzzle mysteries. He lives in New York City with his wife, his two sons, and Sophie, his Portuguese water dog.
"That's a nice poodle."
"She's a Portuguese water dog."
"Whatever. She's a fine looking animal."
I said it through gritted teeth. I wouldn't have minded so much if it wasn't the third or fourth time we'd had the exact same conversation. But either Mr. Abercrombie had a worse memory than mine--hard to imagine--or else he was determined to pretend to forget due to a bizarre sense of humor of the type that was apt to be funny only to him. In either event, I was finding it rather tiresome, particularly since my wife and I had only checked in the night before.
The Stone Inn--the unlikely name of the sprawling, three-story, white, wood-frame house that to the best I could determine did not have a single stone in it--was one of the few bed and breakfasts not booked solidly through Christmas in all southern Vermont, due to the fact there had been three straight weeks of light, dry, powdery snow, resulting in gorgeous, idyllic New England landscapes and the best skiing conditions in twenty years.
My wife and I don't ski. We were in Vermont because our son Tommie was spending his Christmas vacation in France on a school trip--don't ask. (In my day a school trip meant going down to the firehouse to see the firemen polish the fire engine.) So for the first time in years our apartment would seem rather empty over the holidays, and we wanted to get out of town.
To be sure, the snow was a lure. We don't get snow much in New York City these days, what with global warming, and as a New England boy born and bred, I miss it. So we opted for Vermont.
The Stone Inn was not our first choice. In a guide book that gave up to four stars, it got one. Nonetheless, we had chosen it on the basis of two important criteria: it had a vacancy and it took dogs.
Mr. Abercrombie, it occurred to me uncharitably, had probably chosen it because it was cheap.
Abercrombie was a plump man with a bulbous nose, twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks, and a predilection for heavy knit sweaters with reindeer on them. So far he had exhibited only two, still that was enough for me to fantasize dozens more carefully packed in an enormous suitcase.
But I was talking about the dog.
The morning after we had arrived we were all sitting around the spacious living room after a rather feeble breakfast of French toast and coffee, garnished with an occasional grape, served by the stout Austrian man whose stout Austrian wife had prepared the sumptuous repast. The two of them presumably owned the Stone Inn and were responsible for racking up its impressive total of one star. Such as it was, that was breakfast. The Stone Inn was a bed and breakfast, and since we'd slept there and had breakfast, we'd gotten what we'd paid for, and now we had all adjourned to the living room, where Alice and Zelda were holding an impromptu lecture on clicker training.
Alice is my wife.
Zelda is the dog.
"Pure clicker training," Alice was saying, "is very nice, because basically the dog teaches herself. The dog offers you a behavior, you click the clicker. The dog hears the click, realizes she's done the right thing. The dog repeats the behavior to hear the click again."
"Why?" said a young woman with sandy hair and a rather well filled out ski sweater, if aging married men are still allowed to notice such things, sexist notions dying hard. The woman was presumably the wife, girlfriend, or sister of the young man in the green fleece pullover who had blond hair, wore wire-rimmed glasses, and looked too all-American to be true. They were sitting on a love seat in the corner, which made me think they probably weren't brother and sister, but I've been wrong before.
Also in the audience were a middle-aged couple, he bald, she white haired, whom I shuddered to think were probably no older than I; an elderly man with wizened hands, an emaciated face, and an alarming death rattle when he opened his mouth, who damn well better have been older than I; and a man I classified as a sailor, though I hadn't a clue why, unless it was his large, black beard that I somehow associated with sailing through some elusive, subconscious, psychic connection of which I was not aware.
Alice and I had been introduced to all of these people during breakfast, but I, who retain names like a sieve, could remember only Abercrombie's, either because he grated on me so or because of the association with Abercrombie and Fitch.
"Why?" Alice said. "Because of the food. We call it clicker training, but it's really click/treat. You click the clicker and give the dog a treat. The dog quickly comes to associate the click with food."
Alice plunged ahead, in full lecture mode. "Take a puppy, never been trained before. You want to teach her to sit. So you wait till she does. The puppy sits, you click. And give her a treat. But you don't feed the puppy where she's sitting. You hold the treat so she has to get up and get it. Now she's standing. When she sits again, you click. And treat. It's amazing how quickly the puppy realizes, If I sit, they'll click me and I'll get a treat."
"Why click at all?" the bearded sailor-type said. He had a cultured voice which, I had to admit, didn't sound a bit like a sailor. "Why not just give a treat?"
"Because you can't do it fast enough," Alice said. "When the dog sits, you feed her. But by the time you reach out and hand her the treat, it's several seconds after she sat. The dog is smart, but not that smart, to have to think back and say, Oh, they're feeding me, is that because I just sat? But the click is instantaneous. It pinpoints the action. And promises a treat."
"Then how come your dog isn't sitting all the time, trying to get a treat?" the young woman in the sweater said.
"Because you change the game," Alice said. "After the dog learns the behavior, you add the word sit. Or a hand gesture. Then you only click and treat when the dog does the behavior when you ask her to."
"So, what can she do?" the bald man said. (The one I was afraid was younger than I.)
"Oh, lots of things," Alice said. "Though I don't teach Zelda tricks so much as general obedience."
The middle-aged woman smiled and said, "Zelda?"
"Yes," Alice said. "After F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife."
I smiled and said nothing. Alice might think that, and we would never disillusion her, but my son Tommie and I both know she was actually named after a Nintendo game.
"Zelda," Alice called in a high lilting voice.
Zelda, who had been curled up happily in front of the fireplace, raised her head at the sound of Alice's voice. She certainly looked intelligent, though maybe I'm biased. Zelda is a black dog with white markings on her paws and chest, and long curly hair. Portuguese water dogs don't shed, they have to be groomed like poodles--though they are not poodles, thank you very much, Mr. Abercrombie--and Zelda was overdue for a haircut, which meant she had a luxurious coat of loose curls and looked positively gorgeous. It also meant you couldn't see her eyes, but, trust me, the dog was very bright.
Alice stood up, said, "Zelda, come."
Zelda trotted over to Alice.
Alice said, "Go round."
Zelda walked around behind Alice's back.
"Sit," Alice said.
Zelda sat at her side.
"Down," Alice said.
Zelda lay down.
Alice walked across the room, turned, and faced the dog.
"You haven't clicked," the elderly man said. It came out as a wheeze, but confirmed the fact he was still alive.
"Because the sequence isn't over," Alice said. "After the dog learns, you chain behaviors. Zelda will follow a whole sequence of commands in order to hear a click. Zelda, come."
Zelda trotted over to Alice and sat in front of her.
Alice clicked and reached in her pocket for a treat.
"You didn't ask her to sit," the young woman pointed out.
"Yes, I did," Alice said. "I gave her a hand signal."
"Can you teach her a new behavior?" the young man asked. It was the first time he'd spoken, and he sounded young.
"Sure thing," Alice said.
Alice looked around the room. In the far corner was a Christmas tree, with strings of lights and colored balls and tinsel. It had presents underneath and a star on top. So far Zelda had given it a wide berth.
"See the Christmas tree?" Alice said. "Zelda's afraid of it because she's never seen one. It's only her second Christmas, and last year she couldn't go because we went to Stanley's mother's, and his mother has cats. So she's cautious about it, because she's not entirely sure what it is. From her experience, trees do not grow indoors or have lights."
"So?" the young man said.
"So, I can use clicker training to teach her something to overcome the fear."
Alice walked over to the Christmas tree.
Zelda trotted over.
Alice pointed to a Styrofoam ball hanging from a lower branch. "Touch."
Zelda looked up at Alice.
Alice pointed again. "Touch."
Zelda took two steps, reached out, touched the Styrofoam ball with her nose.
Alice clicked. "Good girl," she said, and gave Zelda a puppy biscuit. As soon as Zelda had eaten it, Alice pointed to the ball and said, "Touch."
Zelda touched it again, much quicker this time.
Alice clicked, gave her a treat.
This time, when Zelda finished the biscuit, Alice said nothing. She stood there, arms folded.
Zelda looked at her for a moment, then turned, took two steps, reached out, and touched the ball with her nose.
Alice clicked and gave her a treat, while the people in the living room laughed and applauded.
"That's a smart poodle," Abercrombie said.
I gnashed my teeth.
Later that morning, we took Zelda out in the snow. She loved it. She ran, she jumped, she rolled. She had a wonderful time. The only thing missing was another dog to play with.
That problem was solved right after lunch. Alice and I got back from the local soup and sandwich shop downtown to find a Labrador retriever had checked in. Of course, the Lab had not checked in by himself--his mommy and daddy were with him. Which is how we dog people refer to the owners of other people's dogs. And, yes, our own, too. Alice is Zelda's mommy, and I am Zelda's daddy. And we know it's silly, but only to an extent. When Alice says to Zelda, "You wanna go for a walk with daddy?" I hardly even notice.
Anyway, the Lab's mommy and daddy were a nice young couple, who laughed affectionately as their dog catapulted from the backseat of their Subaru, bounded up to Zelda, and took off with her across the lawn. They whirled and rolled and frolicked and frisked, biting at each other's ears and tail in a playful friendly way, then raced down the hill over the frozen pond.
I must say, that gave me a turn. But as if he read my mind, my gracious host, Mr. Stone Inn himself, was at my side, grunting away in a thick Austrian accent through which I could barely discern enough words to determine that what he was attempting to assure me was that the pond had been frozen for weeks, and the dogs were in no danger.
Unfortunately, while he was outside calming my fears, Mrs. Stone Inn, his ill-cooking wife, was inside rejecting our new arrivals. Evidently there was no room at the inn--a common Christmas theme--and Zelda and I barely had time to learn the golden Lab's name was Sandy before he was gone.
Do dogs get depressed? In a word, yes. Zelda missed Sandy, not enough not to eat, but enough to mope around the inn and give everyone a good idea where the word hangdog came from.
"Can't you clicker train her to be happy?" the bald, middle-aged man asked when I ran into him after dinner on my way to take Zelda for a walk.
"That's the one thing that doesn't work," I told him.
And it didn't. Zelda was decidedly moody the rest of the evening, went to sleep early, and did not even go out for her eleven o'clock walk.
Which is why she was up at the crack of dawn.
She woke me with a woof, as is her custom. Not a loud bark, but just a low, squeaking woof, as if to say, Excuse me, I don't want to wake the neighbors, but if it's not too much trouble, do you suppose we could go out?
I raised my head from the foam rubber pillow of the rickety four-poster bed with the broken box springs and lumpy mattress, all of which Alice had commented on at great length the night before. By what little light was coming in the window, I grabbed my watch from the night table and determined it to be six-fifteen. I sighed, swung my legs out from underneath the covers, set my feet down on the cold, uneven, wood floor, and reminded myself, as I always do on such occasions, how much I really enjoy having a dog.
I put on my pants and shirt, socks and shoes, sweater, coat, mittens and hat, and took Zelda downstairs to find the body of the elderly man stretched out under the Christmas tree with a bloody length of pipe next to his left ear.
He was clearly dead. He was lying facedown, with his head bashed in, his arms and legs at grotesque angles, and a Christmas tree ornament on his back.
I am utterly ashamed to admit the first thing that occurred to me was now there would be room for the people with the golden Lab.
The policeman did not look happy. Evidently murders during the holiday season cut into his family time. A little man with shrewd eyes, a jutting jaw, and a thin mustache, he stood in front of the Christmas tree where the body had lain and told the assembled suspects, the Hastings included, what he intended to do. We had already had a preview of how he intended to do it. He had spent the morning striding around the Stone Inn as if he owned it, barking orders at the state troopers, emergency medical technicians, newspaper reporters (whose exit had been speedy), and employees and guests alike. As a result, the medical examiner had been summoned, the body had been inspected and removed, the crime scene had been processed and photographed, and the living room was once again open to the guests, just as it had been the day before, with the exception of the chalk outline on the floor.
The policeman pointed to the outline and stated unnecessarily, "A man has been killed." He paused, as if for dramatic effect, and went on, "The man is Vincent Lars of New York City. He was eighty-two years of age. He was retired, lived alone, was up here to the best I can determine to spend Christmas in front of a roaring fire." He snuffled his nose, which crinkled his mustache. "That will not happen. It is up to me to determine why. We know how. He was struck from behind with a piece of pipe. The pipe was discovered next to the body and processed for fingerprints. There were none. It is yet to be determined where this pipe came from, though the cellar and the toolshed are likely sources. The toolshed is somewhat less likely, as there appear to be no footprints leading to it in the snow."
The policeman paused, shook his head. "Don't you hate a crime where snowy footprints are a clue? I certainly do. So far, the only snowy footprints belong to Mr. Stanley Hastings, who, after finding the dead body, saw fit to walk his dog."
Here the policeman fixed me with a steely gaze, which I thought was undeserved. I had called the police first, and Zelda had needed to go.
"At any rate, we are not going to rely on snowy footprints. We are going to determine the truth the old-fashioned way, by interrogation. I am going to question each and every one of you, and I am going to take you one at a time."
I went last, which hardly seemed fair, seeing as how I'd been the one to find the body, but it did have two advantages. It meant by the time he got to me he'd already heard everyone else's story. And it gave me time to talk to Alice.
"So," the policeman said. "You're a private investigator?"
I smiled, in my best self-deprecating way. "Not so you could notice. I'm actually an actor and a writer. I don't get much work, so I support myself chasing ambulances for a negligence lawyer. I interview accident victims and photograph cracks in the sidewalk. It's mostly trip and falls."
He frowned. "I thought it was slip and falls."
"It is. I say trip and fall by force of habit."
I blinked. I couldn't believe he'd asked that. "The habit of being wrong," I said. "I'm frankly a poor detective, the last one on earth I would personally hire."
"Yet your wife says you've assisted the police on occasion."
"I wish she hadn't. I wish you'd treat me like any other witness."
"Or any other suspect?"
"If you prefer."
"All right. Would you care to tell me how you came to find the body?"
"You already know that. I got up to walk the dog."
"This was standard practice?"
"What do you mean?"
"For you to walk the dog and not your wife."
"I very seldom walk my wife."
I put up my hand. "Sorry. I know this is serious. We share the duty of walking the dog. This morning it was my turn."
"Because Zelda woke me."
"Zelda is the dog?"
"What time did she wake you?"
"Was that earlier than usual?"
"Why do you suppose she woke up?"
"I don't know. I suppose it was being in new surroundings. Oh, I see. You mean did she hear something? It's a possibility. Did you pin down the time of death?"
"Not with any accuracy. But I doubt if it was six-fifteen."
"I'm glad to hear it."
"You shouldn't be. If you were here in the house just like everybody else, you could have killed him at any time. In point of fact, I would find it very unlikely you killed him in the presence of your dog."
"Thank goodness for small favors."
"Again, that doesn't let you out."
"No, but common sense should. Why would I drive here all the way from New York with my wife and dog to kill a man I never met?"
He shrugged. "Why would anyone?"
"They wouldn't," I said. "Obviously the killer has some connection. You have only to find it."
"That's what I'm trying to do."
"Really? How you doing so far?"
He frowned. "Mr. Hastings, I find your manner insolent."
"You're right," I said. "I'm sorry. I've had no sleep, and a considerable shock. But that's no reason to take it out on you. I'm just getting impatient with your preliminary questions which I happen to know have no bearing on the crime."
"Oh? And how do you know that?"
"Because they're all tangential, and they don't relate to the actual killing."
"You want me to ask you questions about the actual killing?"
"I thought that was the point of your investigation."
"It is. And you are a key factor in that investigation, having found the body."
I winced. "I wish I hadn't found it."
"Because of the shock?"
"No. Like I say, because it clouds the issue. All you want to ask me about is finding the body."
"Oh, is that right?" he said, ironically. "And what is it you'd like me to ask you about?"
"I told you. The killing."
"I see. You feel you could shed some light on the matter?"
"Yes, I do."
"Very well then, Mr. Hastings. What do you know about the murder?"
"I know who did it."
We were once again assembled in the living room, just as we had been the day before when Alice had given the demonstration with the dog. With a few exceptions. Alice and I shared a couch with Abercrombie this time, our chairs having been taken by Mr. and Mrs. Stone Inn, who had been invited to join the proceedings. Zelda lay curled up at our feet.
Aside from that, everything was pretty much the same. The young couple were on their love seat. The middle-aged couple were on a couch. The bearded man sat in an overstuffed chair.
The elderly gentleman wasn't there, of course, but the policeman was. He stood on the chalk outline in front of the Christmas tree and addressed our little group.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I have talked to you all. And I am happy to say I have made some progress. That has been largely due to one man, Mr. Stanley Hastings, who, as you know, found the body because he happened to walk his dog." Here he bowed to Zelda. "That was at six-fifteen this morning when the alarm was raised."
He paused, smiled. "By a happy circumstance, he also happened to walk the dog during the night. I'm going to let him tell you what happened then."
All eyes turned to me. Not that anyone knew the name Stanley Hastings, but they all knew the dog.
I didn't bother getting up. I sat on the couch, patted my dog. "Last night Zelda went to sleep early," I said. "Which is not surprising. It's a new environment, it's new people, it's overstimulating, and she doesn't get her normal naps. At any rate, she went to sleep early and didn't get her usual last walk. Which is why she woke me in the night. She woke up and needed to go out. So I pulled on my clothes and hurried downstairs. I was not fully dressed. Because, frankly, I wasn't going to take her out, I was going to send her out. I was cold and half-asleep and didn't want to wake up any more than I had to. Anyway, I didn't have her leash on, since if I wasn't going out with her, there was no point. I brought her downstairs, let her out the back door.
"Only she didn't go right out. Instead, she trotted over and looked in the living room door." I pointed. "Right over there. Stuck her head in, looked in the direction of the Christmas tree. I called her, and after a moment or two, she trotted over and went out the back door."
"Uh-huh," the policeman said. "And what do you conclude from this?"
"There was someone in the living room who attracted her attention. Most likely the decedent and his killer."
"Did you hear sounds from the living room?"
"No, I didn't. Frankly, I didn't hear a thing."
"And what makes you think they were there?"
"Zelda's actions." I shrugged. "And the resultant corpse."
The policeman held up his finger. "Aha. The corpse. How do you know that wasn't what attracted the dog's attention? The body could have been lying there, and the murder could have happened some time before."
"I don't think so."
"Zelda's actions. This morning, when we found the body, she trotted right over to it, sniffed it. If it had been there last night, that's what she would have done. But she stopped in the doorway. Cautiously. Which is what she would have done if there had been two people in there not on the friendliest of terms. Dogs are very sensitive. They read body language well. It is my contention that Zelda got a look at the decedent and his killer very shortly before the deed."
"Oh, that's ridiculous," said the bearded man I thought was a sailor but who had turned out to be a life insurance salesman. "It means nothing of the kind."
"Oh, you think not?" the policeman said. "Well, I think it might. Mr. Hastings has a theory, and a very interesting one." He gestured to me. "Why don't you tell them what it is?"
"It's very simple," I said. "Zelda is very smart. She saw two people arguing. Then she saw one of them dead. She can make the connection one person harmed the other."
This time it was the middle-aged man who spoke. "I think that is a little much. Mr. Hastings, are you telling me the dog knows who committed the crime?"
"I wouldn't go that far," I said. "She doesn't know she knows it. All she knows is two people didn't like each other and one is dead. She doesn't really know the other person killed him. That is a leap we have to make. But she knows who that other person is."
"Oh, for goodness' sake," Abercrombie said. "You expect us to believe that?"
"No, I don't," I said. "But I can prove it."
For once I silenced Abercrombie. He gaped at me, his mouth open.
I stood up and took a little metal clicker out of my pocket.
"Zelda," I said, "go round."
Zelda got up and circled me.
"Sit," I said.
Zelda sat at my side.
"Down," I said.
Zelda lay down.
"Stay," I said.
I walked to the middle of the room, turned around. Zelda was still lying there.
"Zelda, come," I said.
Zelda got up, trotted over to me.
"Sit," I said.
Zelda sat and I clicked. I reached in my pocket and handed Zelda a puppy biscuit. She chomped it gratefully, looked up at me expectantly.
"Zelda," I said. "Walk with me."
Zelda walked at my left side back across the room.
I stopped, said, "Zelda, sit."
Zelda sat at my side.
I said, "Zelda. Touch killer."
There was a stunned silence in the room.
Zelda looked up at me expectantly.
Raising my voice slightly, in a high pitched tone dogs like, I repeated, "Zelda. Touch killer."
Zelda's eyes traveled around the room. Then she got up, turned, trotted over to the love seat, and put her head in the young man's lap.
But it was the young woman who sprang up. "No! Stop it!" she cried. "Get her away from him! Danny didn't do it! It was an accident!"
I must say, Danny no longer looked like the all-American boy. From the expression on his face, and the daggers he was darting at the young girl, I got the impression if it weren't for the others in the room there might have been another "accident."
Of course, it was just a trick. Zelda didn't see the young man arguing with the old one. Because I never took her out during the night. She slept straight through till six-fifteen. No, I must admit that was a slight fabrication for the purposes of trapping a killer. Which worked pretty well, I might add.
You're probably wondering how I knew Danny was the killer. Actually, I didn't. I didn't even know he was Danny.
But Alice told me. Alice is good that way. She told me and then refrained from telling the policeman, in order to make me look good.
Actually, she would have told the policeman, had he bothered to ask her. But he didn't, and Alice made up her mind if he was as obtuse as that, she wasn't going to volunteer it. She said she thought he would take it better coming from a private eye. But I know better. At any rate, that's what she did.
But how did Alice know? Well, her powers of observation are as acute as mine are virtually nonexistent. And while the policeman was telling us all about the crime, she was watching the people in the room.
Danny, to his credit, betrayed not a thing. Alice knew he was guilty from watching the girl. From the way the girl was watching him. Just the way she looked. Of course, there was nothing specific.
Which is another reason Alice didn't want to tell the policeman. She figured he'd put it down to women's intuition, vivid imagination, flight of fancy, what-have-you.
And as for the motive, we didn't have one. I made it up. Turned out it was right on the nose, but then even I can't be wrong all the time. I figured most likely the old man and the girl were related in some way the old man would never have dreamed to suspect. And that Danny and the girl had followed him here deliberately in the hope of making something out of the connection.
I don't believe murder was ever intended, at least not by her. But when the opportunity presented itself, Danny took it. Not being particularly smart. Not figuring the relationship, though tenuous, could be traced. Particularly if the young woman presented herself as an heir. Though, to be fair, had they survived questioning, gone home to New York, and months later accepted a behest, probably nothing would have come of it. Because the actual connection, grandniece twice removed, whatever that means, was not particularly likely to come out.
Except for Zelda.
And how did Zelda identify the murderer?
Clicker training, of course.
Alice and I spent a half hour with her alone in the living room training her what to do. Of course, we didn't teach her to touch the killer. She had no idea who the killer was. Or Danny, for that matter. No, we clicker trained her to touch the love seat. As soon as she learned it, we added the command, "Touch killer." Which was fine with her, and she learned it well. Any time we want a love seat touched, that's all we have to say.
I doubt it will come up often.
But it certainly saved the day.
And it certainly made a big impression on the other guests.
Abercrombie was exuberant. "Would you believe it?" he said, triumphantly. "The poodle solved the crime!"
I didn't bother to correct him.From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Canine Christmas by Presented by Jeffrey Marks. Copyright © 1999 by Presented by Jeffrey Marks. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.