Poodles, Pickpockets and Purses
The first time Dash, my standard poodle puppy, stole a glove from my pocket, I laughed.
How could I not? There he stood, looking like a fuzzy bear cub, tale wagging, eyes bright, lips curled into a doggie grin with the glove dangling from his front teeth.
He wanted me to chase him. I knew better. Keep-away is not a fun game for humans. Humans never win.
Seeing the stolen glove, I slowly pulled a treat from my other pocket, held it out and asked him if he wanted to trade.
Trade a boring old glove for a liver treat? Heck, yeah.
He trotted over to me, laid the glove in my hand and accepted the treat. Crisis averted. Right?
Here’s the thing about standard poodles: They want to please their humans. And they understand that laughter means pleasure. So when a behavior elicits a laugh, poodles store the action in their minds as something their human likes.
And then they repeat it.
The other thing about standard poodles is that they’re big. Collie sized. And they grow quickly.
At first, Dash could only steal things when I was sitting. As he grew taller, however, his reach expanded until he could access my pockets when I was standing.
He practiced his technique on my husband’s pockets. Then on my friends’. And then my neighbors’.
The more he practiced, the better he became. I could no longer feel him pull the glove or tissue or coin purse from my pocket. I only discovered that the item was missing when Dash presented himself in front of me with it clenched in his teeth.
Fortunately, Dash has never been destructive. Even as a young puppy, he didn’t chew or shred slippers or other household items. After stealing something, he’d bring it to me, wave it in my face and wait to trade it for a treat. Picking pockets became another in a long line of games that we played.
Unfortunately, Dash kept changing the game.
Like all poodles, Dash is extremely smart. He bores easily. Boredom is painful. Our minds look for something, anything, to do.
Exercise helps, but it only goes so far in stopping boredom. Puppies and people need intellectual stimulation.
Dash quickly learned classic obedience behaviors. To keep things interesting, I taught him tricks.
He enjoyed weaving through my legs, spinning, circling, slapping his paws on my outstretched hands or feet. Rolling over produced a colt-like waving of long legs that delighted visitors.
The training seemed to satisfy Dash’s need for intellectual stimulation. He spent less time pulling things from my pockets.
Dash learning to Latin dance.
Dash opening zipper on purse.
Dash investigating a purse after he’s opened the zipper.
Dash couldn’t understand my need to sit behind a computer for hours. Why would I do that when I could be playing with him?
Toys and scattered treats entertained him for a while. The backyard squirrels and deer were also amusing.
Inevitably, however, he grew bored and sought new entertainment.
Dash was fascinated by purses. Purses often contained dog treats. But even the heartless women who didn’t put treats in their purses always had something interesting buried inside. Things like leather wallets.
Many purses could be accessed simply by pushing a nose through the opening. The contents of some purses, however, were protected by zippers.
Zippers presented the perfect challenge for a young dog. First, he had to learn to grip the tab with his front teeth. Then he had to figure out which direction to pull the tab. Straight up didn’t work. Neither did straight down.
No, to get the zipper to open, he needed to pull the tab slowly on the same plane as the purse itself. Sometimes he even had to hold the purse in position with a paw so he could achieve just the right angle.
Once he’d mastered the outer zipper, Dash realized that the very best stuff was hidden in small interior pockets. These were also protected by zippers. Delighted with a new challenge, Dash experimented with opening the small interior zippers.
I have no idea how Dash perfected his zipper opening. Occasionally I noticed that a tote bag I thought I’d closed was hanging open. But nothing ever disappeared from any of my purses.
I only learned of Dash’s zipper prowess when my sister Joan and I were visiting Mom.
The three of us were sitting in Mom’s living room. We’d just consumed a meal of lasagna and homemade cookies. Dash received some of the lasagna, as well as homemade dog biscuits. He seemed content and ready for a nap.
We were discussing the latest “Dancing with the Stars” episode when Dash appeared at Joan’s feet, a small cloth bag in his teeth.
“Oh! My hearing aid batteries.” Joan accepted the bag. “I guess I didn’t close the zipper on my purse.”
From my position on the couch, I watched her tuck the bag into an interior pocket of her purse. She closed the zipper on that pocket, then closed the zipper on the over-all purse. We resumed our conversation.
A minute passed. Or maybe it was two. Definitely not longer than three minutes. And here was Dash, once again holding the cloth bag containing Joan’s hearing aid batteries.
Now we all turned toward the purse. Sure enough, the outside zipper was now open. So was the zipper to the interior pocket.
We removed all purses to the fireplace mantel, beyond Dash’s reach.
Dash’s new-found skill presented me with a dilemma: How could I keep Dash safe if he could easily access items stored behind zippers, snaps and who knew what else?
I wasn’t worried about him destroying anything. But what if he’d accidentally swallowed a hearing aid battery?
Back home, I began securing purses, gym bags, dog bags and coats behind closed doors.
Dash shrugged off the set-back. After all, he’d already mastered the behavior. He’d just wait to practice on someone unsuspecting.
He’d just wait to practice on someone unsuspecting.
Unfortunately, Dash kept changing the game.
That opportunity came all too soon. I needed to purchase supplies in Home Depot. Dash needed to practice heeling and staying out of trouble. The large chain store provided the perfect location for both.
As I pushed the cart down the aisles, Dash trotted beside me, the picture of a perfectly trained young dog. He sat quietly at my feet while I perused the shelves.
Occasionally, he’d reach for something on a shelf. But a firm “leave it” stopped the behavior.
All in all, it should have been the perfect training experience.
But dogs of all breeds, and poodles in particular, attract attention. Children wanted to pet Dash. So did their parents.
I kept a firm hold on Dash, praising him and rewarding him with treats while his fans coohed, and aahed and petted. Slowly, we worked our way toward the front of the store toward the check-out line.
Then along came the lady with the huge handbag.
“Oh, a standard poodle!” she exclaimed. “I had one as a child. What’s his name?”
“Because he likes to run?”
“No. His full name is Dashiell Hammett. My husband Jon and I are writers, so we’ve named all of our poodles after authors.”
She wanted to hear about the previous two poodles, Charlie Dickens and Sam Clemons. Then she told me about her poodle. I felt Dash move beside me and glanced down.
The zipper on the lady’s purse was half-way open.
I quickly reeled Dash in. At the end of the conversation, I pointed to the woman’s purse and, without telling her about Dash’s antics, suggested she close the zipper for safety.
Congratulating myself on a crisis averted, I pushed the shopping cart into the check-out line. The man in front of me turned, acknowledged the presence of me and my dog, then faced ahead. The woman with the large bag closed ranks behind me.
The line moved slowly. Painfully slowly.
The woman chattered. I nodded and positioned Dash toward my front, away from the tempting purse.
I felt the line move forward and turned to follow.
That’s when I realized that the man in front of me kept his wallet in his back pocket. And it was 3/4 of the way out of said pocket.
Dash finished removing the wallet, then turned to me with it in his mouth. Visions of police swarming on my kleptomaniac poodle froze me in place.
The man, however, appeared oblivious to the theft.
With trembling fingers, I took the wallet from Dash and tapped the man’s shoulder.
“I think you dropped this.” I smiled and put on my most innocent face.
“Oh!” The man tapped his now empty back pocket before accepting the wallet. “Thank you for your honesty.”
I glared down at Dash. He grinned.
We never returned to that Home Depot.
Look, Ma, I found a new wallet!
Time passed. Dash sailed through doggie adolescence right into a pretty civilized young adulthood. On our walks, he trotted ahead of me with a loose leash. He greeted strangers with a wag and a grin. He dropped into a play bow when meeting other dogs. People marveled at how well-behaved he was.
They didn’t see me carefully monitoring his interest in their purses, pockets and packs.
Dash was two years old when my sister suggested we rent a beach house for the holidays. At this time of year, the beach should be mostly empty. That should provide plenty of space for Dash to run. And fewer people with pockets to pick.
We spent the next week watching the sun rise over the Atlantic, strolling the mostly empty beach and – for me – brushing sand from Dash’s hair.
On our last day, my sister and I decided that the easiest way to pack and clean was to assign the husbands something to do. Her husband, the engineer, volunteered to pack the car. Knowing this would involve a complex and time-consuming process of fitting, frowning, removing, picking up a different suitcase and starting over again, we left him to it.
Jon’s bad back prevented him from participating in this very male ritual. So I assigned him the task of preventing Dash from getting into trouble.
I asked him to sit in a comfy chair that looked out onto the ocean. To keep his expensive Stetson hat from getting trampled, I plunked it onto his head. Then I handed him Dash’s leash.
“Just hang on to Dash and enjoy the view,” I told him.
With the men out of the way, we finished the packing and cleaning in record time.
As I was placing the last cup into the dishwasher, Jon called to me.
“Where’s my hat?”
I rolled my eyes and walked into the living room.
“It’s on your he—”
For a moment, I couldn’t compute what I was seeing.
Jon sat in the chair, exactly where I’d left him. He held Dash’s leash.
Dash lay in a sphinx pose in front of Jon.
The hat, however, was no longer on Jon’s head. It laid between Dash’s front paws, the brim touching the side of Dash’s legs, the crown still perfectly shaped, not a mark on the thing.
Dash grinned up at me.
He’d learned a new game.
To this day, I have no idea how Dash removed the hat from Jon’s head without Jon noticing. But Dash’s antics left me two options:
- Take my naughty poodle and join a circus.
- Write about it.
And thus The Poodle Who Picked Pockets was born.