The Dog Training Monks of the New Skete Monastery

 

Brother Thomas of the New Skete Monastery
Brother Thomas of the New Skete Monastery

 

The monks of the New Skete monastery in upstate New York are as traditional as it gets. They are members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which seeks to adhere as closely as possible to community standards set by the original Christians themselves, Jesus Christ and his Twelve Apostles. Daily regimens of prayer and contemplation continue an age old spiritual tradition. However, there is one aspect of this monastery that is decidedly unorthodox: their dog training business.

Though they live a life devoted to God, the New Skete monks also have certain inescapable material needs: food, electricity, etc. To this end, they run a school that helps turn unruly dogs into loving, obedient companions. According to Brother Christopher, head of their dog training program, the community’s relationship with dogs began in 1966 when a monk named Brother Thomas discovered he was “very gifted with dogs” through training the monastery’s pet/mascot, a German Shepherd named Kyr. Finances were tight at that point in time, with the monks living “hand to mouth,” so naturally they decided to use their special relationship with their canine companions to support themselves.

More than thirty years and countless dogs later, the monastery runs a thriving dog training business that attracts clients from places as far flung as Texas and Illinois. Due to the program’s extreme popularity, it can be difficult to score a spot for one’s dog. However, their new book, Divine Canine, makes the monks’ training methods available to all, and it delivers them through true stories gathered from their experiences. “Often people find dog training books dry and inaccessible,” says Brother Christopher; “we’ve tried to provide a way for people to plug into what might be possible for them and their dogs and how to go about realizing that.”

When asked for some dos and don’ts of dog-rearing, Brother Christopher emphasizes the monks’ core philosophy first and foremost: “Try and treat the dog as a dog, and that involves learning about dogs … get a couple books about canines so you have a good understanding of how the dog really is, instead of your projections.” All too often, he says, well-meaning humans make mistakes with their dogs because they treat them as “furry, four-legged humans,” forgetting that they have specific needs of their own.

With that in mind, he says, several important elements of training are as follows: First, one must provide “healthy structures” to a dog’s day. Creatures of habit to the max, dogs are happiest and most obedient when they know what to expect. Second, one must provide “appropriate training through each stage of life;” this means starting early, as bad habits formed in puppyhood can be hard to undo later (a good database of canine professionals can be found at dogpro.org). Third, one must take a firm leadership role; unlike human children, dogs should not be taught to make their own decisions; “they need the human to be a clear benevolent leader figure.” Fourth, you should “take advantage of local clubs and training organizations” where you can “share the enthusiasm of owners who enjoy their pets as well.” Lastly, one should be sensitive to the needs of each individual dog; for example, if you have a male puppy, he “might require a little bit of space … not nearly as suffocated by affection as an owner might desire.”

A student at the New Skete Monastery
A student at the New Skete Monastery

With these basic ideas in mind, the monks of New Skete help people raise dogs that are a joy to have around. As for the seeming unorthodoxy of this practice, Brother Christopher explains that his vocation goes along quite well with monastic practices. “We look at the whole of life as part and parcel of our spiritual life” he says, “and one of the things that has continually struck us in working with dogs is the lessons they can teach us about ourselves and the window they can provide to how magical and wonderful life is.” Additionally, he enjoys creating a platform for lifelong, fulfilling human-canine relationships: “Making a difference in the lives of our clients and the lives of their dogs is something I’m grateful for.” So the next time you are looking for guidance as to how to be a better alpha dog for your pooch, take a page from the Good Book and do it the New Skete way.

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