Letters March 2000 Issue

A Letter From Brother Christopher, of the Monks of New Skete

Pat Miller’s article on our breeding and dog training programs is a biased, one-sided view that does not represent our approach fairly and leaves the reader with the distinct impression that we mistreat our dogs. It also contains serious inaccuracies. The presumption underlying her article is that any training method that does not rely on treats as the prime motivator will invariably be outdated and unnecessarily harsh. She seems to believe that all training can be done entirely with positive reinforcement, and that, hence, negative reinforcement of any kind falls into the category of being harsh and abusive. We wonder how honest and realistic this is.

One of the reasons our books, videos, and training services have been and continue to be popular is the fact that they work. They provide clear guidelines that have helped countless owners deepen their understanding of, and relationship with their dogs, and they have aided them in teaching their dogs to be obedient, happy companions.

While it is true that we typically do not use treats in our method, there is a very concrete reason for this that stems not only from our own experience, but from that of other experienced, recognized trainers as well. Dogs are extremely intelligent creatures that can size things up quickly. The way treats are used in many training approaches all too often result in focusing the dog’s attention on the treat, rather than the owner as the source of the treat, and this can have negative consequences for the overall relationship. We cannot count the number of owners we have worked with who initially started training with treats and were dissatisfied with the inconsistent results and the subsequent “me-centered” attitude of the dog. Instead, we prefer to emphasize the importance of positive reinforcement in the form of warm and sincere praise that is integrated with dedicated training, which we find over time builds a more solid relationship of trust and companionship. While we respect the fact that Ms. Miller might disagree with our preference, we see no basis for her making the gratuitous assumption that treat training is a more humane way of training. There are a lot of very successful trainers who have committed their lives to helping dogs and their owners, who prefer not to use treats.

On a deeper level, Ms. Miller’s problem with us seems to be philosophical in nature. Ours is a holistic approach, which deals with all facets of the dog-owner relationship, including the area of discipline. We try to provide owners with responsible guidelines on this topic that are honest and consistent with a realistic understanding of canine behavior.

One of the difficulties with many training books is their failure to provide realistic help about correcting destructive and dangerous behavior, and as such are incomplete. Owners are often at a loss for dealing with ordinary problems and need a sound, effective yet compassionate, basis on which to deal with these. In critiquing our puppy book, Ms. Miller disputes any distinction between intelligent correction and gratuitous punishment, maintaining that any correction is punishment, regardless of the way it is administered. Can she really mean that? Do words mean only what an individual wants them to mean? Is there really no difference between a leash pop and hanging a dog, for example?

Presumably, if we read her correctly, she would argue that any negative reinforcement whatsoever is punishment, and therefore inappropriate in dealing with a dog. Would she say the same thing about raising a child? For example, is it realistic to raise a child exclusively with positive reinforcement? There seem to be lots of spoiled children running around today that put such an assumption in serious question. While abuse of any kind is always to be decried, we need to make a clear distinction between a timely correction and physical abuse. As it relates to dogs, it is not at all unreasonable to learn from the way a mother bitch disciplines her pup, or how dogs determine hierarchy in a pack, and translate that into the context of the human/dog relationship.

Given this, a scruff shake is an appropriately mild correction for a young pup from which the pup learns limits. And for the record, in the puppy book we don’t advocate “alpha rolls” at all. The concept is not even mentioned; the cuff correction is mentioned only once (p.204), and on that occasion the context in which such a correction should be used is explicitly (and narrowly) described. As it pertains to the first book, certainly the alpha-wolf roll-over must be used very carefully, if at all, and a new edition of the book would clarify this. Nevertheless, in all of our methods we have tried to show the relationship between the techniques we recommend and the natural relationships of dogs in a pack, whether maternal or not, and we have emphasized a preventative approach that is grounded in solid psychological principles and love and concern for the dog.

A more serious misconception is the way in which Ms. Miller mistakenly assumes that job Michael Evans wrote the New Skete dog books. Job Michael Evans (formerly Brother Job) left New Skete and the monastic life in 1983. As a member of the community in the years preceding the publication of How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend, he did contribute to that book, but the truth is that the book was a communal effort, reflecting the collaborative work of all of the monks and nuns, not just that of Brother Job. Obviously he had no role to play in The Art of Raising a Puppy (1991) or Raising Your Dog With the Monks of New Skete (1995). And for those who think ink that Mr. Evans had some serious ax to grind with the community, they should know that when he was seriously ill, he specifically asked us if he could be buried at the monastery, and that his remains now lie in our cemetery.

Finally, Ms. Miller implies that our relationship with our breeding dogs is essentially exploitative, that we overbreed, and that when we have no more use for them, we get rid of them. It is hard not to be angered by such a crass, unfounded judgment. We have dedicated our professional lives to trying to breed the soundest, healthiest dogs possible, and we are in regular contact with some of the finest breeders and veterinarians in the country about our breeding program. We never breed a bitch that is not in top condition, and visitors to our community constantly remark how healthy, well-mannered, and friendly our dogs are. It is true that when a bitch’s breeding career ends here we place her in a new home, but this is for a very specific reason that has nothing to do with our lack of love and dedication for them. Our communities are small – and each dog is individually cared for by one of the monks or nuns. Since we are not a puppy mill and abhor practices that in any way resemble them, we can only care for a limited number of dogs; if a dog is not an active member of the breeding program our circumstances, both economic and in terms of manpower, prevent us from keeping it. For example, were we to keep each dog till their death, each of us would have to care for 4-5 dogs each, which would be grossly unfair to the dogs. Thus, we take great pains to find wonderful homes where we can retire our bitches, and to our knowledge none of them has ever had any problem adjusting to their new families, or to the busy world outside the monastery. This is because the dogs have been supremely well socialized and cared for while they were here.

Each monk experiences the great personal sacrifice of seeing a bitch he has taken care of for many years go to a new home, but he also understands that this is a practical necessity warranted by our somewhat unique circumstances. He also realizes that our loss is another’s gain, and that this is just another small way in which his care and concern for the bitch can enrich someone else’s life in a very tangible way.We appreciate the insights and observations of behaviorists and trainers whose views we share as well as those whose views differ from ours. Indeed, we have learned much from many such people and are always open to learning better ways to train and care for dogs. At the same time, it is difficult to see our community’s work so irresponsibly and unfairly judged by a writer whose unspoken agenda literally leaps off the page, as was the case in Miller’s article.

-Brother Christopher (for the Monks of New Skete)
Cambridge, NY


Pat Miller’s Response
While I was not surprised that the Monks of New Skete were not thrilled by my article about their books and practices, it seems to me that Brother Christopher overlooked that I also had a lot of good things to say about what the Monks have done. I gave full credit to the Monks for leading a dog training revolution with their 1978 book, How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend. Unlike the force-based, “military” style training that predominated in the 1950s and 1960s, the Monks emphasized the importance of the handler’s relationship with their dogs, and advocated for a “gentle touch, mentally, vocally, and physically.” Great stuff!

But I did go on to say that while the Monks were in an ideal position to continue evolving their own and their students’ education toward nonviolent training methods, they have not done so. From reading their books, including the new edition of The Art of Raising a Puppy, it seems to me that they are pleased enough with their current training methods, which include verbal and physical punishments, that they have closed their minds to the possibility that their own program can be even more effective, enjoyable, and completely nonviolent.

I do feel that modern literature on dog training supports the effectiveness of food as a primary motivator, but I agree there are plenty of other ways to reward a dog for good behavior, including toys, play, praise and petting. For many dogs, though, these are not as effective as a food motivator, at least in the initial stages of training. It seems a shame and a disservice to clients to flatly rule out food in training, thereby ignoring one of the most powerful non-violent training tools available. Even many of the fence-sitters who call themselves “balanced trainers” – meaning they use both punishment and reward in their training methods – now use food to reward dogs for good performance and to re-motivate them after corrections.

Brother Christopher says that I seem to believe that all training can be done entirely with positive reinforcement. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every positive trainer that I know makes primary use of two of the four quadrants of operant conditioning: positive reinforcement (dog’s behavior makes something good happen – dog sits, she gets a Click! and a treat), and negative punishment (dog’s behavior makes something good go away – dog jumps up, owner turns away from dog).

Bro. Christopher refers to the physical corrections the monks use as negative reinforcement. Actually, in behavioral science, negative reinforcement means the animal’s behavior makes something bad go away (dog is pulling on leash, collar is choking dog; dog stops pulling, the choking stops). The Monks’ methods that I most object to fall in the realm of what behaviorists call positive punishment (dog’s behavior makes a bad thing happen). Scruff shakes, alpha rolls, and cuffs under the chin that occur in response to a dog’s already performed behavior are positive punishment. And yes, they are unnecessarily harsh.

Can I really mean that any correction is punishment? You bet. Punishment is anything that diminishes the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Certainly there is a difference in the degree of punishment between a leash pop and hanging a dog. Certainly there is a difference in intensity between a timely correction and prosecutable abuse. I believe they are both unnecessarily harsh and I don’t care for either one, but certainly one is far worse than the other.

Lastly, on to the justification for getting rid of breeders who are no longer useful producers. Brother Christopher feels that the Monks have somewhat unique circumstances – that the number of dogs they can breed is dictated by the number they can keep. Does he not realize that every breeder faces the same space, economic and manpower constraints? Responsible breeders reward dogs who have worked to produce puppies all of their lives by respecting the contract and commitment in the dog/owner partnership and keeping the dog until it is time to give her a gentle death. The fact that the Monks find good homes for their dogs makes it no less a breach of that contract.

Regular WDJ readers know that my agenda is spoken loudly and clearly in every issue. I stand firmly behind my preference for positive, non-violent training methods and will continue to promote them at every opportunity.

-Pat Miller
Peaceable Paws Dog and Puppy Training
Chattanooga, TN

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