What images do you see in your mind when you hear the word “monastery”? Most people envision rustic wooden buildings, with gentle, somber, bearded men in flowing brown robes and leather sandals quietly treading gravel pathways that wind through peaceful forests.
This could be an accurate description of the New Skete Monastery in Cambridge, New York, with just one glaring omission. At New Skete, the monks are accompanied by dogs. For more than 30 years, the monks of New Skete have bred, trained and sold German Shepherds as part of their monastic life.
This may sound like a strange marriage, but it’s not as odd as it seems. The Lhasa Apso breed was developed by a group of Tibetan monks, who raised them in their monasteries and gave them as gifts to nobles. St. Bernards originally served as companions to the monks of the Hospice at the St. Bernard Pass in the Swiss Alps as early as the 1600s, only later developing their talent for finding lost travelers. Many Zen monasteries also keep dogs.
And, as Job Michael Evans wrote in the Monks of New Skete’s first book, How to be Your Dog’s Best Friend, “Dogs, because of their association with humans . . . are in a unique position to offer man a mirror of himself.” Given the monastic quest to self-awareness, a community of monks and dogs makes perfectly good sense.
One dog leads to more
Accordingly, the New Skete community was created in the 1960s. Originally the brothers managed a full-scale farm, with goats, cows, chickens, pigs, pheasants, and sheep. When they moved to a new, mountaintop location that wasn’t suitable for farming, they had to give up all of their animals except “Kyr,” their first German Shepherd.
Valuing the connection with animals that they had developed through their farming experiences, the community of brothers began studying the sciences of breeding and training dogs. Brother Thomas Dobush led the Monks’ training and breeding program. Initially, the purpose was simply to train the dogs to live as a group in the monastery and maintain the quiet and order that is vital to monastic life. Brother Thomas emphasized “listening” to the animals and “reading the dog’s reactions” rather than just training by rote protocols.
As word of the New Skete Shepherds spread, dog owners began asking the brothers to train their dogs as well, and the demand for information on the Monks’ training methods and breeding programs (and their puppies) grew. Their first book, How to be Your Dog’s Best Friend, was published in 1978, and the Monks of New Skete became a household word, at least in doggy circles.
Talkin’ ‘bout a revolution
At the time, the Monks’ methods were revolutionary. In the 1960s and 70s, people like William Koehler and Blanche Saunders were the foremost authorities on dog training. The Koehler method, still defended by far too many trainers today, is a no-holds-barred punishment-based training method that ridicules the use of treats, mocks those who protest harsh punishments, and promotes a perception of dogs as resentful, revengeful, deceitful, and deliberately defiant.
For modifying problem behaviors, Koehler’s books advocate the use of exceedingly harsh methods such as shock collars, slingshots (with BBs as pellets), hanging and helicoptering (lifting a dog off the ground by the choke chain and holding him there or swinging him around until he ceases resisting or goes unconscious), a wooden dowel inside a length of rubber hose (with which to hit the dog who is too heavy to hang or helicopter), and drowning (filling a hole with water and submerging the dog’s head until he is near unconsciousness, to teach him not to dig). Saunders was somewhat less extreme than Koehler, but still advocated routinely jerking, kicking and “cuffing” dogs.
In contrast, the Monks talked about “listening to a dog until you discover what is needed, instead of imposing yourself in the name of training.” They emphasized the importance of relationship, not just obedience, and promoted training as a way of relating to your dog. Making a distinction between training and educating the dog, they quote J. Allen Boone from Kinship With All Life: “Trained dogs are relatively easy to turn out. All that is required is a book of instructions, a certain amount of bluff and bluster, something to use for threatening and punishing purposes, and of course, the animal. Educating an animal, on the other hand, demands keen intelligence, integrity, imagination, and the gentle touch, mentally, vocally, and physically.”
One trainer’s evolution
I discovered the Monks in 1983. I had just acquired Keli, a 12-week-old Australian Kelpie puppy who was one of the first two “Canine Field Agents” for the Marin Humane Society in Novato, California. My partner, Humane Officer Donna Bosso (she had Keli’s sister, Darby), gave me a copy of the Monks’ book, and I devoured it. I loved what they had to say. Their methods were ever so much kinder than those that I had read before, yet still familiar enough to feel right. I nodded as I read their justification for scruff shakes and alpha rolls. It made sense, and, as they said, it was just mimicking what the mother dog would do to reprimand her pups when they were out of line.
The Monks’ training philosophies were cutting edge, a breath of fresh air, consistent with my own thoughts on dog training and behavior. I forged ahead with my sensitive, independent, reactive, high-energy herding dog, jerking on her leash and doing an occasional scruff shake or alpha roll when she had the audacity to challenge my corrections.
I realize now that Keli, although she was a wonderful dog who learned to herd sheep, earned a Companion Dog degree and was my constant and beloved companion for 14 years, never truly reached her full potential. There was something missing from our relationship – a level of trust and understanding that I have with my current dogs, who have never been alpha-rolled or scruff-shaken. (I am mortified to admit that I turned my back on the opportunity to do positive puppy training with Dr. Ian Dunbar when Keli was a pup, convinced – as were so many other trainers, including the Monks – that training with treats was heresy. That’s a different story . . .). But as I learned more about the advances in positive training methods over the past decade, I relegated the Monks to the same category as Koehler – outdated and unnecessarily harsh and punitive.
Longevity on the charts
Despite my own (and many other positive-based trainers’) opinion that the Monks’ training techniques were outdated, their books continue to rank near the top of dog training best seller lists of companies like Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. Was I missing something?
I decided to reread their original book and also to check out their newer The Art of Raising a Puppy, published in 1991. Perhaps their 1978 book had been revised. Maybe their puppy book now incorporated the more positive reward-based methods that have proven so successful in training dogs and puppies.
I read the books. I had forgotten how much of the first book was good. Yes, the scruff-shake, alpha-roll, and “cuff under the chin” are still there (the book has not been revised). But so is the basic philosophy of respect for life that I found so compelling in the first read.
Problems with the puppy training book
The newer book about puppy training is more of a disappointment. I truly hoped that the Monks had modified their perspectives on punishment by 1991. They hadn’t. Not only does this book continue to denigrate the use of treats as rewards in training, it still strongly promotes scruff-shaking, alpha-rolls, and cuffing, even for puppies. Although it counsels their use primarily in older puppies only, the methods are still harsh. For example, in regards to the cuffing, the book says, “The discipline should be firm enough to elicit a short yelp.”
The puppy book also contains several serious misstatements. At one point, perhaps a little defensively, the author reminds the reader that “a correction is not punishment.” Behaviorally, punishment is defined as something that decreases the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Clearly a correction is punishment, since that is exactly what it is intended to do. The fact that it is not done in anger makes it no less a punishment.
I had a few other objections to The Art of Raising a Puppy. In one section, the Monks describe how to choose a puppy. While they show a clear bias for purchasing purebreds, I was delighted that they are quick to stress that whether you purchase a puppy, adopt from a shelter, or find one on the street, the commitment and responsibility is exactly the same. A life is a life. In defending their argument for purebreds, however, they offer the justification that there is greater reliability and certainty of a purebred dog’s behavior and capacities (based on breed generalities) than with a mixed breed.
While this may be true to some degree, there is wide variety in behavior, temperament and potential for performance in any given breed, and it is a false reassurance to lead people to believe that behavior is predictable based solely on breed. Professional dog trainers frequently share stories of Labrador retrievers who won’t retrieve or swim, submissive Rottweilers, and pit bulls who don’t fight with other dogs (thank goodness!). In addition, an experienced dog handler can be pretty skilled at determining the breed components of cross-bred and mixed breed dogs, and to the extent that breed assumptions are useful, apply those same assumptions to the mixed breed dog.
The Monks also defend their position on purebreds by saying that “. . . service and working organizations involved in Seeing Eye, support for the handicapped, search-and-rescue, protection, and so on, all use purebred dogs.” This is simply not the case. Mixed breed dogs are commonly used as service dogs, and there is no reason that mixed-breed dogs who are physically and mentally suited and properly trained cannot perform any task that a purebred dog can.
It is true that some organizations, such as Guide Dogs for the Blind, stubbornly cling to their old assumptions that they must produce their own purebred dogs in order to have reliable workers. But since another service dog organization, Canine Companions For Independence recently (in the past year) began to explore the use of positive training instead of the compulsion training previously believed to be a necessity for service dogs, perhaps Guide Dogs’ purebred assumption will someday be open for discussion as well.
It has been eight years since the Monks’ puppy book was written. Not one to give up easily, I wondered whether there had been a paradigm shift at the monastery in the last eight years. After all, my own conversion only occurred in the last decade. But in an interview with Brother Marc from the New Skete Monastery, I was disappointed to find that this is not the case. Along with all of the good things that the Monks do with and for their dogs, they still follow some disturbing practices.
The Monks’ Shepherd puppies have to be some of the most well-socialized dogs on the planet. One or more of the brothers are present at the birth of each litter, and they begin handling the pups at an early age. The puppies are temperament tested and re-tested, and notes on their personalities and development carefully recorded.
The Monks are supremely aware of the benefits (to canine and human both) of fully integrating their dogs into the daily routine, and young dogs quickly learn good manners, lying quietly with the rest of the group in the dining room during mealtime. The monastery is often frequented by visitors of all ages, shapes and sizes, who are encouraged to meet and greet the dogs. Brother Marc dispels the image of the monastery as a place of constant solitude and silence when he describes some of the activity.
“Right now we are having some work done on one of the buildings,” he says, “so the dogs are exposed to all kinds of construction noises. There’s also the weekly lawn mowing right next to their kennels, and we play the radio so they hear talking and music. They go for rides in cars, and the monastery is near a road, so they do hear traffic pass by regularly.”
The puppies are sold after age eight weeks, according to Brother Marc, after the fear period but well before the optimum socialization period is over, so they have ample opportunity to learn about scary stimuli in the rest of the world. One would assume that the breeding dogs in the Monks’ program live out their entire lives at the monastery, so, for them, a lack of exposure to the outside world shouldn’t be a problem. One would assume incorrectly, however.
Lifetime commitment/responsible breeding?
I was stunned to discover that when a dog was no longer useful to the breeding program, she was “retired” and sent to live outside the monastery. With all of the Monks’ emphasis on relationship, responsibility and commitment, this was hard to understand. Didn’t the brothers have strong feelings for the dogs they had lived with for 10 years? How could they give them up?
“It’s hard to give them up,” admitted Brother Marc. “But when you meet the dog’s new family you can see the love that they lavish on her and you know the dog will do fine. They are so well-trained and people-oriented that they don’t seem to show any stress in their new homes.”
It was also surprising to find out that the New Skete dogs may be bred more than once a year. Most responsible breeders agree that breeding twice a year is a significant strain on a dog’s physical health.
“It usually works out to one litter every year to 18 months,” says Brother Marc, “but if a dog is healthy and ready to breed we may breed twice in one year. We never have more than 10 litters in a year. There is a two-year waiting list for puppies right now. The puppies sell for around $1,000 each. As any good breeder will tell you, we don’t make money on puppy sales – the cost of the program more than eats up any revenue from sales. We do it because we love it, and the dogs help us do our work, which is helping people.”
Other issues aside, the Monks’ willingness to use punishment still strikes the greatest dissonant chord within me. That dissonance wasn’t dispelled by the interview with Brother Marc. He said he’d read Koehler’s books, and thought they made a lot of sense, although conceding that you can’t use the methods for every dog in every situation.
“Sometimes a dog needs a good boot in the rear to get its attention,” Brother Marc insisted. “The scruff shake, if used indiscriminately as a substitute for basic understanding and training of the dog, is not right. But it certainly is appropriate if it is integrated into a whole, balanced training program.”
If Brother Job Michael Evans, the Monk who wrote the New Skete books, were still alive, he might disagree. Kaye Hargreaves, a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) from Wagging School in Melbourne, Australia, recalls Brother Job’s keynote speech at the 1993 APDT conference in Toronto, Canada.
“As I recall,” Hargreaves says, “Brother Job said that he no longer taught the scruff-shake and alpha-roll because too many dog owners had been bitten attempting to follow that advice. I remember him saying that he had wanted to revise what he had said in the Monks’ books but could not do so because the Monks held the copyright. Brother Job had not totally rejected the use of correction in training, but was still loved and respected for the many qualities he brought to dog training.”
Dominance is unnecessary
The modern view, held by prominent trainers and canine behaviorists Dr. Ian Dunbar, William Campbell, Jean Donaldson and many others, is that physical dominance techniques are not necessary or appropriate for a long list of reasons:
• Many people have been seriously bitten as a result of using physical dominance methods. The struggle between a dominant dog and owner or trainer can escalate, with a corresponding escalation in the levels of violence, until owner, dog, or both, are injured. Many dogs who could have been successfully trained are euthanized unnecessarily for biting because of this escalation of violence. With the vast majority of dogs, leadership can be established by using non-confrontational methods.
• People have a tendency, when given permission to use physical force by a book or trainer, to use it inappropriately, to punish the dog when he has never been taught what to do in the first place.
• Even if very skilled trainers can use the techniques successfully, most dog owners can’t, so it is not an appropriate technique to teach students. A trainer who dominates a dog through force can increase the dog’s disrespect for the owner who can’t, possibly even provoking the dog to attack the owner in the trainer’s absence.
• The natural occurrence of scruff-shakes and alpha-rolls has been widely misunderstood and misinterpreted. Its primary use is by mother dogs, to discipline puppies and adolescent dogs, to teach them to respect and respond to subtle body language cues by other dogs. It is arrogant and faulty to think that we can accurately mimic that maternal subtlety. To physically challenge an already dominant adult dog – the most common application in dog training – is a different matter entirely, and a very risky one at that.
Updating the Monks
I respect the Monks of New Skete for the good things that they have accomplished. There are probably lots of dogs who have escaped hanging, helicoptering, and drowning thanks to their work. Their approach to training was an important step across the bridge from very abusive methods to the positive ones that are becoming more and more widely accepted every day.
But the Monks are still standing on the bridge. Let’s hope they keep moving forward and someday join those of us who have crossed it and are continuing along the path to more humane and effective methods of training our canine companions.