For the Monks of New Skete, the question “What does it mean to be human?” led them to ponder, “What does it mean to be dog?” In the process they made the raising of dogs an integral part of their spiritual practice and transformed our understanding of people and their companion animals.
It is one o’clock in the morning. Outside it is pitch dark and the ground still covered with snow. It is time; once again to witness the miracle of birth. Father Marc, who will this night act Is midwife, turns on the light in his cell. He has been roused by Kirka, the German shepherd who sleeps each night at the side of his bed. Making their way to the kennel complex with the aid of a flashlight, the expectant mother begins whining, restlessly churning up the nest prepared for her in the immaculate and roomy space. He stoops down to soothe her and it is clear that she accepts his presence. They have been through this before.
It will be hours before Father Marc is able to rest: nothing in this place is left to chance. He will stay until all the puppies are born and cleaned of the afterbirth, and until he is certain that the new family is enjoying their first meal. Although they do not know it, these small German shepherd pups are extremely fortunte. Their caretakers for Kht weeks will be’the monks of New Skete.
In the late sixties twelve Eastern Orthodox monks purchased five hundred rocky and forested acres on Two Top Mountain in upstate New York near the Vermont border. Having their own land, they felt, would better allow them to put their monastic beliefs into practice. Here, surrounded on all sides by the Catskills, Adirondacks and Green Mountains, they began to explore the possibility of breeding and training dogs as a way to achieve economic self sufficiency.
Since then, over a period of almost thirty years, the monks of New Skete have built an impressive reputation as dog breeders and handlers. They have authored two best-selling books on the subject and have just completed a three-part training video. People throughout North America visit them, some bringing companion dogs exhibiting a wide variety of behavioral problems. Three weeks later, having passed through the monks’ training program, the dogs will go home cooperative and happy companions.
“Inseeing is respecting the ‘other’ for what it is, without trying to change it or own it. In this struggle to deepen one’s understanding, one is enriched and given life.”
In addition to all of this the New Skete community—which includes a sister community of nuns and one of lay persons— operates a number of successful mail order food businesses. Not surprisingly, they have recently begun making and selling gourmet dog biscuits.
The community takes its name from the word skete, originally a remote desert settlement of monks in fourth century Egypt. Later it came to mean any small, family-style monastic community with one spiritual leader. The name New Skete recalls the early Desert Fathers and a life of rigorous spiritual enquiry. In this way the group expressed from the outset its commitment to “the essence, the main and deepest principles of monastic life.”
Pre-dating their dog breeding and training programs, the monks maintained a full scale farming operation. Surrounded by goats, chickens, pigs, pheasants and cows, they were, even in those early days, and without realizing it, “beginning to enter the psychic realm of animals.”
Father Marc has been a member of New Skete since the beginning.
“When we first moved here,” he explains, “we had a wonderful male German Shepherd whom we called Kyr, which means Your Eminence. Fie was a large, beautiful, and wonderfully tempered dog. Fie had been born at the Institute for the Blind but they had been unable to use him in their program. Fie was pretty much a member of the community and we began to experience what a dog of this intelligence and background could do for an individual and for a community, as far as enhancing the quality of our social and emotional life here.”
Unfortunately the monks lost their spirited companion, who one winter day was lured away and mauled by a pack of domestic dogs running wild. In time, he was replaced by two females who eventually became the start of their breeding program.
Before initiating their breeding and training programs the monks were helped in their understanding of the canine mind by another member of the community, Brother Thomas. He trained the German shepherds to live in the monastery as a group, and in a way which was appropriate for the environment. Every new monk who entered the community spent a period of apprenticeship with Brother Thomas.
In their first book, How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend, they explain: “More than merely instructing (us) in handling skills and techniques… Brother Thomas tried to communicate an intuitive way of dealing with dogs. He emphasized ‘listening’ to the animal and ‘reading’ the dog’s reactions. His training and handling skills were passed on in an oral tradition that is still alive at New Skete.” Blending intuition, research and experience, the monks embarked on an experiment that was itself a reflection of how they saw the rest of their lives. Since, as one member of the community expressed it, “monastic life is a search for the expression and realization of human perfection,” it follows that they would approach their future as dog breeders and handlers with the thoroughness and inquisitiveness that marks everything they have undertaken.
“We studied our breeding and training plans carefully,” explains Father Marc. “We acquainted ourselves with any and all information on the subject we could find. We contacted prominent breeders and trainers, asking for advice and counsel. Recognizing our sincere interest and our desire to learn, they shared their knowledge freely with us.”
At the same time, the monastic experience calls one to go beyond words and to live, as Brother Christopher puts it, “a life without division.” It is an important point, since only in this way can one appreciate the extent to which, in the process of raising and training dogs, the monks have also enriched their own spiritual practice.
Frequently, for example, the monks speak about the discipline of “inseeing,” a term they borrowed from their readings of the German poet Rilke.
Father Laurence, the abbot of New Skete, regards inseeing as the true meeting place of the contemplative mind with the natural world: “Inseeing is being willing to look at another living thing in a way that allows for seeing it in and of itself. It is respecting this other’ for what it is, without trying to change it or own it. In this struggle to deepen one’s understanding one is enriched, given life, no matter how limited one’s success in this endeavor.”
It follows, therefore, that in the creation of their dog training and handling programs the monks would begin with respect for what the dog needed and would approach it in a uniquely holistic way. While most dog training regimes are strictly utilitarian, limited to the sit, down, stay, come and heel commands, the monks approach each dog, says Father Marc, “as a unique creature.” And further, “Instead of seeing training as our main approach, training is just one element that fits into the larger element of socialization. Training is certainly one means of socialization, one aspect of it. But we try to fill in other aspects too, which means the human-dog bond, the emotional bond, the working relationship, the dog and the human as fellow pack members.”
The association of monastic figures with dogs has a rich history. The story of St. Francis of Assisi and the taming of the Wolf of Gubbio is probably the best known of all. In the case of St. Dominic, the dog became associated with spiritual enlightenment. The story is told that before St. Dominic’s birth his mother dreamed she carried in her womb a black and white dog that would come forth, carrying a torch in its mouth and setting the world on fire.
In another story the Irish Brigit (453-523), asked to prepare a dish for a distinguished nobleman visiting her father’s house, was given five choice pieces of bacon. A starving hound found its way to her kitchen and, evidently suffering greatly from hunger, was given three of the pieces of bacon. Each piece fed to the dog was miraculously replaced. Then seen as blessed food, the dish was offered to the poor.
The monks at New Skete gained understanding of the dogs’ needs from their research into wolves, believed by many to be the domesticated dog’s nearest relative. Dogs, like wolves, are pack animals and as such do not tolerate being isolated for long periods of time. In the domesticated environment, humans become responsible for providing the physical and emotional closeness formerly provided by the pack. Additionally, both dogs and wolves are responsive to leadership; in fact, without it they become unruly and emotionally chaotic. Brother Christopher, who is principally responsible for the training of outside dogs, explains:
“We really paid attention to what dogs are on a natural level through studying wolves and becoming more sensitive to what dog behavior really means. From that, we began to apply those lessons to our own situation of forming relationships with dogs and expanding on the pack concept.
“We saw for ourselves that dogs are very conscious of social hierarchies, that they require leadership. Because this is a sort of laboratory—we currently live with fifteen dogs here in the monastery itself—we had an experiential awareness of these principles. We were able to see how they worked in real life and how they not only enhanced our lives but how they enhanced the dogs’ lives.
“To be fair to the dog, I have to enter into a relationship with the dog as dog. I have to listen to the dog, to what the dog’s needs are. I have, for example, to assume the role of leadership that the dog requires for it to really achieve its potential, to really flower.”
This is key to understanding the principles which inform every aspect of their handling and breeding programs. From the moment a new litter of pups is born, and in all their interactions with their own and others’ dogs, the monks of New Skete work to bring the animal as close to its potential as possible. Through their breeding program, the German shepherd has been brought once again to the official standard of conformation, intelligence and emotional health.
From the first week of life, for example, New Skete pups are exposed to a moderate amount of physical handling. The monks say that this handling, although somewhat stressful, helps the dogs develop into adults with superior problem-solving abilities and a greater degree of emotional balance than counterparts raised in the absence of such stimulation.
In one such exercise, Father Marc lifts a four-week-old puppy into the air on the end of outstretched hands. For two or three
minutes the small rotundity may voice its protest, experiencing for the first time a sense of height, the chill of the air, and its own aloneness away from the familiar warmth and sounds of litter- mates and mom.
In addition to increasing the heart rate, the monks say this also “causes an involuntary hormonal reaction in the adrenal-pituitary system, a help in resisting disease and handling stress. The overall effect of this is to prime the entire system, building it up and making it more resilient to emotionally challenging experiences later on in life. When puppies receive consistent, non-traumatic handling, they become more outgoing and friendly and show less inclination to be fearful once they are older.”
At the end of the exercise Father Marc gently lowers the pup to his chest, where he will hold it and speak in a reassuring tone of voice. Eventually the pup will approach the whole episode with a totally relaxed and nonchalant attitude. The repetition of a simple action, stressful but not overwhelmingly so, and followed by reassurance and affection, is one of many that will, over the weeks remaining before they go to new homes, lay the foundation of confidence, trust in humans, and emotional health. To the enlightened owner, signs of emotional well being in their dog are unmistakable.
Thomas Merton once wrote that a monastic community “challenges the modern mind.” At New Skete this has taken on new meaning. In their search for answers to the question, “What does it mean to be human?” the monks at New Skete have been led into a lengthy, experiential enquiry into “What is dog?” To speak with them is to be infected by the enthusiasm and warmth they express on all subjects, whether it is the dogs, the wholeness of the monastic life or some point of spiritual or psychological enquiry, as well as by the possibility that this harmony of activity and contemplation might be available to all of us. They are, in fact, currently at work on their third book, one that will explore ways in which the practices and insights of the contemplative life can be integrated into a secular one. Listening to Father Marc speak, one is struck by the interconnectedness of all aspects of their life and work at New Skete:
“What we have tried to do here is to live a healthy spirituality. One that is life affirming, one that goes to foster the spiritual integration of the whole human being, and to live a religious life that is less preoccupied with negativity and more preoccupied with genuine spiritual health.
“Spiritual practice is both a doorway leading into deeper understanding and consciousness and awareness, but also an expression of the joy of having that awareness. Just as when we train dogs, we don’t train them to obedience just as part of an exercise: it is part of a bigger picture. It is not only a training like going to school or disciplining ourselves going to the liturgy. It is a celebration of life.” ♦
Photography by Matt Murray