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A visit to the Monks of New Skete


Back in the late seventies, I remember browsing through the pets and wild-life section of a large Scottish book shop, when I stumbled across a title I had not seen before called How to be your dog’s best friend by the Monks of New Skete. Was this some sort of gimmick I thought, but no, after a quick flick through the pages, I found the authors were practicing monks and they not only trained but bred German Shepherd Dogs for a living. Being quite intrigued by the idea of monks training dogs I eagerly made my purchase. Although I had never heard of the Monks of New Skete, it soon became apparent after reading the book that they were actually world famous for their training and breeding programmes, but new of their success was only just reaching our shores (no Internet in those days).

Being heavily involved in both police and civilian dog training, I was always on the lookout for new ideas and concepts, particularly those coming from a different angle than usual. Over the following years, I would frequently find myself browsing through the ‘monk’s bible’, the intrigue of the whole idea growing stronger, and wondering if there would ever be a follow up publication. Several years on (1992 actually) there I was having my usual browse through the bookshelves when there, staring me in the face, was The art of raising a puppy by The Monks of New Skete. No need to flick through the pages this time, off I went to make my purchase with excited anticipation as to what I would find between the covers. As the title suggests, this was about their breeding programme and the raising of puppies, written in their own compassionate style. Having read both books, it became apparent that the monks were viewing training/behaviour and breeding in a totally new concept, working with other like professionals to deepen their understanding of all facets of canine care.

The years went by, but my interest and fascination in the monks remained. I noticed more people were mentioning the monks and both their books were now on most British bookshop shelves. Perhaps my compulsive interest in the monks was partly due to a similar style and approach to my own training methods (although I certainly would - and have - questioned some of their training topics). However I decided to draft a short letter to the monks outlining my experiences and view on training/behaviour and breeding and also to compliment them on two super books, not thinking for one minute I would receive a reply. I was shocked when several weeks later, an air mail envelope bearing an Albany USA post mark was lying behind the door – "They have replied!" - I was over the moon.

Without boring you with its contents, it was a very positive reply. Over the next few months we corresponded periodically but there was nobody more surprised than I was when I received an invitation for my wife, Sue, and I to visit the Monks of New Skete monastery and see their work first hand. Our first reaction was to ring the travel agent and book the first available flight (hang on, let’s not be too impulsive). We were intending to holiday in Florida the following year, so as the monks’ invitation was too good to miss, we decided to bring our holiday forward and do the whole thing in one. A few hectic weeks followed organising flights, internal flights, car hire, not to mention an animal sitter for our menagerie.

Eventually it all came together, dates were confirmed with the monks and off we flew to hot sunny Florida. What a super time we had there, but now it was time to leave Mickey Mouse behind and embark on the second part of our adventure. First stop the airport to catch a flight to New York. On landing at the airport, we had a bit of a climate shock from sunny Florida to a late September rainy day in New York (we did feel a little silly at the time sporting our Florida t-shirts and shorts). A quick dash across the airport for next internal flight to Albany. No Boeing 747 this time, on the tarmac sat a ten seater plane with propeller. I did expect to be handed a leather helmet and goggles on boarding but it did not come to that. Sue, to say the least was a little apprehensive about the flight, her apprehension quickly increasing when one of the engines cut out as we were taxi-ing along the runway. Not to worry, there was the comforting remark from the ‘captain’ "don’t worry folks, it should be fine when it warms up." Should be fine - now he had me panicking! Still we made it and now off we clambered to pick up our pre booked hire car. The drive from Albany (once we found our way out) to Cambridge New York State could only be described as ‘different’, passing through areas that you definitely would not find in your travel agent’s glossy brochure. That night, we stayed just outside Cambridge.

The following morning we rang the monastery to confirm details and were told that Brother Christopher, the head trainer was eagerly awaiting our arrival. What would they be like? Both Sue and I were slightly apprehensive. "Did they allow females in the monastery?" said I (I will not repeat Sue’s answer). Well we would soon find out. Following the directions given, we set off, the weather was fine and the sun shining but not quite as warm as Florida. Out into the wide open spaces, there was the carved wooden sign that indicated our turn to the New Skete Monastery. We turned off the highway onto a shale track that had been cut through the forest, weaving our way through the pine trees, the sun just managing to peep through their tops. One – two – three miles passed and still no sign of life; we could have been a million miles away from anywhere. The views of the forest were breathtaking - but just where did they do their shopping?

As we rounded a bend high amongst the pine trees, there was the New Skete Monastery, the sun glittering on its golden towers just like on the cover of the books. It was hard to believe we were actually here. Now what about the monks? I honestly thought that they would be wearing their monk’s habit (as monks do). just like the monks I remember seeing as a child on Caldy Island off the Welsh coast. As we pulled up outside an office type building, out came this sun tanned T-shirt, jean and trainer clad guy who treated us like long lost friends – "You must be Derek and Sue, I am Brother Christopher" (the habits must just be for Sundays). From that moment, Sue and myself knew that this was going to be a fascinating experience.

Warm welcome

We all sat outside on a picnic bench, exchanging views and topics with little time to come up for air the time flew by. Suddenly Brother Christopher looked at his watch and realised we were late for lunch. Commenting that he did not normally get so engrossed in conversation that he missed his meals, up he jumped and called "follow me". I thought that we would be going to a visitors’ eating area (visitors regularly visit the monastery but not the kennel area), but we were led into the monastery building and into the monks’ dining area. There were the massive oak table and chairs, most of which were now occupied by the other monks – just like the photographs in their books.

Brother Christopher introduced us to the other monks who all received us with a warm welcome. ‘Help yourself’ was the order of the day so we did, talking about anything and everything in a superbly relaxed atmosphere. We had met the monks and their dogs (each monk has one or more dogs that accompany them throughout their daily chores).

Now it was off to see some training. We accompanied Brother Christopher and a fellow Brother to the kennel and training area where their training programme was explained.

Briefly, the monks take dogs from all parts of the United States and Canada on a two week training residential pet training course for the following disciplines: - walking on a slack lead, sit/down stays and recall on a lead. All breeds were catered for but many of their own bred GSDs return for training. It was interesting to note that the monks adopted a training technique to each individual dog’s personality – something that is lacking at some residential training establishments. The monks’ success rate was extremely high, with many dogs returning for further refresher courses or new dogs from existing clients. It was apparent that, as with all good dog training, the monks were open minded about modern behavioural and training techniques that would improve their already vast experience. The actual training programme consisted of a maximum of six dogs at any one time, which are split into two or three groups per trainer. Training sessions were restricted to two twenty minute sessions per dog, the two trainers working with both groups of dogs. The dogs we observed were in their second week of training and were working confidentially and positively to commands.

Both Brother Christopher and his Fellow Brother were extremely calm and quiet when training which certainly came out in the dogs. When asked if there were enough clients with dogs requesting their services, Brother Christopher smiled and said "we have a five month waiting list for training and we do not accept all clients." That reply said everything.

Training over for the day we had a further chat over a large cup of coffee – our first day with the monks was almost over. Our agenda for day two was outlined and, bubbling with excitement, we left for our hotel with the prospect of another incredible day with the monks.
The following day we returned to the monastery and were greeted with similar warmth to the previous day. The day’s agenda consisted of visiting the breeding section. The monks’ interest in dog training and behaviour began when they entered the world of breeding GSDs.

They firmly believe that poor breeding, limited handling and inadequate socialisation as puppies are the main contributing factors in most behavioural problems. It was with this in mind that they devised their breeding policy. Before a litter is born, much care and thought is taken in the choosing of the correct dogs to breed from.

As I stated earlier, each Brother has his own dog; these are normally brood bitches which live their life as pets thus ensuring correct temperament. In contrast to other breeding establishments, many brood bitches are kennelised and as a result can lack socialisation.

The monks have bred the bitches used, so every minute detail is known about them and their genetic background. The breeding quarters are specifically designed and constructed for whelping and litter raising. There are six purpose built whelping rooms that the bitches are familiarised with before they are due to whelp. Brother Christopher explained that each dog’s master is normally in attendance during the whelping itself to assist and reassure the bitch as required. As the puppies enter the world, a coloured braid is fastened around their neck for identification purposes and to aid in the comprehensive information that is to be collected over the next 8 weeks. The monks appreciate that each puppy is born as an individual and therefore constantly monitor them as individuals, thus enabling them to accurately assess what each one requires i.e. a puppy that is sensitive to touch receives more touch stimuli.

It struck me just how much research had gone into the breeding and raising of the New Skete GSDs. Unlike some breeders, the monks consider it vital that puppies are handled on a daily basis in the first 3 weeks of life. I enquired as to whether they felt this could put the puppies in danger of catching infections and it was explained that this early handling was carried out by the brothers attached to the breeding kennels only and that strict hygiene rules were followed.

Over the years of breeding dogs, the monks have constantly learned from their experiences and therefore are not afraid to update their methods. The monks believe that correct socialisation is critical and therefore over the puppies’ development at critical key times, they are exposed to new positive experiences. The dogs bred by the monks are foremostly pets, although some do go on to work in competition obedience or Schutzhund. It is with this in mind that the monks look to establish close bonding with people at an early age.

When Brother Peter, who was in charge of puppy socialisation, let a litter of 5 week old puppies out into the garden area we were in, the puppies came charging out of their compound and immediately made a bee-line for us, jumping all over us in an excitable manner. It was super to see just how people-orientated the whole litter was, with not even one puppy ignoring our presence.

Brother Peter explained that by the time the puppies were five weeks old he would walk them around the monastery on their own using a Flexi lead. This served two purposes, firstly to get a puppy used to the lead and secondly to give them confidence away from their litter mates. At this age, the puppies are handled daily by a variety of people both male and female. Contrary to what you might expect at a monastery, there were no shortages of stooges provided by the nuns, married couples and members of the parish as well as tourists visiting the monastery itself. As the day progressed, it amazed me the extent to which the monks would go to ensure that the litters they bred were more than adequately socialised.

The Brothers were very aware that New Skete itself offered peace and tranquility whereas most of the puppies would end up living in very different environments. At the centre there was a number of purpose built play areas which provided both physical and mental stimulation by use of a wide variety of toys and obstacles. Puppies were also acclimatised to every conceivable noise, including household appliances.

Pleasant

Some classical conditioning developed from Pavlov theory was utilised by the monks. This consisted of jingling a set of keys at mealtimes so that the puppies would learn to associate the sound of keys with something pleasant. Brother Christopher explained that he used this for foundation recall training, demonstrating this with a litter of seven week old puppies.

From when the puppies were six weeks old, much of the monks’ time was spent evaluating each puppy’s personality. This is to enable the monks to decide on which type of home the puppy will best suit. This process is further aided by the litter being puppy tested using Volhards’ test. Prospective owners are interviewed before being allowed to purchase a puppy. It is the monk’s decision as to which puppy a person is offered. The monks remain in control from start to finish and take their role very seriously. I asked whether it put people off buying a puppy as they are unable to choose their own. The reply I received was that they had a 12 month waiting list. I could not help but be impressed with the monks’ breeding programme. They seem to take into account every possible detail to ensure the New Skete GSDs are renowned for their good temperament.

What really struck me from our visit was that the monks really did practice what they wrote in their books and that they were meticulous in everything they did to ensure they did the best they could. Our two days had been a truly enjoyable experience and we felt honoured to be the first British trainers to visit the monks.