A Meditation on Dog Training
Celebrity dog trainers come and go. But a group of upstate New York monks, who have been training dogs for 35 years, are experiencing a growing, international popularity.
The Monks of New Skete -- nine men living a monastic life in the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition -- support their community through dog breeding, boarding and training. They are most famous for their obedience training, which combines a positive attitude with basic exercises.
The monks were recently featured on the "Animal Planet" network. Their methods are described in the widely read book, How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend (Little, Brown), which inspired a recent follow-up, Divine Canine: The Monks' Way to a Happy, Obedient Dog. One reason for their popularity might be that they acknowledge the spiritual connection between dog and owner.
Build Deep Bonds
"Training creates the condition in which a deep bond between the dog and owner can take place," says Brother Christopher, who is in charge of dog training at New Skete. "Whenever I ask people about their favorite dog, they go into a whole different consciousness as they describe how deeply that dog reached into their lives." Brother Christopher especially enjoys watching unruly and obstreperous dogs transform through training to reaching their full potential, enriching the lives of their owners.
Learning the basics of heel, sit, stay, come and lie down are essential, but Brother Christopher emphasizes that this be done with an enthusiastic attitude and well-timed praise. The key is to link your reward, be it verbal, physical or both, to your dog's accomplishment. Brother Christopher adds that your overall goal should be to develop a cheerful dog companion who enjoys being with you, rather than molding a pet who robotically responds to your commands.
Putting Training to the Test
These basics come in handy when behavior problems crop up. For instance, your dog may erupt in a barking frenzy if it sees another dog while riding with you in your car. The din might then cause you to lose your cool as well. Screaming at your dog will have little effect, according to Brother Christopher. If you wind up screaming, it is an indication "that your dog needs a little bit more conventional training, so that the relationship between you and your dog is stronger, and your dog is more responsive." He suggests this four-step process:
1. Make sure your dog will follow the sit, stay and down commands in a neutral setting with few distractions, like a room in the house or a spot outdoors, before moving to a vehicle.
2. Practice in a car that is not moving. Give a few commands such as down or sit. Then have a friend walk by with another dog on a leash. When your dog starts to go bananas, say sit, stay! Your canine could be on a leash that's draped over the front seat, so you can give a quick correction with the command.
3. Now, get a companion to sit with you while you drive your car around the neighborhood with your dog in the back seat. Bring an air horn -- pointed away from your dog -- or an empty plastic container (like a bleach bottle) filled with some small stones. When the dog starts going ballistic, your friend should give a shake of the bottle or a quick blast on the air horn. Then you give the command of sit, down! The sound will break your dog's focus on the other pooch, and it will hear you.
4. Praise your dog when it successfully responds to your commands. According to the monks, plenty of playtime, exercise, quiet and good nutrition are important in maintaining dogs that relate happily with their owners. They even believe it is important to keep your dog with you as much as possible. For example, the monks advise that you should allow your dog to sleep in your bedroom -- but not on the bed -- because it helps to develop your dog's trust and confidence.
Reaping the Rewards
The rewards of following the wise advice of the monks are both practical and personal. Eric Bogardus, of Jamaica Plains, Mass., sent his high-energy 10-month-old lab Nella to Brother Christopher for training because she would go crazy with excitement at dog parks and was insanely food-oriented. "She wouldn't pay attention to me unless I had food," says Eric.
When he picked her up nearly a month later, "the difference was huge," he says. "She was very calm and focused and there were no treats. She was able to heel off-leash and maintain a down-stay from 50 feet away!" Similar to how the monks solved the car-riding problem, they trained Nella to respond more to the command giver than to any food reward. Eric and his girlfriend continue to include training exercises with Nella in their daily routine. "Now when we take her to the park, people can't believe that she can be so focused at 13 months," says Eric, who credits the monks for Nella's transformation.