Founder Acharya His Divine Grace
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

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When Obedience is Next to Godliness
By Philip Turner/Religion News Service   |  May 07, 2007

Struggling to train an unruly dog in your jam-packed life and think you've exhausted all resources?

Maybe it's time to take a deep breath and start acting like a monk.

For nearly 40 years, an order of Eastern Orthodox monks at the New Skete Monastery in Cambridge, N.Y., have funded their monastic lives by training the most stubborn of misbehaving dogs for thousands of frustrated families. The training benefits the pups, the families and maybe most of all the monks, who say the discipline and focus required for obedience training puts them in a deeper spiritual place.

"Working with dogs has put us in touch with the mystery of God and nature," said Brother Christopher, the program's director. In keeping with their monastic practice the New Skete monks do not use last names.

The monks have trained thousands of dogs in their three-to-four week programs, which costs $1,300, including canine room-and-board. After the training period is over, the monks convey to owners how important it is to continue developing the relationship and training outside the monastery.

The monks are the subject of a new show on Animal Planet called "Divine Canine: With the Monks of New Skete." It's an 11-part series, airing Mondays from 8 to 8:30 p.m. ET, that examines life at the monastery in terms of "loyalty, faith, discipline and dogs."

Too often, people look at religion and spirituality in narrow and structured ways, said Brother Christopher, who has been training dogs for 25 years. As a result, they don't realize the powerful spiritual feelings that often stem from everyday tasks like dog training. Ditching their robes for jeans and sweaters for part of each day, the monks find their interactions with man's best friend to be a heavenly outlet.

"Many people think of their religion when they pray at the beginning and end of the day, as a more formal religious aspect of our lives," said Brother Christopher. "As monks, we're very aware of the whole of life being contemplative in character."

In the serenity of their 500-acre monastery nestled in Cambridge's rolling hills, the monks say they employ a holistic approach that brings spiritual gains and improves the behavior of the canines.

"What's so important in the life of a dog is the relationship with their owner," Brother Christopher said. "Rather than going about training in a mechanical way, we try to help people understand that the training has to serve the relationship for both to allow it to blossom."

The first episode of the TV series shows the successful training of a pampered dog named Stella, whose owners admitted they couldn't control. They dressed her in sweaters and strolled her around in a baby stroller rather than making her walk. Stella often paid her owners no mind when they voiced even simple commands. After four weeks with Brother Christopher, Stella went home as cute as she came in, but also with respect for her owners.

"We want owners to realize the potential that caring and training for a dog can have for both you and your dog," said Brother Christopher. "It can be a total enrichment."

Aside from training unruly dogs for customers, the monks also care for and breed world-class German shepherd puppies. The experience of dog training has added a truly happy element to the intense spiritual contemplation of the monks' daily routines.

"If dogs were not here, we'd probably be a group of somber, bitter old men," Brother John said on the TV show.

©2007 Religion News Service

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