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Monday, November 28, 2011

20 Years Ago: A Breed Apart

Journalism has a ridiculously short shelf life. Unless you're describing what becomes singularly historic, the pieces vanish like beer foam. What was I writing twenty years ago? Here's an example. I'm happy to say that the Monks described below continue to thrive and now have a web presence.


The stillness of a spring day is punctuated by birdsong and distant farm machinery, but not by the sound of barking dogs. The Cambridge hilltop where the dozen Monks of New Skete live and work is lovely and secluded, a rural outpost that shares with the surrounding community a desire to preserve the area’s agricultural tradition. But most of the people who visit the monks – and they come from all over the country – are interested in their German shepherds.

“Dogs have been a part of our life since we started the monastery in 1966,” says Brother Mark. He's the one you see on the dust jacket of the Monks' new book, The Art of Raising a Puppy, and he took all of the photographs and wrote much of the text. “At that time we were located about ten miles north of here. We had a beautiful male shepherd. There was no dog warden and there were dogs all over the place. Our dog clawed his way through a solid door in order to get out, and we lost him.”

To replace the dog, they went to a breeder in Stockbridge named Alice Riggs. “She was a prestigious breeder at the time. She introduced us to the world of the German shepherd dog – and to other breeders.”

He approaches a long, low building with chain-link fencing along one side. The kennel is a modern contrast to the old-world structures that otherwise make up the monastery.

“We got a shepherd bitch, and then another. We raised and trained them, and people who visited us were impressed by the dogs and said they didn't know shepherds could be like that. Many of our guests began suggesting that we should breed them.” The monks were breeding beef and dairy cattle at the same time, “so we already had learned from that experience.”

The German shepherd responds extremely well to obedience training, which became another aspect of their cultivation. People began to discover that the monks had well-bred, well-trained animals available. “We loved the breed and got involved in having beautiful animals. We decided we couldn't just give them away – and when you put a monetary value on them, people appreciate them more.”

A New York Times columnist who had a home in Cambridge wrote a piece in the sports section that gave national attention to the monks and their puppies. A clientele developed. So did a waiting list. “And we've never advertised.”

Guests are asked to walk through a bleach solution before entering the kennel. The epoxy-covered walls are kept spotless. Inside are six whelping rooms, each with a plastic swimming pool for the mother to use as a nest. Each room has a door that provides outside access to the fenced-in pens. A jumble of pups from an eight-week-old litter paws at the cage as Mark approaches.

“They're trained soon after birth to sleep in a carrying crate,” he says, indicating the large plastic box in a corner of the pen. “This gets them used to the carrier and makes it easier to transport them. It's also good for in-home training. The puppies learn to regard it as a place of safety, not fear.”

He lifts a pup. The others whine and clamor. A nearby adult dog barks tentatively. These are the sounds that were missing earlier, but they’re not often evident. The peacefulness of the monastery is infectious. A radio is always left on in the kennel, playing classical music for the animals and their attendants. “This allows them to hear voices and soothing music at all times.”

Each pen has a few scattered play items for the puppies such as old tires or lengths of pipe. “We want them to experience many different facets of texture and surface and sound,” says Mark. “We have neighbors who come up here on a regular basis to play with the dogs. We tell them what to expect from the pups, and every week the puppies have something different to learn. They undergo a very fast neurological development, so it’s important to have sociological training at the same time.”

The number of puppies available for sale is always unpredictable. “Right now we have half a dozen. A year ago we had none. It all depends on when a bitch is in season.”

Bonnie, who paces nearby, is about to go into season. She’s being monitored for her optimal mating time, when she'll be serviced by a visiting stud. “We use blood tests and slides to study her as her season progresses. The cells in the vaginal tract change to let us know when she ovulates.”

Breeding is supervised by Brother Peter, while Brother Stavros is in charge of veterinary aspects. “But all of the duties overlap,” says Mark. “We can all fill in wherever we have to.”

When professional veterinary work is required, most of the jobs go to a former Cornell professor who moved to Cambridge a few years ago, “in part because of the business here. He used to bring classes out to see our dogs and he fell in love with the area. There are plenty of pet owners in the neighborhood, so he has a thriving small animal business here.”

A laundry and shower were recently installed in the kennel, testimony to the round-the-clock work the dogs demand. “We're also working on a room in which to show the puppies to prospective buyers.”

Potential customers are asked to fill out a two-page form that asks them to explain what they're looking for in a dog and what they're expecting. “What has their experience been with Shepherds? What are their goals and desires? We want them to understand the nature of the commitment they're making when they decide to adopt an animal. We do turn down customers who are obviously in an unstable situation.”

After the puppy is nine weeks old, it’s given a thorough test to determine personality characteristics. This helps assure a good match with the prospective owner. Once a puppy leaves the monastery, it’s rarely forgotten. “We get a lot of long letters and photos telling us about the dogs that were born here.”

The profit from dog breeding isn't anything that should tempt a person who doesn't have a passion for the animals. “What we’re really doing here is paying our expenses. There are twelve monks here, and each is responsible for one or two or three dogs. If the dogs aren't breeding, we can't afford to keep them around.

“Having the dogs here creates a warm atmosphere in our community, as well as with the people in the neighborhood. I can’t imagine living here without them.”

(Originally appeared in the Schenectady Daily Gazette, May 1991)