The email from the famous actor was typical of the flood of requests Brother Christopher received during what he calls the “pet explosion” — with more people than ever adopting dogs during the pandemic.
Brother Christopher, 66, heads up a renowned dog-training program at the nine-man New Skete Monastery, nestled in the foothills of the Adirondacks and Green Mountains north of Albany, NY.
Wealthy New Yorkers and others across the country are lining up for the Eastern Orthodox brothers’ $3,295, 2½-week course — as well as a $1,095 one-week refresher. There are currently 50 dogs on the waiting list, which is seven months long. The promise: incorporate canines into the “monastic experience,” including getting them relaxed enough to walk off-leash.
Wendy Ravitz’s Goldendoodle puppy, Lola, would pull on leash so much “that my back and arms would hurt at the end of the walk.” Since Lola was trained by the monks earlier this year, Ravitz is able to walk her and carry a coffee mug at the same time. “You know that these monks truly love their dogs and love what they do. You can tell it’s their life’s work,” the Manhattan attorney told The Post.
Since reopening in May 2020 after a three-month shutdown, the course has never been more in demand.
“The pandemic created a life situation where people had to spend time with themselves in solitude, and for many there was a need to be immediately connected with another creature,” Brother Christopher told The Post. “But I don’t think they appreciated how much work would be involved.”
Dozens of new dog owners found themselves overwhelmed, unable to cope with the often poorly trained additions to their households.
“If a dog is ill-behaved, it will create an enormous amount of stress,” said Brother Christopher. Under a blistering May sun, he eschewed his black monk’s habit for jeans, a polo and a “New Skete” cap for the outdoor training of the monastery’s new boarders — among them Rocco, a German shepherd from Brooklyn, and Cole, a golden retriever from Massachusetts.
In the past year, the three monks who run the program, along with two lay trainers and a kennel assistant, have trained 64 dogs from the Greater New York area. These were in addition to the dozens of canines that have been brought from as far away as New Orleans.
The course promises to correct “nuisance” behaviors, such as jumping up and refusing to come when called. Using “a philosophy of praise, fairness and discipline, set against a background of patience, repetition and dedication,” the monks have incorporated remote collars into their training, which might surprise people who imagine the brothers only use gentle words to keep dogs in line.“
Some think they are the instruments of the devil,” Brother Christopher admitted. “But the remote collar has to be used in an intelligent way. It’s a subtle and effective tool.”
The collars use a very low-level electrical impulse — less than what a human can feel in their hand — in conjunction with commands “to reinforce understanding and bring [the] dog to on- and off-leash reliability,” a process that Brother Christopher said could take two years without the collars.
“We would never have shifted to include remote collars if we felt they couldn’t be used safely,” he said. “The last thing we would ever want to do is harm a dog.”
The brothers have been breeding and training dogs since the early days of the monastery’s 1966 founding. It began with 12 monks who separated from a community of Byzantine-Rite Franciscans, based in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, seeking to live “a more explicitly monastic life within the Eastern Christian tradition,” according to their Web site.
They arrived in upstate Washington County with their beloved German shepherd mascot, a failed seeing-eye dog named Kyr (“bishop” in Greek). It wasn’t a harmonious start. The group’s first location — a farm near the banks of the Batten Kill River — was too close to a recreational property, and rock music played by summer revelers made solitude impossible.
They eventually moved to their current, more isolated location and set about building their monastery: two wood-frame churches, living quarters and a meditation garden.
During their struggles to settle in, Kyr proved to be a best friend to the men. When he died in 1968, the monks felt his loss so deeply that they knew they needed a replacement, said Brother Christopher. During the search, a breeder suggested they start breeding dogs to financially support the monastery.
The training business, meanwhile, was born out of necessity.
As the first two dogs had two litters, each monk was assigned a puppy to train. But with as many as 12 dogs living under the same roof, the brothers found themselves forced to teach good behavior.
When guests began to comment on how well-behaved the dogs were, the monks saw an opportunity that would give them both purpose and security. “Hunger has a way of getting you to be creative,” said Brother Christopher.
The monks are completely self-sufficient. New Skete puppies, all of them German shepherds, now sell for between $4,200 and $4,700 each. They’ve sold five during the pandemic, and the waiting list can stretch up to 18 months.
Brother Christopher arrived in 1981, three years after the monks published their first dog-training manual. He was put in charge of the program but wasn’t happy about it.
He felt so out of his depth that he asked the abbot to reduce the fee for the training course — just $400 back then — until he could get his bearings. The abbot flatly refused, and Brother Christopher begrudgingly immersed himself in research.“
I was a little irritated with the training program and felt it was taking me away from the more monastic life,” he said. “I was so busy learning . . . that I did not appreciate the spiritual dimension in the human-dog relationship. It infinitely expands the realm of spirituality.”
His breakthrough moment, two years later, was something of a divine epiphany, as he was taking one of his charges through a routine and simply lost track of time.
“The training suddenly became this sacred ballet,” he said. “I had such a connection with the dog that everything seemed effortless. It was an experience of communion and unity as special as anything I had experienced in church.”
Now Brother Christopher calls training “a privilege.” He believes dogs are a “portal to a deeper spiritual reality in nature.“It’s pretty tough to look at the eyes of a dog and just say, ‘So what!’ ” he said. “Dogs have an ability to pierce through our defenses.”
Still, even the New Skete monks have their limits.
Although Brother Christopher has worked with what he called “red-zone dogs” — those that are overly aggressive and prone to bite — the program doesn’t anymore, instead referring owners to private trainers. They also won’t work with dogs younger than
7 months old.
The monks’ devotion to canines has won them not just a waiting list, but also accolades — including from Maurice Sendak, the Brooklyn-born author and illustrator of “Where the Wild Things Are” and a well-known atheist.
Sendak, who died in 2012, became close with the monks after adopting one of their German shepherds. “He was a dear friend,” said Brother Christopher.
When the brothers launched a capital campaign to build a new kennel and training facility in 2014, the Sendak foundation contributed $2 for every dollar they raised up to a total of $200,000. As a result, the monks decided to call it the Maurice Sendak Dog Training Center.
Brother Christopher came up with the motto: “Where Wild Things Become Best Friends.”
“Our dog training program has really helped me . . . to see God’s presence in all circumstances of everyday life,” he said. “When we train the dogs, we become aware of the mystery of life that connects us all.”