In defense of the Monks of New Skete

purple boy

“This lil’ fella from our latest litter looks like he’s been working out”

The monks of New Skete were for many years the go-to authority for dog training. However, with the rising popularity of the methods espoused by dog “behaviorists” and folks that think only positive reinforcement should be used in dog training, the monks and their old school ways (as well as those of Cesar Milan) have drawn severe criticism from some in the dog community. What follows is a discussion thread from amazon in which I take the role of a monk apologist (not that they need me to defend them) against the negative review given their book “The Art of Raising a Puppy” by a noted “dog trainer and mystery writer” living in New York City. I should note that his opinion represented the minority regarding the quality of the book and the soundness of the monks’ methods, and I wouldn’t have taken note of it were his attacks not so virulent and misguided.

First is his review then a rebuttal by another monk apologist and then our exchange:


Lee Charles Kelley “dog trainer/mystery novelist”

Given the harmful, almost insane nature of some of the Monks of New Skete’s training advice (“How hard should you hit your dog? If she doesn’t yelp in pain you haven’t hit her hard enough.” — pg. 44, orig. ed. HOW TO BE YOUR DOG’S WORST ENEMY) it’s hard to take anything they say on the subject of dog training seriously.

That said there is a modicum of sound and practical information in this book. Not enough to override the horror of putting your dog in the hands of those who would advise you to hit her until she yelps in pain. (If I had my way, it would be against the law to give such training “advice,” and probably IS in some jurisdictions.)

Then there’s the fact that the monks are way behind the times when it comes to understanding the nature of a dog’s social instincts. HINT: There is no such thing as an alpha wolf, alpha dog, or pack leader. That is a complete myth, as has been proven by the top wolf experts in at least the last five years These researchers don’t even like to use the word alpha anymore because “it falsely implies a hierarchical structure.” (L. David Mech, et al, Canadian Journal of Zoology, 2002).

And how do the monks reconcile the fact that “dominance displays are uncommon” among wild wolves (Mech, Canadian Journal of Zoology, 1999) with their belief that nearly everything a puppy does, in terms of its social behavior, is either dominance or submission? If a dog’s social instincts are inherited from wild wolves and if, according to the real experts on the subject (like Mech), wild wolves almost never act dominant or submissive towards one another, where is all this dominant and submissive behavior coming from? Maybe from the way the monks treat the animals in their care?

I’ve been training dogs in New York City for fifteen years and I’ve only seen one instance of what could be called dominant behavior, and it was between two adult males, both unneutered. The owner of the dog that exhibited this behavior quickly stepped in, yelled at his dog, and smacked him really hard (though the dog didn’t yelp in pain, so the man apparently didn’t hit him hard enough). Yes, that got the dog to temporarily stop what he was doing, but in my estimation it’s just that kind of mistreatment that caused this totally unnatural behavior to develop in the first place! Dogs who aren’t mistreated never exhibit unnatural “dominant” behaviors. They just don’t.

This is so sad to me because the real nature of the dog’s social instincts is for cooperation, group harmony, and — for lack of a better word — love. How do the monks get this so wrong? Why don’t they see this beautiful aspect of a dog’s nature as being his primary social impulse?

I guess when you live in a monastery and you have a mindset that tells you it’s okay to hit dogs until they yelp in pain because they understand it’s your right as a nonexistent “alpha wolf,” you’re bound to be a little removed from reality.

If you have the slightest twinge of love or compassion for your puppy, DO NOT BUY THIS BOOK!!!

E. Feuer says:

Since it original publication back in the 70’s, the book “Ho to be Your Dog’s Best Friend”, has been revised and updated. Many of the out dated practices are no longer in the book. The book was written in the 70’s when dog training was beating your dog with a rolled up newspaper or rubbing the nose if it had soiled the house. While one would agree that love and a soft hand are an essential part of dog training, there are dog with behavioral problems that must be addressed. The Monks have updated these old techniques which now would be considered cruel. There are many different aspect and approaches to dog training, this is one that might be suitable for some while others many prefer a different approach. I found this book to be very helpful source of information. I would recommend it.

Lee Charles Kelly says:

Yes, there are many different approaches, but the fact remains that what the monks do is based on old fashioned, outdated thinking about dominance and submission. These behaviors were observed in captive wolves, most of whom didn’t know one another, and were just thrown together into unnatural, inorganic packs. Their behaviors were not indicative of the normal social instincts found in wild wolves (passed down genetically to dogs). Wild wolves DON’T form hierarchies, they don’t have a pack leader in the traditional sense, and dominant and submissive behaviors are rare events (Mech, L. David, 1999, “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs,” CANADIAN JOURNAL OF ZOOLOGY.)

Others in the field are starting to question the existence of dominance as a real behavior at all. The conclusions drawn from the studies done on captive wolves were inaccurate: these animals were unable to utilize their natural aggressive energy via hunting, so it’s only natural that they would express that aggression toward one another. In other words, the dominant and submissive behaviors they exhibited were the result of captivity stress, not instinct. The social instinct in dogs and wolves is directly related to the need to hunt together. That’s the only reason wolves have a pack instinct in the first place: it enables them to hunt large prey more successfully, and to protect their kills from scavengers. For instance, biologist Ray Coppinger says that wolves who live near garbage dumps, and don’t need to hunt together, don’t form packs: “they have loose social arrangements,” he says, “but they’re not a real pack.”

Meanwhile, the monks pepper this book with misinformation about how a pup is acting dominant or submissive almost all the time. They still believe that these are instinctive, not stress-related, behaviors. And it’s that very mindset that has led them (and still leads them) to use and recommend brutal, punitive “training” techniques like hitting a dog till she yelps in pain. Their methods are medieval and should be avoided like the plague.

Anyway, that’s how I see it.


Robert G. Whitlock says:

The continual use of the phrase “hitting a dog till she yelps in pain” which seems to be the basis of your argument against the monks techniques is not in any edition of the book you are reviewing, “The Art of Raising a Puppy,” nor is it in any edition of the book “How to be your Dog’s Best Friend” currently in print.

Also, your contention that dogs/wolves do not practice dominance and submission unless under “captivity stress” or abused is patently false.I see these behaviors as often as I see dogs.

I do not doubt your love of dogs and I imagine you have the best intentions, but statements like “the real nature of the dog’s social instincts is for cooperation, group harmony, and — for lack of a better word — love,” point to an anthropomorphic attitude that belies and belittles a dog’s true nature.

I professionally breed and train German Shepherd Dogs and find the majority of techniques and information in the Monk’s books in print to be quite sound. Not only are the Monk’s books better written than almost any other dog books, but they are also imbued with a sincere love and appreciation of canines. I recommend all of their books highly.

Lee Charles Kelley says:

First of all, the fact that the monks have removed the passage: “How hard should you hit your dog? If she doesn’t yelp in pain you haven’t hit her hard enough.” doesn’t say much except perhaps that they’ve bowed to pressure the same way the did with giving up on the alpha roll (at least in print). The mindset that would cause such advice to rear its ugly head in the first place is still evident in both these books.

As for you seeing dominance and submission as often as you see dogs, that proves nothing except that you’re probably seeing exactly what you’re looking for, or you’re creating it in the dogs you train by overemphasizing dominance over play, eg. Personally, I never see it. In ANY dogs. EVER.

What I sometimes DO see is outward expressions of tension and anxiety, NOT dominance and submission. Those are the words that Nazi biologist Konrad Lorenz (who was a firm believer in Hitler as the ultimate alpha male, as well as in the need for a totalitarian, hierarchical state to cleanse the world of Jews, Poles, and Gypsies) gave to these behaviors. He was seeing them through his own twisted political lens. And he was basing his understanding mostly on the observations he made about his own dogs–dogs he routinely beat into submission with a stick (see “Man Beats Dog,” K. Lorenz). Unfortunately Lorenz’s views, and not those of Rudolf Schenkel, held sway up until recently. But thankfully now most trainers and behaviorists are no longer using Lorenz’s terms, and prefer the more accurate “threatening and non-threatening postures.” (Those terms are still anthropomorphic but at least they’re a bit closer to the truth.)

Which brings up the fact that if anyone is being anthropomorphic here it’s you and the monks, not me. You can’t have rank and status, hierarchy, power positions, etc., without the ability to think conceptually and symbolically. You simply can’t. And like it or not those are exclusively human (perhaps primate) forms of thinking. Dogs and wolves have no ability to think conceptually or symbolically. So the ideas of dominance, submission, and following the “pack leader,” are only human constructs and can’t possibly exist in a dog’s or wolf’s mind.

The true nature of canines is, as I have stated, about group harmony. You can’t have a pack hunting style without cooperation. Dominance actually kills cooperation dead in its tracks. If, however, you have an alpha mindset and you’re treating your dogs accordingly, you will get what you create, and you will see what you want or expect to see.

I’ve been training dogs for nearly 20 years and I have never seen a dominant or submissive dog in all that time. What I HAVE seen is dogs who are either assertive, but anxious about controlling everything they can around them, or dogs who are nervous about what might happen to them if they don’t control things by being over friendly. These are disturbed emotional conditions, not natural genetic traits.

Google “Is Your Dog Dominant, or Just Feeling Anxious?” for a more detailed explanation about how Konrad Lorenz’s Nazi beliefs created the myths of dominance and submission, etc. Or Google “What Is a Jewish Dog?” by Boria Sax for even more detail about this.


Robert G. Whitlock says:

You say, `the mindset that would cause such advice to rear its ugly head in the first place is still evident in both these books.” Would that be the mindset of the gentleman that wrote “We offer our experience with dogs not just for the benefit of your dog but in the hope that you, too, might learn something about yourself through interacting with your dog. A better insight into your dog may suddenly give you a glimpse of you own humanity. Just as important it often heightens the sense of responsibility we humans have, not just for our fellow creatures but for one another and all creation.” or perhaps “when we succeed in unifying the world of animals and human beings in ourselves through understanding, empathy, and training, then both have the chance to participate in a life that is more abundant and fulfilling.'(How to be your Dogs Best Friend)

Attempting to use words to describe animal behavior is not the same thing as engaging in anthropomorphism. An animal does not have to think “conceptually and symbolically” to exhibit dominance, submission, or any other behavior it is engaged in–it is only the human being that is attempting to understand the animal’s behavior that has to engage in these activities. However, I assert that your idea that dogs’ instincts are governed by “love” is anthropomorphism– not because of what a dog thinks (I don’t pretend to have the imagination to know what a dog actually thinks), but because of what you think.

Contrary to your assertion that “dominance actually kills cooperation dead in its tracks,” dominance and submission actually foster cooperation within a pack. If dogs did not practice these behaviors they would constantly be fighting with one another for resources, the right to reproduce, etc. (see “The Evolution Of Canine Social Behavior” Abrantes 1997) I do, however, agree that there should be an emphasis on play when working with dogs. And what are puppies (for instance) doing when they play? They are practicing dominant and submissive behavior that helps develop skills necessary for survival and communal harmony. You say you have seen an assertive dog but not a dominant dog, perhaps you could explain the difference? Also, I do not understand why you write, “unfortunately Lorenz’s views, and not those of Rudolf Schenkel, held sway up until recently,” to defend your argument when Schenkel routinely used hierarchical dominant and submissive posturing to describe both wolf and dog behavior (see: Bruce, Robert H., 1995, The Wolf Almanac, p.44). or (Schenkel R., 1967, Submission: Its Features and Function in the Wolf and Dog, in American Zoologist) As you suggested I read your piece “Is Your Dog Dominant, or Just Feeling Anxious,?” and I noticed you state that Robert Schenkel “disagreed with the alpha theory from the very outset.” Well, Rudolph Schenkel coined the term “Alpha” wolf in 1974 (see: Busch, R.H., 1995, The Wolf Almanac, p.41)

Those that condemn the use of corrections (the term correction here should not be confused with punishment which connotes a punitive action taken too long after the offense has occurred–robbing the measure of its disciplinary effectiveness) in the training of dogs, offering a “humane” (you might as well just take the “e” off the end) approach, are simply ignoring nature. A dam constantly corrects her pups when they exhibit unwanted behavior. Unfortunately humans cease correcting unwanted behavior when they get their pups home (because they are cute little puppies or because they are afraid of hurting their dog’s feelings) and then inevitably behavior problems start to occur. This is of course not the only source of behavior problems in canines. We would probably agree that dogs that aren’t allowed proper amounts of exercise (necessary for burning off energy generated by prey drive) and mental stimulation can often develop behavior problems, particularly dogs like working line German Shepherds that tend to have extremely high prey drives.

As far as getting what I create with my “alpha mindset.” What I have gotten is the satisfaction of living in harmony with ten wonderful German Shepherds. And through proper care and socialization I have helped my dams raise numerous beautiful pups that are currently bringing joy and helping people throughout the U.S. Also, I should point out that despite my belief that dogs exhibit dominant and submissive behavior, I am in no way affiliated with, and in no way endorse the Nazi party, nor I suspect, do the Monks of New Skete.

2 Responses to “In defense of the Monks of New Skete”

  1. Ellen Ransom says:

    Please let me know if you still breed and sell GSDs

  2. I couldn’t agree more. I am also a trainer and breed German Shepherd Dogs and I know from experience that dogs absolutely display dominance and submissive behaviors. The Monks are evolving with the changing times however every dog should know what a leash correction is at one point or another. It is up to a good trainer to decide what is too much for a dog based on their temperament. Every person or dog needs a little discipline and it is pure ignorance to think you can solve every behavior problem with purely positive methods. Those are the people that tell my clients to put their dogs to sleep and then I end up solving their issues and saving the dogs life.

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