On Memorial Day, I tried to sit on the front steps of my parish to watch the town parade. But our 10-month-old puggle, who had just joined our family, wouldn't sit still. Riley ran all over the stairs, annoying other families, knocking over water bottles, tangling her leash with the leashes of other small dogs calmly watching the parade. My friend Dan, who witnessed the unfolding drama, said to me: "You've got to lose that retractable leash and start reading the monks' books on dog training." After the parade, he offered to walk Riley part of the way home I walked behind them, astonished to see how Dan was able to keep Riley calm and walking right beside him.
I have spent the intervening weeks poring over "How to be Your Dog's Best Friend" by the Monks of New Skete. In the process, Riley and I have been transformed.
New Skete, which is in rural New York State, is one of three stavropegial institutions of the Orthodox Church of America. Yeah, I had to look that word up. Stravropegial means churches, monastic communities and theological schools under the direct supervision of a primate. New Skete is a contemplative monastic community of men and women. It includes the Monks of New Skete, the Nuns of New Skete and the Companions of New Skete. Each group lives in separate houses within three miles of one another.
The monks, originally Byzantine Rite Franciscans, have been breeding German Shepherd dogs for more than 25 years. While doing so, they have become authorities on how to be your dog's companion.
"How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend," first published in 1976, offers step-by-step instructions on obedience training and pet care. But underlying the entire book is an unmistakable philosophy about the role of nature in one's spirituality.
"Genuine monastic living means living a life without division, looking for God in the soil of each and every moment of daily life, not merely when praying or worshiping. Living in close association with our dogs helps us avoid a temptation that is always present in contemplative life - the temptation to live narcissistically in the dreamy world of ideas."
I am unaware of any other books on being a dog owner that weave in references to the Prophet Isaiah, Odysseus, St. Francis and Dostoyevsky. Reading this book has helped me to recognize what the monks call "the interconnectedness of everything" and to realize that my family can offer Riley love, stewardship, and compassion.
Riley is benefiting from my new approach. I understand she needs we owners to be alphas in the pack and I also understand that she needs love and companionship in addition to clear guidelines and training. What a joy she now is in our lives.
As the monks put it: "The invisible, ineffable current we call life must be the object of our love. Just as we ourselves share in it, so do other creatures, and herein lies the great mystery. We now know that the responsibility for nurturing it falls to us."
I wrote this post a year ago and we now are Riley's very best friends.