Review: “The Art of Raising a Puppy” by The Monks of New Skete

by Miles Raymer

Raising a Puppy

My wife and I are about a month and change away from adopting our first puppy. Having never raised a dog as a couple before, we decided to read up on best practices so we could be adequately prepared. It’s hard to imagine a better book to serve this purpose than The Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of New Skete. She read it several months ago, and used it as a guide for identifying the particular breeders that seemed to fit us best, as well as for stocking up on supplies and constructing a routine for the little one prior to its arrival. I started reading more recently to make sure I’m up to speed on everything.

This inspiring and informative text helped us understand the exciting opportunities and weighty responsibilities that pervade puppy parenthood. The Monks of New Skete––seasoned breeders and trainers who work primarily with German Shepherds––bring a sober but invigorating attitude to this adventure:

We have found that when owners adopt their new puppy, they are rarely aware of just how much development and growth has already taken place in his life. They have only the most general idea of where he came from and lack a context from which to appreciate his true uniqueness. When owners begin to understand the early developmental stages of a puppy’s life, they cultivate a sense of responsibility that is more clearly in keeping with the nature of a human-dog relationship. Relating in the healthy way with their pup, owners will change as their puppy changes; they will grow as their puppy grows. The bond becomes enriching and genuinely transforming. (6)

In order to give readers their best chance at experiencing this deep connection with their puppies, the Monks guide us through the developmental stages of puppyhood: the neonatal period, the transitional period, the socialization period, and the juvenile period (23). At each waypoint, the Monks combine  a contemplative and compassionate tone with scientific rigor and decades of professional experience.

One of the best aspects of this approach to puppy rearing is that it strikes an intelligent balance between positive and negative reinforcement. The Monks never advocate practices that cause puppies undue suffering, but they also acknowledge that discomfort and delayed gratification are essential elements of healthy development. Here are some examples:

Over the years we have found it beneficial to introduce the pups to moderate amounts of human handling throughout the course of puppyhood, not simply during the period of socialization. This handling is actually a mildly stressful experience, though it in no way reaches traumatic levels. Contrary to what might be expected, mild amounts of stress are beneficial to the development of puppies, provided the exposure is not excessive. Whereas toxic stress in the form of prolonged isolation and lack of handling can have a profound effect on puppy development, moderate stress can be helpful. (35)

Effective training always serves the relationship, and a balanced use of both positive reinforcement and helpful leash correction does just that. We say this to be honest. Each dog is a unique creature with his own personality, and owners will need to be sensitive to that in helping their puppy learn. To excise the notion of corrections from the training vocabulary does a disservice to the dog and puts the owner at a serious and unnecessary handicap. Think about it: what would your own life look like without appropriate corrections at various points along the way? Granted, how such corrections were given makes all the difference in the world, suggesting the importance of an owner learning to make them appropriately and helpfully, always encouraging the puppy forward. (219, emphasis theirs)

Through these and countless other examples, the Monks reveal how to love a puppy dearly without indulging its worst impulses or allowing the continuance of bad habits that don’t serve the dog or owner’s long-term interests. They nobly refrain from soft-peddling the investment of time and energy that successful training requires, even advising readers to reconsider adopting if they don’t feel able to properly lead a puppy into a happy adulthood.

The Monks also encourage readers to see the world from a puppy’s point of view––to imagine differences in perspective and sense perception. These exercises demonstrate why good intentions can so often go awry during training, such as when owners try to lovingly coax when they should firmly insist, or when they accidentally create a negative association in the dog’s mind that has cascading effects.

Two additional core tenets of The Art of Raising a Puppy are the notions that true obedience goes both ways, and that an enlightened owner always strives to be a benevolent pack leader:

Obedience is as much your responsibility as it is your dog’s––even more so, since you are accountable for shaping your pup’s behavior to fit your living circumstances. The problem with many owners is that they fail to listen and to respond to the real needs of their dogs; unknowingly, the owners are disobedient. To be a good companion to your dog, you must be obedient––that is, fully alert and focused on your pup, flexible enough to adapt your approach instantly to his needs. As odd as it may sound, your dog does not know what is best for him; you do, but only by being truly obedient to him. (167-8, emphasis theirs)

All puppies require the consistent, responsible guidance of their owners in order to mature into balanced, well-adjusted companion dogs. What makes the training process such a necessary part of a healthy dog-owner relationship is that it confirms your position as leader at the same time as it provides your pup with the practical skills necessary to live happily with you. Training is a humane form of dominance. (251-2, emphasis theirs)

Finally and most importantly, our canine companions can open a path to self-betterment that no other creature––including other humans––can provide:

An often neglected aspect of the training process is how your dog becomes a mirror, reflecting you back to yourself, helping you achieve greater self-awareness by drawing out greater degrees of patience, sensitivity, and emotional self-control. This is the heart of training. (184)

When we take the time and energy necessary to raise our puppies correctly––when we learn to truly listen to them, seeing them as they really are and guiding their development accordingly––a deeper part of ourselves is unlocked. We become more compassionate and less arrogant, more willing to share our lives with another life. (317)

I was intimidated by the idea of raising a puppy before I picked up this book, and I still am. But now, thanks to the Monks of New Skete, my intimidation is softened by actionable knowledge and infused with anticipatory joy.

Rating: 8/10