In the beautiful countryside of eastern New York State, The Monks of New Skete have been breeding raising and training dogs for over 25 years. They have become the pre-eminent authorities on the most productive ways to achieve that which every dog owner desires -- a companion who can enrich one's life.

"Although our involvement with dogs spans nearly twenty-five years, we never cease reflecting on the dynamic nature of that connection and the intrinsic role it plays in the life of our community. Dogs are not an accidental element of the monastic life at New Skete, they are at the heart of a vision that sees the totality of life as a finely woven unity to which all of us are responsible."

To anyone who knows us, this will be perfectly understandable. But to those who do not, the idea of a community of monks living in close relationship with dogs always provokes a lot of questions. We recall a visiting priest who once asked: "Why does your community attach so much importance to dogs? After all, they seem to take up so much time, time that could otherwise be spent in prayer and reading. . . Wouldn't your community be better off supporting itself by a business that is more in keeping with what a monk's life is supposed to be? Selling candles, perhaps?"

The priest assumed that dogs take us away from our spiritual priorities. In fact, just the opposite is the case. Being a monk has nothing to do with donning other-worldly veneers or conforming to set ideas about what seeking God means; it is about becoming a true human being, and dogs can play a pivotal role in that process. Precisely because they are living creatures, dependent and vulnerable, dogs continually take us outside of ourselves, the fundamental movement of being human and the only way to find God.

To be authentically human means learning to give oneself unselfishly, ungrudgingly, and to one who listens, the very nature of the dog calls this out in a unique and compelling way. In the very routine and ordinariness of a relationship with a dog, through the discipline and responsibility it entails, we learn about ourselves, about nature, about God and the spiritual path we are on in ways that would otherwise be unavailable to us. Without apologies, we have discovered that dogs play a crucial role in our growth in consciousness.

Really this shouldn't be surprising -- it is in harmony with a common wisdom passed down by sensitive souls throughout the ages. Recall that humanity's association with the dog covers a vast terrain of creative adaptation stretching back thirty thousand years. From the earliest evidence of domestication, fossil remains of Dingo-like dogs in Australia to more complex developments in Europe and Asia Minor ten thousand years ago, all the way up to the present, the picture we get of man's connection with the dog is of an ever expanding alliance that goes beyond purely functional ends to include spiritual issues. Dogs are humanizing, they help us be who we are, and though our ancestors used them for hunting, herding livestock, guarding flocks, personal protection, transportation even as warriors in battle .. there are also important signs to suggest that they valued them as faithful companions as well.

Consider the questions prompted by a primitive wall painting discovered at Catal Huyuk, an archaeological site in southern Turkey thought to be the oldest town ever unearthed. There, on the wall of a house some nine thousand years ago, an artist painted a scene depicting a man shooting a stag with a bow and arrow. At the man's side is a dog, aiding him in the hunt. Though the painting is primitive and crude, nevertheless its very existence leads us to ask, "How did the hunter view this dog, what were his thoughts and feelings as he observed the dog helping him in the hunt? How had he obtained the dog? Had he raised the dog from puppyhood, perhaps after discovering a litter in the wilderness nearby? Or had he tamed it after it was already an adult?" We have no sure answers. Yet from the archaeological evidence, Catal Huyuk was a city of more than five thousand people, many of them farmers, shepherds and traders, which had developed a culture of commerce, art, and religion. In such a context, it is not unreasonable to envision dog/human relationships that included admiration and devotion.

Another revealing perspective comes from ancient Egypt (around 2,000 B.C.), where, aside from being used for hunting and in war, dogs were loved and valued as family pets. They were given individual names (one name has been diciphered as Abu, meaning "Blackie"), wore leather collars, and after they died, their bodies were mummified and taken to graveyards specifically for dog burials. The owners and bystanders would then beat their breasts and voice lamentation in honor of the dead dog!

Finally, there is the tale of Argos, Odysseus' faithful dog, recounted to us by Homer in The Odyssey sometime between 800 and 700 B.C. The tale concerns Odysseus' attempt to return home after a twenty year absence, ten years while fighting at Troy, and the following ten trying to get back to his wife and son. Over the years, everyone comes to believe that Odysseus died in the war, though his wife Penelope continues to refuse the amorous advances of various suitors, always believing that she will see her husband again. The irony of the tale is that when Odysseus finally does arrive back home in the guise of a beggar, neither his wife nor his faithful servant recognize him; the only one who does is his old dog Argos, who has also been waiting faithfully for his master to return. His loyalty moves Odysseus to tears.

Of course, not all dog/human relationships throughout history reflect such harmony and devotion. From ancient times to the present day, it has not been uncommon for dogs to become the victims of physical and psychological abuse, where owners and society unload onto dogs a whole set of misguided emotions. Dogs show us our darker side as well. In such instances, the dog can easily become the object of the owner's self-hate, bearing the abuse that the owner is really hurling at himself.

A chilling example of this in modern literature is the relationship of the old widower Salamano and his mangy Spaniel in Albert Camus' famous story, The Stranger. With characteristic detachment, Camus' narrator Meursault observes the existence his neighbor Salamano shares with his dog, how on all of their walks together he beats the dog for lagging and pulling and how he is forever cursing and calling the dog names. It is a relationship of misery. Meursault provides a clue about what is going on when he notes that despite their mutual contempt for each other, over the years the dog has come to physically resemble his master. When the dog finally runs away later in the story, the old man comes grieving to Meursault over his loss. He no longer has anyone to abuse. The silent dog had clearly been the projection of his own self-disgust and loneliness.

Beyond the testimony of history and of literature, however, we have only to look closely at our own experiences to see the deeper dimension present in our relationships with dogs. When we quiet ourselves down and reflect clearly on the reciprocity involved here, we see in ever new ways the very same issues that are conditions for any true growth: unselfishness, honesty, loyalty, the controlling of emotions, generosity... We have only to listen.

The clear subtext running through both of our books on dogs, How To Be Your Dog's Best Friend and The Art of Raising a Puppy centers precisely on this: dogs are our teachers and the lessons we learn from them are legion. When we pay close attention, they mirror us back to ourselves in unmistakeable ways which, if we are open, foster true understanding and change.

There is a saying in our community that the spiritual father can tell what is going on in the inner life of his disciple by simply observing how the disciple's dog is behaving. What the disciple may be hiding about (or from) himself, the dog reveals, naturally and effortlessly.

Guileless and filled with spontaneity, dogs, unlike people, don't deceive, and when we take seriously the words they speak to us about ourselves, we stand face to face with the truth of the matter. Learn to reflect on these words, they are inscribed on their bodies, in their expressions, in the way they approach and interact with us. There is more raw material for meditation here than in many a spiritual book.