Dog Training For Rabbis

I clutched my dog’s pink leash with two sweaty hands to prevent her from bolting, as a neighbor’s giant 9-month-old puppy approached us. To my dismay, the owner unhooked her young dog’s leash and with a gentle voice instructed the animal to sit. Never have I witnessed such compliance. My dog pulls at her leash and practically laughs in the face of the command “drop it.” Once, as I protested with a string of firm “no’s,” she stared directly into my eyes and swallowed my daughter’s $40 ring that was perched on a night stand. The jewelry ended up costing us $440 after the vet completed x-rays and other unpleasant, non-surgical methods to retrieve the bauble.

“How do you trust your dog off of the leash?” I asked the neighbor incredulously. “My dog is a runner,” I confessed, recalling her slithering out of the front door to the closest busy street with a double yellow line and multi-wheeled trucks. Somewhat embarrassed, I reminded myself that my gentle pup helped a young child overcome a blistering fear of dogs. When we take walks, children swarm around her to pet her head of marshmallow fluff. Against all stereotyping, she licks the mail delivery person, the UPS guy, even FedEx. She rewards the vet with kisses for administering painful vaccines and packing her ears. She doesn’t just bark with excitement, but cries when my children return home from college. While other neighborhood dogs nurse primitive, territorial grudges, our dog wags her tail, as she retains most favored canine status with all breeds, even snarling terriers. She could be named Switzerland rather than Sammi.

The neighborhood mom looked at me with a mixture of pity and pride, as one does when one’s child takes all honors classes, and another parent’s child well, you know, shines in homeroom and lunch. “Our dog was trained by monks in upstate New York,” she explained.

What do I know from monks training dogs near New York’s state capital? I’m a rabbi who grew up in Virginia where pets did not have the benefit of religious intervention when it came to off-leash obedience training.

“Do the monks train the dogs with words, or are they silent?” I asked, mostly without snark. Apparently, Trappist monks are the quiet ones, not these pious fellows from New Skete. She smiled beatifically. “They speak.”

That settled it. “I guess Sammi acts like Sammi because she was raised by a rabbi.” For the rest of the walk home, I mulled over my ineffective training strategies.

1.     Mastery of the command, “Sit.”

Sitting is a nice posture, but I had not obsessed about my dog taking on an air of repose. If tired, she would sit. If not, she could stand. Why did I need to be so bossy anyway? Did she need to sit to read a book?

2.     Mastery of the ability to remain in place without the leash.

No doubt that this skill would have helped ensure my dog’s safety, but even children don’t appreciate what they have at home, so how was I supposed to convince a dog to remain by my side without the help of a leash? What healthy dog doesn’t want to explore?

3.     Mastery of acknowledging status as a pack dog.

I am supposed to be the dog’s pack leader, drilling into her my superior hierarchical role. The Talmud teaches to feed one’s animals before feeding oneself, but the monks say to eat first just to show her who’s boss. I feed the dog first and blow the entire leader of the pack illusion.

I return home from our walk, continuing to marvel at the possibilities of a religiously educated dog. It all seemed so effortless. I looked up the monks with their charming, humble smiles and their simple wisdom incorporating praise, fairness, discipline, and patience, and “gentle use of remote collars.” Yep, there it was. Right in print on the holy document of Google. Those monks “refocus” the dogs with a gentle dose of electrical stimulation. In other words, they electrocute the dogs’ necks to produce the desired behaviors.    

My naughty dog sits on top of my feet and cuddles with her favorite teddy bear. Judaism boasts of 613 commandments. If I have a dog who can’t follow a few minor ones like “fetch” and “roll over,” we’ll be okay.  I’m sure the monks are lovely and peaceful. For now, though, we’ll stick with rabbinic dog training and start with a little snack. Rabbis like to ask questions more than give commands anyway. 

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