'The test of a good dog is what he will let strange kids do'

We wouldn't be here if it weren't for the dogs," says Father Laurence Mancuso, 44, who turned the monastery he founded in Cambridge, N.Y. into a breeding and training kennel. Since 1969 the Monks of New Skete, as they call themselves, have sold some 300 dogs (a puppy costs $300; $350 if housebroken) and have trained 400 (a three-week course is $150).

The monastery will train all breeds (unless the owner is regarded as unsuitable), but it raises only German shepherds. The monks are concerned about unknowing "backyard and junk breeders" (as they label them) who are ruining the strain. A few of their shepherds have been used by the feds to sniff out narcotics on the Mexican border or work with bomb-detection squads. But New Skete's aim is to produce a gentle pet. "Monasteries throughout history," notes Father Laurence, "are known for quality things."

New Skete's head trainer, Brother Job, interestingly, is the son of a psychologist. He interviews purchasers and decides which pup is right for their personality and life-style. He and his fellow monks have compiled their ideas into a new book, How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend. A key recommendation: Never discipline a canine from above or behind or with an object. A stern "no" and a slap of the fingers under the chin is the proper reproach. Brother Job has been bitten only twice in seven years, and says both times were his fault. Each monk rears a dog of his own and is responsible for whelping litters and maintaining logs on the temperament of the pups.

In 1966 Father Laurence and 12 others broke away from a Franciscan order in Connecticut. "We wanted just a simple monastic life," he says, "free of all the medievalisms which had crept into it. I left with $15 in my pockets." After several false starts, the monks bought 376 acres in upstate New York. The soil was totally eroded, and the area's predominantly Presbyterian farmers at first were skeptical about the prospects of the unskilled Catholic philosophy majors. But that was before the monks carved a mile-long road up through the forest, built their Russian-style wooden church (it took them 78 days and $15,000) and became economically self-sufficient. Aside from the kennel operation, the monastery runs a gift shop, pork and cheese business and makes jewelry and furniture.

Of the 13 original founding brothers, one died, six left because of the tensions of monastic living and seven new monks have been admitted (from 1,000 applicants). "A lot of people look to this kind of life as an escape," Father Laurence finds. "They have something psychological in their background that hasn't been worked out. Very often we find people interested in religion who are very, very rigid by nature."

A balanced temperament is a prerequisite for New Skete, where days are filled with contemplation, prayers and hard work. It is not a silent monastery, and not all the yelping is done by the dogs. Father Laurence encourages theological argument (if not "religious jargon," which he calls "a turnoff") and banter. "Many religious people are told it's wrong to have fun. But at New Skete," he says, "puritanism is just as much out of place as licentiousness is."