Book Review: The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances

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And here we go again…another one knocked off the Great Summer Reading Program’s list! (See, we said we would get to them! Slowly and surely, we will read them. ūüėČ )

First of all, thank you very much to the author, Ellen Cooney, for reaching out to us and asking if we would read The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances. She also sent along some words by John Grogan (of Marley and Me) to further entice: ¬†“What Ellen Cooney captures so brilliantly here is the way love and kindness can heal even the deepest wounds…This book will grab your heart and not let go.”¬†Secondly, it came with a book cover that I¬†could not¬†stop looking at. There’s just this sense of calm and beauty about it, quite like how I would describe the feelings I had when reading this book: a calming and soul soothing read. Yes, I think that is how I will describe this story, it was something that was just good for the soul and one where when I finished, hugged my dogs just a little tighter and told them even more of how much I loved them.¬†There is a¬†well worn phrase in our home to begin with (dogs are so great and/or our dogs are the best!), but dogs are indeed great and in The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances there are those dogs that¬†have¬†come to the Sanctuary that will completely break your heart wide open. They represent those dogs that if given a second chance will fill your world with love and companionship.

In Ellen’s words,¬†The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances is¬†about a young woman named Evie, who feels she just hatched herself out of an egg. She joins a training program at The Sanctuary, a mysterious mountaintop refuge for rescued dogs, although she has zero previous experience with animals, and little idea of what she’s getting into. “All I did with my life before,” she points out, “was go to school, read books, and get into a relationship with cocaine.”
Her adventure begins at an inn at the foot of the mountain, where she meets the dogs who will be her students–all of them have come from deeply troubled pasts, and all are fully developed, very alive characters. (No, they do not narrate, or think like people. They are animals.)
It’s a rehab story and it’s often funny. Evie keeps a log of what she’s finding out, and gets into things like “alpha is fascist,” and “teaching techniques based on pain.” The novel follows her in-class experiences and dawning awareness–and The Sanctuary all along is the command center of a national network of rescuers who kidnap chronically abused dogs.
The adventure is an adventure of becoming more human, really, and more one’s self. I almost hesitate to say it’s about a lively, vibrant, big-deal education–but that’s what it is.


Evie applies to a brief job ad, and one that is not even accurately or fully printed, about working as a dog _____ . She is just coming out of a program where she has been dealing with her issues of addiction and wants desperately to leave, start a new life and just put these details of her past far, far behind her. Surprisingly, she is accepted for the job and reports to the bottom of the mountain where an Inn run by a seemingly curmudgeonly Mrs. Auberchon operates. Here, Evie awaits further instruction, a better understanding of what being a dog _____ will actually hold and the anticipated call to go up to the mountain where the Sanctuary sits.

Soon Evie discovers exactly what her job will entail and finds heartbreaking notes¬†detailing¬†the history of and reason¬†why this rag tag¬†assembly of¬†dogs have come to the Sanctuary. She is to train these dogs¬†for Search and Rescue or for adoption. Very quickly and after reading the history and stories of these abused dogs, Evie forms a strong sense of attachment and refers to the dog’s previous owners as scum. You are scum if you leave a dog tied up in the back with a choke chain for so long that their neck becomes infected and has lost (their will) and ability to bark or make any sound; you are scum if you’ve abandoned a dog in an apartment for so long that it turns to eating the wallpaper off the wall thereby requiring extensive surgery; you are scum if you lock a dog in a darkened basement in a cage and artificially inseminate her over and over and over again, so much that she can no longer walk on her own. The stories continue and Evie finds herself deeply and emotionally involved in the work at the Sanctuary.¬† Together, Mrs. Auberchon and Evie work to find their way back to happiness and belonging with the help of dogs desperately in need of second chances.

The more involved and enlightened Evie becomes, the more she can apply her training for the dogs to herself. She begins to write notes for herself, a training manual if it be and includes sections on:

Belonging (backward and twisted): Like Detox – they try to return to their abusers because that’s the only place they feel they have belonged, not matter what terrible things will happen to them. You don’t call it abuse when it’s happening to you, even if you’re doing it to yourself. You just call it “my life” (pg 262).

One of the¬†“Staffers” at the Sanctuary (as she refers to them) encourages her to write a note about herself and submit it to the staff. This is something that Evie struggles with as she is¬†desperate to leave her past deep in the past.¬†But, as¬†deeper and true awareness of the work¬†being undertaken at the Sanctuary is revealed, and how deeply involved she wishes to remain there and continue this work, Evie finds it in herself to write this note and does so, not just in the manner of how the notes about the dogs are written, but also in her favourite form of writing, in a Haiku:

Title: Everything Important about Evie, Human Female, Twenty-Four

Came in as a stray.

Is not completely hopeless.

Please allow to stay.  pg. 268

The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances is a wonderful and feel-good story, it really just provided me with this sense of calm while reading. I cannot describe it any better than by saying it just felt like a soothing salve for my soul. Your heart will break for these dogs, and you will also champion the fantastic (and sometimes very dangerous work) that these, for the most part, volunteers, do in order to save these great animals to free them from their life of torture and abuse, and to give them a second chance.

Literary Hoarders Penny rev