The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances by Ellen Cooney
Alaska, snowy mountains, wooden lodges and inns, second chances, sanctuaries, rescues, one 24-year-old short-haired girl, one boy who seems like a hobbit, a strict but soft innkeeper, and dogs.
If someone were to ask me the places I have traveled to, I would answer, “Including the ones in books?”
In this case, I have been to a Sanctuary for rescued abused dogs in Alaska. I have met Evie, Ellen Cooney’s protagonist; Giant George, the friendly and warm staffer from the Sanctuary; and Mrs. Auberchon, the keeper at the inn at the bottom of the mountain where the Sanctuary was located. I have met and played with the many dogs in the story too, dogs which Cooney so brilliantly weaved personalities to of their own.
I just finished reading this book at dusk today. It’s sad that I’ll be saying goodbye to the characters so soon. I will miss Shadow, Josie, Hank, Boomer, Alfie, Dapple, Dora, Tasha, and all the dogs in the story. It feels like I’ve been with them too, thanks to Cooney’s writing and deep take on giving life to these characters. She described a dog’s fur, unique spots and their placements, their temperaments, and breeds… I knew more breeds too from reading this book.
There’s one dog named Boomer who is like a butler in the Sanctuary. He’s an old Golden Retriever, and he mostly reminded me of our Twixie… She passed away last May. And I can still remember her little qualities that make her ‘her.’
I love her descriptions about the Sanctuary as well, because I can imagine so clearly the place that has served as the refuge for both humans and dogs.
This story started out when Evie found a job employment advertisement from a website which just said:
“Would you like to become a dog ?”
Could it be groomer? Rescuer? Trainer? Walker?
It turned out as an ad from the Sanctuary, a place for abused dogs to be sheltered and cared for. Feeling like somewhat a stray too and wanting to heal from a past hurts, Evie finds solace and her purpose in the mountaintop school through her newfound companionship with the rescued dogs, the innkeeper Mrs Auberchon, and the young staffer Giant George who become Evie’s friends.
Even with her knowledge on dogs after reading about them, it was hard at first for Evie to try and socialize with the dogs like Shadow who first peed on her hand or Hank who only kept pacing back and forth in his enclosure.
The dogs that Evie came to love throughout the story aren’t dogs that had the comfortable life. Maybe they had before, until their owners didn’t want them anymore or had caused them pain. The same with us people – when we got hurt by someone, it would be difficult for us to trust, to open up again, afraid that the same thing might happen, fearful that a memory comes up and pricks a wound open again.
It’s impossible to not talk about abuse of dogs when talking about this book… Based on the acknowledgements, Ellen Cooney got to talk with rescuers, trainers, shelter people, and adopters from whom she was able to learn more about the reality of abuse and neglect that dogs get today.
Sometimes, reading the book can get pretty emotional, but I let myself be disturbed. I would read about how one dog was left tied in a leash in his owner’s yard on his own. I would read about how one dog was thrown away from a moving car. I would sometimes just scan the words of the dogs’ notes, afraid for them, hurt for them. Like my mind couldn’t take in the visual of an innocent helpless creature being hurt.
This may be fiction, but it is true. There are animals out there, innocent animals and pets who are helpless, and we humans have taken advantage of that and inflicted pain on them or abandoned them. We wonder, we question, “Why do people do that? How could they?”
I don’t know either, but I have read before of animal abuse cases where the person behind the abuse could have not been in the right state of mind or was undergoing something traumatic when he/she did it; I pray that we be not condemning but understanding and helpful, and yes, even to the ones who did it intentionally, even while they answer to charges against them. To pray for them and their repentance and recovery and to learn from these mistakes. To continuously believe that no one is beyond redemption. This is easy to say and write but difficult to live out, especially after we feel angry when we hear of news like this on TV or read it on the newspapers or the Internet. But we are called to be forgiving, we are called to be helpers and carers, we are called to welcome change and give second chances.
We must also continue to hope that abused dogs can heal and have a home again and be adopted by people who will love and nurture them back to health, to hope that hurt people do not pass on hurt and heal instead.
Today too, I just read an article on a dog that recently passed away because of an inhumane thing that people did to her… These things happen in real life… And it’s an agonizing reality that I can’t help but cry about.
Sometimes, I wish I could cry more tears out, because that is nothing compared to the pain that these dogs (even those who are exploited for their fur/horns/skin), basically all animals, could go through at the wrong hands.
And I think about our own pets who are fed well and have a home and have a family, and then, I think about the ones who are left alone in the streets or in some apartment, forever. There are worst cases, but I can’t bring myself to talk about it without feeling very heavy.
But I want to be positive and hopeful, the same way that The Mountaintop School for Dogs was. That there is rescue. That there is redemption. That there are plenty second chances for those who want to become good again, for those who have been hurt, for those who have no home.
What could we do then? Let us honor the animals we encounter. Let’s be loving to our pets. They may not speak to us in our language, but they know how to feel pain or joy.
I read this book and learned of rescuers and people who love dogs tremendously. And I am awakened to the fact too that in real life there are many people, many kind people, who love animals. Who do volunteer work. Who do rescues. Who save animals from raging rivers and from being trapped on a tree’s branch way up high. Who put these animals’ needs before them selflessly.
And I pray too that the people who may have done bad things to their pets will repent and know of the beautiful grace of repentance, forgiveness, and second chances…
I love what Ellen Cooney said in her acknowledgement; it is a testimony to the unconditional love that dogs are known for: “Over and over, no matter the specifics of the harm or the rescue, one thing came clear to me, with the beautiful shine of truth: a dog who has suffered at the hands of humans is always willing to give another human a chance.”
I’m happy for Evie and her ‘students,’ when they all got to know one another more. I loved her will to encourage them and her compassion for the dogs. I was happy too that a few dogs got adopted! It was a beautiful unraveling and growth for Evie, the dogs, and the other characters too. All of the human characters had their share of problems and pasts they would rather not talk about as well; what was a place of refuge for dogs became a place of refuge for them as well. I will certainly miss them, Evie’s compassion, hard work, and vulnerability, Giant George’s fun and serious sides, Mrs Auberchon’s motherly like qualities surfacing and her mellowing down, the staffers’ gentle yet strong personas, moments when a dog would gain his/her old fire back or when a dog finally opened up to Evie, and the dogs and their stories of redemption. Evie went in like a stray but found a new home, a new life. The dogs went in hurt but found healing, friendship, and love.
It took a few hours for me before finally getting to start writing about this book… Probably I found it difficult, because this is a sensitive topic for me, and these things take time to be written about… Nonetheless, I remain ever hopeful that we all become more responsible and loving not just our pets but also animals and nature.
Let’s be places of refuge.
For a positive ending to this, I would just like to share a few excerpts I loved, purely for a moment that reminded me of something, made me smile, or Ellen Cooney’s description that I loved:
- I thought about what it’s like to give up on looking at light.
- A hand of a human undid the chain. Somewhere in the world a person went to bed with this thought: I saved a dog today.
- Where are you when you’re at home?
- It was my first time finding out what it’s like to be held in the arms of someone who had no arms. I felt his breath in my hair, along with some drool. I felt his sleepy, Zen-like quiet, his jaw against my skull, his paw pads on the other side of my bones and skin and sweatshirt. He was good at holding. He was doing a better job with me than I’d ever done with myself.
- His mane was white and flowing. At his other end, his plush, feathery tail was going back and forth gently, swishing, almost in slow motion. But maybe in his own mind he was swinging it as vigorously as a puppy.
- Sometimes when dogs greeted a returning soldier, they’d go over the edge. They would have to take a few moments to run crazily in circles around the human, or around a room or a yard. I’d have to take a break from watching, so my brain had a chance to absorb what I was seeing: that there is such a thing as joy being bigger than the container that holds it.
- The Rottweiler’s on me, placing her big head where my heart is. She’s listening to the beat of my heart, like maybe she’s memorizing me. I put my arms around her. I have zero words.
And I guess, this is the lesson that sums it all up for me about The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances:
- “Evie, never, ever give a dog who comes to you anything but love.
For the lessons that a dog can teach us, I’d like to share this little sketch that I made one rainy afternoon then colored in yesterday. 🙂
I taught you how to sit, I taught you how to fetch. What else can you teach me, little dog? Can you teach me obedience and faithfulness? How about joy and contentment? Most of all, can you teach me how to stay and love unconditionally?