When 24-year-old Evie answers an online ad to become a dog trainer, she doesn’t know exactly why. She’s never had a pet and has little experience with dogs. But before she even clicks on the ad, “suddenly I felt that I stood in the doorway of a crowded, noisy room, picking up the sound of a whisper no one else seemed to hear.”
That is key to The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances by Ellen Cooney (Mariner Books, 2014) — learning how to listen in a new way.
The training program is at a mountaintop sanctuary for stray and rescued dogs, and Evie is the lone trainee. There are no classes. There are no instructors. There are only stern innkeeper Mrs. Auberchon, Giant George (a young man with no apparent history or actual age), the older women who run the sanctuary, and a handful of dogs who — accompanied by mysteriously placed case history notes — introduce themselves to Evie, one by one.
Hank is a Lab/pit bull mix left anonymously at a shelter, deemed unadoptable due to aggression. Josie, a small white dog, lived in the lap of luxury until the new baby came along. Her hearing loss was determined to be the result of a recent blow, or several. Tasha is pure Rottweiler; before arriving at the Sanctuary, she was pushed out of a car at a stop sign, adopted twice and returned both times, and barely escaped being adopted by dogfighters.
The dogs, of course, aren’t the only ones with troubled pasts. Evie knows she requires just as much training and re-socializing as her canine charges. Mrs. Auberchon is a lone wolf and determined to remain so. What they have in common is an uncanny knack for communicating with the dogs. Evie “messages” them. Mrs. Auberchon reads to them.
Some aspects of the novel were puzzling. It’s hard to believe such an unstructured dog training program could exist for very long. The sanctuary staffers barely communicate with Evie and show little warmth or welcome. The canine characters, however, were very genuine, as dogs tend to be.
This story is a reminder that there are no bad dogs, as Barbara Woodhouse famously said in her 1982 book. There are dogs with severe limitations, and sadly, we humans are sometimes ill equipped to respond. My rescue dog, a German shepherd-golden retriever-collie mix, joined the household at about two years old, which in dog years is plenty of time to develop life-altering fears and bad habits. Like pulling at the leash and lunging at other dogs, sometimes injuring the human holding the leash who is trying to restrain her or, at the very least, hold on. Or launching herself toward moving bicycles because they frighten her so badly that attacking them seems to be her only option. After three training classes, there is improvement, but unfortunately not enough for walking her to be safe. However, she has a home, and who knows what learning opportunities may unfold?
Finding peace with doing what we can do for abandoned and abused animals, even when that seems woefully inadequate, is humbling. It reminds us to not give up on ourselves. After studying dog breeds and dog training and reading countless case histories, she writes a case note for herself in the form of a haiku:
Came in as a stray.
Is not completely hopeless.
Please allow to stay.