The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances
by Ellen Cooney

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. ISBN 978-0-544-23615-8.
Reviewed by Martha Meacham
Posted on 08/28/2014

Fiction: Mainstream

The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances by Ellen Cooney is a perfect fit for the dog days of summer. This light and breezy novel is an easy read for dog lovers, even if it does touch upon dark topics involved with dog rescue. Stuck in the doldrums of August heat, I relished the vivid descriptions of snowy scenery as the story unfolded on the mountain where dogs are rescued and rehabilitated. As you might expect from the title, human beings end up getting helped through their common interest in dogs, as well.

Informed only by what she finds from the website of the Mountaintop School for Dogs, Evie signs up for this adventure to get her hands on some dogs. The main character aspires to be a dog trainer, and knows you can't learn to be a dog trainer watching YouTube alone. There are tidbits of training to be gleaned from the stream-of-conscious thoughts as Evie logs her experiences at the school when she arrives. Dog enthusiasts will even find many facts on different breeds, as Evie has had time on her hands to prepare vicariously via the Internet for this undertaking.

Underlying the description of each of the dog's cases is a strong message about using rewards-based, positive methods of training rather than coercion and punishment. The author spares little detail to describe the horrible circumstances that led to the dogs' arrival to the mountaintop. I appreciate that Ellen Cooney brings the plight of racing greyhounds and dogs bred to fight to the light in this fictional account of a woman becoming a dog trainer. She handles some difficult topics gently in a richly descriptive writing style.

The metaphor of reaching the mountaintop for enlightenment holds true for this plot as the memorable folks follow a sort of zany spiritual journey to find their way through life together and apart.

Although this wonderful novel is full of good information on dogs, training and rescue exploits, the misapplication of the term "alpha" when used to describe dog behavior is distracting. The term has fallen out of favor in the world of professional dog trainers because of the lack of science to support this popular notion of wolf behavior among dogs. Yet, because of the charming tale of people and dogs who need homes, I put that one concern aside and enjoyed this inviting narrative.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Ellen Cooney is a published author whose stories have appeared in The New Yorker and in literary journals. She has taught writing at MIT, Harvard and Boston College. She lives in Maine with her dogs. Visit her website.

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