The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances

by Ellen Cooney

A novel of a young woman who, despite knowing nothing about animals, signs herself up for dog training school at The Sanctuary, where she discovers that rescue can find even the most hopeless among us and that friends come in all shapes, sizes, and breeds

  • Format: eBook
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780544237094
  • ISBN-10: 0544237099
  • Pages: 304
  • Publication Date: 08/05/2014
  • Carton Quantity: 1

About the book

New and Noteworthy from USA Today

A Best New Book of the Week from People 


"This book will grab your heart and not let go." —John Grogan, author of Marley & Me 


“A wise, engaging meditation on dogs, love, and recovery from pain. Come. Sit. Read!” —Lily King, author of Euphoriaand The Pleasing Hour 


“If you’ve ever loved a dog, this book is a must-read.” —Missourian  


The Sanctuary is a refuge for strays and rescued dogs. Evie has joined a training program there, though she knows almost nothing about animals. Like the greyhound who won’t move, the Rottweiler with attitude problems, or the hound who might be a candidate for search-and-rescue, Evie has a troubled past. But as they all learn, no one should stay prisoner to a life she didn’t choose. Heartfelt and hilarious in turn, this is a deeply moving story of the countless ways in which humans and canines help each other find new lives, new selves, and new hope. 


“This is a miracle of a book . . . Cooney is such a wise genius of a writer, and her sentences keep surprising you, but are never the point in themselves. I read with a kind of mental breathlessness.  If Cooney needs someone to convince her to write a sequel, I volunteer.” —Gail Godwin, author of Evensong and Publishing 


“A moving and joyous romp . . . All the dogs are wonderfully, fully drawn characters . . . A brilliantly crafted, uplifting book.” —The Bark

About the author
Ellen Cooney

ELLEN COONEY is the author of A Private Hotel for Gentle Ladies and other novels. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker and many literary journals. She has taught writing at MIT, Harvard, and Boston College, and now lives in Maine with her dogs Andy, Skip, and Maxine—who are each, in their own way, rescues.




It was dusk on a winter day, and from high on the mountain came barking, drifting down above the snow like peals of a bell, one, two, three, four, more, just to say the light was leaving, but that was all right: here I am, I’m a dog, all is well. 

   At the inn on the flat of the lowland, Mrs. Auberchon made her way upstairs, grumbling to herself. But she paused out of habit to listen. She was a large-frame woman of fifty, with the outer crust of anyone who used to be tender. Her name was Lucille, but no one used it. She was Mrs. Auberchon only: dependable, competent, solitary Mrs. Auberchon, always there, always far away, even if you were standing right in front of her. 

   Her arms were stacked with bed linens, towels, a six-pack of plastic water bottles, a new bar of soap. The Sanctuary had called only half an hour ago saying that a new trainee was on the way. Usually they gave her plenty of notice. She’d been up to her neck in visitors all week, and she had only just finished cleaning up from them. What she needed was peace, not more chores. 

   Strangely, they hadn’t sent her the application form, or filled her in on any background. She only knew the gender, female, and the age, twenty-four. That wasn’t fair. They were busy on the mountain, but they didn’t have to treat her like an afterthought, not that she’d say so and be a complainer. It wasn’t as if applications were pouring in. 

   She was liking what she heard. At this time of day the barking up there was usually worried, or even panicked, as in, oh no, here comes the dark, hurry up, take me in, take me in. Or it was rough, demanding, obnoxious, only about dinnertime and hey, don’t you know it’s time to feed me, feed me, feed me?  

   She couldn’t tell which dog was barking up there, but the voice was calm, deep, confident. Then came a fade-off and echoes, scattered toward the inn like invisible falling stars. This was maybe a very good sign. Maybe, Mrs. Auberchon was thinking, the new one, female, twenty-four, whoever she was, wherever she came from, wouldn’t give her any trouble. That was the most she could hope for: no trouble.



Would you like to become a dog       ?

   I clicked on it. There was nothing fancy or stand-out grabby about it. It was just a little box of black words, small as a whisper, lost and alone on a sleek professional site. Even without the mistake, I saw that it was a misfit, like in the picture game for children: “Which thing doesn’t belong here?” 

   Somewhere, a human being had made a mistake with an ad. That’s what caught my attention: a blank that shouldn’t be there. I’d been looking at pages about jobs and careers for I didn’t know how many hours — maybe a hundred, maybe more. I didn’t even know what I was trying to find. I was getting the feeling that all I’d have for a career was sitting around trying to get one, like my future would be over before I had it. Then 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. 

   I never had a pet of any kind. I never knew a dog well enough to be friends with. But I couldn’t look away from that box. What was the empty space for? Groomer? Breeder? Technician, like in a vet’s office? 

   It was trainer. Trainer! I had never in my life trained anyone or anything, not even a plant. I tried it out. “Hi, I’m Evie, I’m becoming a trainer.” Something was so physical about it, so real. A smile. “No, not that kind of trainer. Not like what you do in a gym.” 

   And that was how it started.




It was late when I arrived. The village was deep in snow. The mountain was hidden in misty darkness, without a glimmer of light to show that the Sanctuary was there. But I knew from their website what it was like: a sprawling, rugged, stone and wood lodge built a hundred years ago as a ski resort. In one small photo, my favorite, a flagpole in the front yard had a dark square banner bearing the Sanctuary’s logo: an outline in white of a lightly spotted dog. The drawing was roughly done, and the dog was tilted upward, head high, front paw lifted, like he was walking around in just air. 

   The inn at the foot of the mountain was beaming out lights. It had the frame of a chalet, two stories high and dark brown wooden. Stacks of firewood ran along the front, and to the side I saw a chainlink enclosure, icy and brushed with snow, about five feet high. The space inside was large enough for a toddlers’ playground — that’s what I thought it was. 

   I went inside. Welcoming me was a wood stove, huge and black, churning out heat I could almost see in waves. 

   “Hi. I’m a new trainee in the dog-training school,” I said at the lobby desk. “I start up there tomorrow.” 

   The first thing I had to do was find out the schedule for getting to the top. I’d read about the old gondola, still running after all these years, although no one had skied here for ages. I was excited about the ride, being up in the air. For the last ten hours I’d been stuck on things that kept moving too slowly: a taxi in city traffic, an Amtrak that was not an express, a bus to the village, another bus to the end of the lane where the inn was, then my own two feet making sinkholes in deep, thick snow, which felt heavier than it was, because my backpack, brand-new, an enormous one, a real trekker’s, was driving me crazy. 

   It felt light when I put it on my shoulders that morning. I’d sent most of my clothes ahead, care of the Sanctuary, so I’d have room for all my new books, which I needed to keep secret. They were paperbacks, but still, I had to drag the pack the last few yards in the lane, drag it up the steps of the inn, drag it inside, trailing snow. Now it was sitting at my feet, maybe as a dog would, silent and well behaved, indifferent to the snow that was melting and sliding off onto an old, worn carpet. Absurdly, I’d imagined some service. Getting off the bus, I had worried that my hands would be too stiff with cold to finger out a tip for whoever relieved me of that weight. 

   “There hasn’t been a gondola for years. It collapsed. They’ll come get you.” 

   “But on the web —” 

   The sleepy desk clerk interrupted me with a tight little shake of her head. She was a solid-looking woman of late middle age, as pale as if she hadn’t been outdoors her whole life. But she seemed to be sturdy and fit, and I had the impression she was stern with all arrivers, and even sterner with herself. Her thick hair was exactly the color of broom straw, with a mix of gray. She wore it pulled back very tightly, and her broad face had a pinch to it, like the knot at the back of her neck caused her pain, but she didn’t plan to do anything about it. No one else was in the lobby. The silence all around was another kind of foggy darkness. 

   “Your room,” said the clerk, “is at the top of the stairs.” 

   She wasn’t presenting a key, and she shook her head again when I as...


“Must-read . . . A moving and joyous romp . . . All the dogs are wonderfully, fully drawn characters . . . A brilliantly crafted, uplifting book." — The Bark 


“What Ellen Cooney captures so brilliantly here is the psychological and emotional similarities between dogs and people — the way both respond to trauma and pain, and the way love and kindness can heal even the deepest wounds. The Mountaintop School for Dogs is a celebration of the bond that has brought canines and humans together for thousands of years. This book will grab your heart and not let go." — John Grogan, author of Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog 


The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances is both a joyful romp and a wise, engaging meditation on dogs, love, and recovery from pain. Come. Sit. Read!” — Lily King, author of Euphoria and Father of the Rain 


“Is there such a thing as a Rescue Book? Well, there is now. This is a miracle of a book. It’s even a spiritual handbook. And it is for readers young and old and all of the in-between. Cooney is such a wise genius of a writer, and her sentences keep surprising you, but are never the point in themselves. I read with a kind of mental breathlessness. If Cooney needs someone to convince her to write a sequel, I volunteer." — Gail Godwin, author of Evensong, Unfinished Desires, and many others 


“Dogs were bred by us to serve us in practical ways, but then dogs took it on themselves to serve us most profoundly by healing our broken hearts. Ellen Cooney understands this, and is the kind of keenly observational writer who can detail the path to healing only dogs can provide. A delightful read for all of us who can’t imagine life without dogs.” —W. Bruce Cameron, New York Times best-selling author of A Dog’s Purpose and A Dog’s Journey 


“The real genius of this story is in all the things it doesn’t tell you, all the things it assumes you already know — and turns out, you do! — which leaves much more space to be taken up by what really matters: the marvelous canines. Any dog lover — any person lover — will be moved (nearly to the point of slobbering) by this warm, funny, heart-expanding book.” — Pam Houston, author of Sight Hound and Contents May Have Shifted 


“A young woman who knows she’s lost and an older woman who doesn’t think she is meet a slew of cast-away dogs at a snowy, mountaintop sanctuary, and discover what they didn’t even know they were looking for. A charming novel about overcoming the past and finding meaning and purpose in the present.” — Susan Richards, author of Chosen by a Horse 


“This is a jubilant, wise celebration of love, reciprocal between human and canine, in ways profound, moving, and soul saving. Readers will long remember the central humans in this tale — Evie, Mrs. Auberchon, and Giant George — along with the exquisitely drawn cast of rescued dogs who, in their own delightful, mysterious, and silent ways, heal their rescuers’ wounds. Ellen Cooney has written a funny, joyous, and heartrending book that insists intelligence and kindness must win out over ignorance and cruelty. Exploring the human and canine hearts with equal doses of wisdom and wit, it is surely a book to be read and reread preferably with your dog nestled by your side.” — Connie May Fowler, author of Before Women Had Wings and When Katie Wakes 


“Dog by dog by dog by Evie, the star-crossed protagonist, practically a stray herself, we come to understand that we’re all a little bit unadoptable, a little bit misused, and ready for sure for some loving kindness, the kind that surpasseth understanding, and that only a dog can give. Ellen Cooney has written a timeless primer to healing, surviving, transcending, and to a rarified communication that runs both ways and back again. I read this book with a cup of tea in my hand and my dog at my side (Baila, a golden). She wagged when I laughed, growled when I gasped, licked my face when I cried, damn it, woof. These animals know a good book when they sniff one.” — Bill Roorbach, author of Life Among Giants and Writing Life Stories 


“Cooney’s latest novel is both a joyful romp and a thoughtful meditation. The author’s delicate touch with the pain and trauma endured by abused animals and her sensitive portrayal of dedicated rescuers send a powerful message. Love is a great teacher and we are all a little unadoptable. Readers of Garth Stein and Carolyn Parkhurst will adore this title." —Library Journal 


“Cooney’s good-natured narrative teaches readers about many different aspects of dog behavior and training alongside Evie, making the book ideal for animal aficionados . . . Dog lovers rejoice! Cooney has crafted an uncomplicated, feel-good, canine-filled tale of cross-generational friendship, healing, and solidarity.” — Publishers Weekly 


“As knowledgeable as she is about the world of dog rescue and rehabilitation, Cooney is equally empathic in her treatment of a scarred and scared young woman.” — Booklist