Dogs & Underdogs

Dogs and Underdogs: Finding Happiness at Both Ends of the Leash

When Elizabeth Abbott was separated from her beloved dog Tommy, she set out to rescue him and embarked on a journey that began in Haiti and continued into the concrete corridors of an American prison, the halls of Mount Sinai Hospital and the ruins of post-war Serbia. In rescuing dogs, Abbott also discovered the deepest roots of the human-animal bond, and how together people and dogs can find hope and happiness.

Critical Acclaim for Dogs and Underdogs

Elizabeth Abbott’s “Dogs and Underdogs: Finding Happiness at Both Ends of the Leash” and Toni Shelbourne’s “Among the Wolves” are excellent reads. Both books are filled with personal stories about these amazing beings and show how we can rescue and help them and they can in turn rescue and help us. Both also raise numerous questions about human-animal relationships.

Two books arrived at my door at the same time and I simply want to share their existence with you because I feel they are great reads for all people interested not only in the behavior of dogs and wolves but also in our relationship with these amazing beings and other nonhuman animals (animals) with whom we share our lives in one way or another. The first is called Dogs and Underdogs: Finding Happiness at Both Ends of the Leash by noted author Elizabeth Abbott and the other is titled Among the Wolves: Memoirs of a Wolf Handler by Toni Shelbourne.

Both authors clearly love dogs and other animals and when I first read Ms. Abbott’s book to provide an endorsement I kept going back to it to read the stories of different dogs and their humans. The book’s description and numerous accolades are very informative of what readers will find between its covers. It reads as follows: “Happiness and redemption can be found at both ends of the leash, in all kinds of places. Elizabeth Abbott had always been an animal lover, sharing her life with all kinds of dogs in need. But when worlds collided and her beloved dog Tommy was left behind in Haiti, a new journey began—one that would take her to some very surprising places and ultimately teach her some essential truths about the power of hope and redemption. From the soulless concrete corridors of an American prison to the halls of a Canadian hospital to life among the ruins in post-war Serbia, Abbott meets people whose lives are changed forever by a wagging tail and a pair of soulful eyes—and dogs who find a new lease on life with devoted human companions. Throughout Dogs and Underdogs, Abbott shares her own incredible and often amusing stories of rescuing dogs in need of shelter, friendship, and love: devoted Tommy, the inspiration who began it all; irrepressible Bonzi, the beagle who charmed his way into prisoners’ hearts; sweet Alice, the little mama who survived a puppy mill to be “mothered” by other dogs; and many more. With wit and passion, Abbott digs down into the deepest roots of the human–animal bond, showing us that together people and dogs can find hope and happiness.”

I keep going back to this book and always am finding something new about which to think and feel. Having taught a course in animal behavior and conservation biology at the Boulder County Jail for many years I was particularly touched by something that an inmate called Shane told Ms. Abbott. Shane said, “Working with dogs has been the vehicle I always needed to get in touch with myself, to put the anger and the old wounds to bed once and for all.” (p. 272) I’ve heard many stories like this and have recently written about how dogs and inmates help one another as they form close and reciprocal relationships in an essay called “Dogs on the Inside: Must See Documentary on Dogs and Inmates.”

I highly recommend both books to a wide audience. They raise numerous important and challenging questions about the nature of human-animal relationships) and are extremely inspirational. Each also shows how we can easily rescue, help, and heal other animals and how they can in turn rescue, help, and heal us.

Marc Bekoff, Psychology Today

Best-known for her popular histories of human relationships (A History of Mistresses, A History of Marriage) and objects (Sugar: A Bittersweet History), Abbott, a Canadian academic and author, departs from form with this book. An account of her volunteer efforts to rescue unwanted and abused dogs, it begins in Haiti, where she was a reporter for Reuters and where she left behind her beloved dog, Tommy, and ends in her Toronto home, “a way station for needy dogs.” In between trot a large cast of canine characters, with Bonzi the beagle as the main plot device.

From his rescue in rural Ohio to his stint at a dog-training program in an American prison and, finally, his adoption by the author, Bonzi personifies Abbott’s mantra that redemption does not discriminate. Through his and other dogs’ inspiring stories, Abbott gets at the highs and lows of loving an animal we will inevitably outlive: the therapeutic balm of physical contact, the way a damaged rescue dog can become both our “albatross and purpose,” and the acute grief when a beast who loved us unconditionally finally dies.

“Inside prison, hatred and vitriol are in the air that you breathe; initiative and self-esteem are frowned on,” writes Shane Livingston, an imprisoned dog trainer who has since been released. “But when you get a dog and become a trainer, you are forced to reclaim your initiative, and sense of self-worth with it . . . You learn to let go of anger, to try to be better.”

Abbott’s profound emotional connection to this subject distinguishes it from her other biographies. She believes all dogs, no matter how ill or injured, need saving, and that we humans owe it to them to “trade with the gifts God gave us.” In her single-minded commitment to the cause, some readers may see zeal bordering on fanaticism. But she did indeed find happiness at both ends of the leash. And as someone whose adopted rescue dog also brought her joy (and eventual heartbreak), this reader is deeply grateful to her and others like her.

Maclean’s Magazine

People who cherish dogs will know they’re in good company as soon as they start reading Elizabeth Abbott‘s book Dogs and Underdogs: Finding Happiness at Both Ends of the Leash. On the very first page, she mentions spending summers with Mike the terrier and “his people.” The word “owner” never enters into it.

Abbott is an accomplished writer whose previous work has focused on history and sociology. But Dogs and Underdogs chronicles a more personal journey—that of becoming a dog rescuer.

The transformation begins in Haiti, with a dog named Tommy. After a book that she had written landed her in hot water with the Duvalier regime, Abbott was forced to flee the country and leave her beloved Tommy behind. She soon realized that if she ever wanted to see him again she was going to have to risk returning to Haiti. The story of their deliverance from the turmoil of Haiti to the relative calm of Toronto is as dramatic as it was life-changing.

“If there is such a thing as rebirth, then I was reborn after I returned to Haiti to rescue Tommy,” she says. “Before that, he’d been like all my other dogs, making my life simpler and better. But then, at the end of his life, my ailing old dog pulled me right into the heart of the mystery and magic of the shared world of dogs and humans. Tommy became an ambassador for other dogs and he led me to understand that I was meant to be a rescuer.”

Next, we meet the dogs of the Trinity College–Mount Sinai Hospital Pet Therapy Program—Abbott’s brainchild—which paired Trinity students and their canine companions with hospital patients. After reading about the political unrest in Haiti, a dog therapy program might seem anticlimactic, but when Abbott recalls Marilyn, an elderly, deaf golden retriever who helped a wheelchair-bound stroke victim, it’s hard not to feel moved:

At closer range I saw that the man was middle-aged and as still as a stone. Yet he was trying to reach out for Marilyn, willing his lifeless arm to move toward the soft white furry face now so close to him. … The man compelled his arm to move and, slowly and shakily, it crept down onto Marilyn’s head where it quivered as he tried to pet her. “Thank you!” his wife mouthed to me. “Thank you!”

We also meet Bonzi, a beagle who survived nearly impossible odds and even had an annual award named after him, and some of the street dogs of Serbia. Abbott worked with others to create a rescue program called Mission Airlift, which transported dogs out of Serbia and into adoptive homes in Canada.

There are many dogs who have come in and out of Abbott’s life, but the most touching moments are when she lingers on one particular dog and reminds us just how deep the human-animal bond can be.

Dogs and Underdogs can be purchased from Amazon Canada in hardcopy by U.S. and Canadian residents as well as for Kindle by Canadian residents.


Reading this book I had to keep reminding myself that it was not fiction, but reality. As an animal lover and pet parent it took me on a roller coaster of emotions.

Elizabeth Abbott had me glued to this book from the start as she tries to reunite with her beloved dog Tommy who had to be left behind in Haiti, back with her in Toronto. Any pet owner/lover will empathize with her passion, commitment and dedication.

My teary eyes and broken heart read about the abuse and abandonment some of these dogs went through. Don’t get me wrong, I’m the first one to avoid movies, TV shows and books that has any indication that an animal will be hurt or worse, but this book is truly an inspiration, teaching us what can be achieved with the help of people like Elizabeth and the dedication and hard work, very hard work, of the people she meets along the way.

Each chapter of this book gives you a deeper insight as to how dogs not only effect our lives, but how we can and do effect the lives of these dogs. From inside a prison, where both dog and inmate are brought together, technically saving each other, to the patient rooms and hallways of a Toronto hospital, all the way to post-war Serbia.

Elizabeth teaches us that no matter age, or physically challenges, these dogs are strong and have a place in this world, whether it be as a pampered pet inside someones home or as a proud therapy dog. Each dog has something to teach us and they all have a place in our hearts.

Pet owner or not, I can’t recommend Dogs & Underdogs enough. The stories and people in them are truly inspirational. I will never look at a rescued dog the same. Because of Elizabeth and her book, I will always wonder where this dog came from, what did it go through to get here, and could it have had any contact with Elizabeth or the vast network of the dedicated people she has met along her way.

For the love of dogs

Canadian writer and historian Elizabeth Abbott, MA’66, PhD’71, is best-known for her popular books about the history of human relationships (A History of Celibacy, A History of Mistresses, and A History of Marriage). In her latest book, Dogs and Underdogs: Finding Happiness at Both Ends of the Leash, she explores another – and deeply personal – relationship: the one she has had with a host of unwanted and abused dogs.

This vivid and heartfelt memoir begins in 1988, when Abbott was living in Haiti. A book she had written got her into serious trouble with the country’s Duvalier regime, and she was forced to flee, leaving behind her beloved dog, Tommy. As Haiti continued to be rocked by political turmoil, Abbott realized that the only way to be reunited with Tommy was to go back and rescue him.

“If there is such a thing as rebirth, then I was reborn after I returned to Haiti to rescue Tommy,” writes Abbott. “Before that, he’d been like all my other dogs, making my life simpler and better. But then, at the end of his life, my ailing old dog pulled me right into the heart of the mystery and magic of the shared world of dogs and humans.

“Tommy became an ambassador for other dogs and he led me to understand that I was meant to be a rescuer… Now that I am heading into the final chapters of my life, it is time to tell his story and the stories of those dogs who followed. It’s a tribute and memorial to him and to them, and to all the rescuers I have met along the way.”

With wit and passion, Abbott describes the array of canine companions that have shared their lives with hers. Early on we meet an English bulldog named Joey, who was Abbott’s constant companion while she was working on her doctorate at McGill, and provided solace during her unravelling marriage.

In 1991, Abbott’s appointment as Dean of Women at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College ushered in an exciting new chapter in her evolving relationship with dogs. Her brainchild – the Trinity College-Mount Sinai Hospital Pet Therapy Program, which ran from 1995 and 2007, brought together dozens of Trinity students and their canine companions with hundreds of the hospital’s patients. Here we encounter several more of Abbott’s dogs: Rachel, a scraggly old terrier with clouded blue eyes, and Marilyn Bell, a deaf golden retriever who gently helped a young stroke victim to regain movement of his arm.

Of the many canines that populate the pages of Abbott’s book, one in particular stands out: Bonzi, an endearingly spirited beagle mix, whose severely deformed front legs are a painful souvenir of the abuse he suffered as a young dog. After being rescued, Bonzi participated in the Second Chance at Life and Love Dog Training Program at an Ohio prison, a transformative experience for both dogs and trainers. In a letter to Abbott, one of the inmates wrote: “When you get a dog and become a trainer, you are forced to reclaim your initiative, and sense of self-worth with it. You learn to let go of anger, to try to be better.”

Abbott’s crusade to rescue homeless dogs encountered a new challenge in 2006, when she travelled to Serbia to launch her latest book at the Belgrade Book Fair. Here she met a fellow animal lover – the wife of a Canadian diplomat stationed there – and together they helped bring some of the city’s hundreds of homeless dogs, abandoned during the Serbian conflict, to Canada.

Believing that an equitable society is one that treats its animals with compassion, Abbott is campaigning on behalf of the Animal Alliance Environmental Voter’s Party in the October 2015 election. “This gives us an official platform to advocate for changes to how dogs – and all animals – are treated, from the transportation of animals to slaughter, to the seal hunt, to the operation of puppy mills.”

The book is drawing praise. In a recent review, Psychology Today credits Abbott with approaching her subject “with wit and passion,” adding that “Abbott digs down into the deepest roots of the human–animal bond, showing us that together people and dogs can find hope and happiness.”

Abbott feels that those of us who share our lives with dogs must not simply accept their loyalty. Each dog has something to teach us, and they all have a place in our hearts. We must reciprocate all that they give us; and that means accepting their frailties, their diseases and their needs – especially as they age.

“My life has been gloriously enriched by dogs. They have made it what it is, and without them this book would not have been written… So the ‘both ends of the leash’ theme of the subtitle runs through the whole book and, I hope, through my whole life as well. I wanted to acknowledge them and I wanted to understand our lives together, from their perspective as well as from mine.”

McGill News

Edie the Pug’s Blog

Endorsements of Dogs and Underdogs

“I love Dogs and Underdogs. The stories are touching and right. What a good heart! How I wish everyone cared for animals that much! The book is a delight.”

Ingrid Newkirk, President, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

“If you love dogs, if you love adventure, if you love honesty, if you love fine writing, then this is the book for you! I have rarely been as entranced as I was from the very first page. Abbott writes like an angel, and thinks like a true activist: if dogs could vote, she would be president tomorrow!”

Jeffrey Moussaief Masson, author of nine books on the emotional life of animals including the bestselling Dogs Never Lie About Love.

Dogs are in, and there are numerous books about the strong, enduring, and reciprocal bond that forms between them and us. Elizabeth Abbott’s Dogs and Underdogs is a gem, surely one of the best reads that clearly shows how dogs help and rescue us and we help and rescue them when we open our hearts to just whom they are and what they can do.

Marc Bekoff, author of Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence.

Abbott writes with knowledge and passion about the dogs she has known and loved. Her stories about a cast of canine characters from around the world highlight the challenges they have faced, but more than that, Dogs and Underdogs is a call to action that should convince every reader to follow Abbott’s lead in trying to help dogs. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Rob Laidlaw, author of award-winning No Shelter Here: Making the World a Kinder Place for Dogs, and director of Zoocheck Canada.

If you are a ‘dog person’ you will love this book which is often funny, and always moving and inspirational. If you don’t consider yourself a ‘dog person.’ you will enjoy it anyway. A fascinating story about an extraordinary life.

Maureen Jennings, dog lover and author of the bestselling Murdoch Mysteries.

The dogs in this book come to life as persons who share in the personal, physical and political worlds of the humans that care about them, and share the same vulnerabilities. We’re all in this together, Elizabeth Abbott shows us, through every change of situation in her own life. For me, this was more than a “my life with dogs” story, it is an epic of commitment and compassion that challenges me to think more carefully about the dogs that pass through my clinic and the shelter where I work.

Debra (Debbie) Tacium, DMV, shelter veterinarian at the SPA de l’Estrie in Sherbrooke, Quebec and animal-issues writer

Four decades of Elizabeth Abbott’s dog relationships and adventures come together in Dogs and Underdogs. The book is emotionally captivating and takes the reader on unimaginable real life journeys. What can Haiti, the University of Toronto, Ohio prisons, a Canadian hospital and Serbia all have in common? When it comes to Elizabeth Abbott – dogs of course! Attention dog lovers – curl up with this book – prepare to be moved.

Lorraine Houston, Director of Speaking of Dogs rescue organization

“Elizabeth Abbott makes her own dramatic life seem like an understatement to what these canine spirits have given her. They have given her much, but don’t be fooled. These tales unwittingly reflect back to the reader the person that is Elizabeth Abbott: splendid.”

Wayson Choy, author of award-winning The Jade Peony and Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood

Without doubt, dog’s best friend is Elizabeth Abbott, along with other dog rescuers world-wide.

Not only does she truly walk the walk, she writes with a tough mind, a tender heart and unquenchable passion about canine casualties of war, discarded mutts rehabilitated by discarded men—as well as previously unlucky dogs she has personally given a new leash on life. Come to think of it, Elizabeth Abbott is the dog-book lover’s best friend too.

Erika Ritter, author of The Dog by the Cradle, the Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships.

This book can be traced back to the moment a human first looked deep into the eyes of a wolf and saw–a friend. Others probably thought that person was crazy, but they weren’t. The kinship they recognized was firmly rooted in a shared social brain chemistry that would deepen into one of the most profound and life enhancing bonds on this planet. Thirty thousand years on, Elizabeth Abbott brings us a powerful reminder that dogs have always been worth our faith, our generosity, and even our heroics—because to rescue is to be rescued.

Meg Daley Olmert, documentary producer and author of Made For Each Other, The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond.

In “Dogs and Underdogs” Elizabeth Abbott takes us to many places around the world and allows us to see how a rescued dog can save the heart and mind of the dog’s rescuer. Some truly touching accounts here may well bring a tear to the reader’s eye and a smile to the reader’s lips.

Stanley Coren, author of bestselling and award-winning books including How Dogs Think, The Wisdom of Dogs, The Intelligence of Dogs and Why We Love the Dogs We Do.

Very Special Endorsement by Shane Livingston

(Shane was a prison dog trainer for years, and critiqued the relevant chapters of my book)

Late at night, sometime soon, someone will be closing your book in order to close their eyes to sleep. The deeper messages will have time to percolate in their minds. That’s the hallmark of a book with the ability to change minds!

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