The Underdogs by Melissa Fay Greene & Esther the Wonder Pig by Steve Jenkins & Derek Walter with Caprice Crane

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Two-time National Book Award-winner Melissa Fay Green illuminates the stories of courageous children and the dogs who become their best friends in The Underdogs. And as a bonus, we feature Esther the Wonder Pig, who is now encouraging a vegan lifestyle through her farm sanctuary.

Your dog did it again. You were just thinking about going for a walk and he started bouncing before you said a word. He hopes to share your snack before you even realize you’re hungry, and he often beats you to bed. Your dog knows you perhaps better than he knows himself, and in The Underdogs by Melissa Fay Greene, you’ll see how that could be a real lifesaver.

Karen Shirk had always loved dogs but as a college student, she had other things on her mind until the sunny afternoon when she fell flat on the sidewalk and ended up in ICU, diagnosed with a neuromuscular disease that would put her in a wheelchair. Depressed, bored, and uninterested in life, Shirk figured her days would be spent in that chair–until she was urged to get a service dog. When Shirk couldn’t find or secure one that was already trained, her caregiver told her to train one of her own.

That led Shirk to Ben, a German shepherd who bonded with her so tightly that he literally saved her life one night. Energized and with purpose, she was soon out of the wheelchair, and she knew she wanted to give others–children, in particular–the benefits of canine helpers. She founded 4 Paws for Ability, a non-profit organization that trains dogs for people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to a four-footed assistant.

Without a Goldendoodle named Casey, for example, young Connor would have felt as though he had no friends. Little Lucy, suffering from PTSD, didn’t want a dog; she was afraid that her parents might love a dog more than they loved her, and that was scary. Logan didn’t know he needed Juke or the tracking skills that Juke possessed. Iyal’s father was against a 4 Paws helper until he saw the change that Chancer made in his son. And Shirk herself, a lover of big dogs, never thought that a little one would capture her heart.

If you’re a dog lover, it should come as no surprise that your dog (and dogs in general) can do amazing, wonderful things, and yet, says author Melissa Fay Greene, science has been slow to concur. In The Underdogs, she explores that eked acceptance and how canine emotions and intelligence go hand-in-paw with the work that service dogs do.

Greene is a renowned novelist, and this work of non-fiction often reads like a novel. Normally, I think that would be fine but we’re given physical descriptions of every person we meet in this book, as well as a lot of conjecture that gets in the way of a story that could easily stand by itself.

Still, there’s no dog-person in the world that wouldn’t be able to find treats inside this book, and that includes me, who actually enjoyed it, overall. If you need more fodder for your dogs-are-best stance, The Underdogs will make you howl.
And as pet lovers, we know that getting a new pet is fun. There will be laughs, joys, and playtime and well, of course, there’ll be sleepless nights, little messes, and broken possessions. In the new book Esther the Wonder Pig by Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter with Caprice Crane, those are the easy surprises.

Steve Jenkins knew his partner, Derek, would be angry. He knew they should have talked about it first, but when a friend offered Jenkins a six-month-old “mini-pig,” well, seriously, who could resist? Not Jenkins; he was a lifelong animal lover and besides, she said the piglet wouldn’t grow much.

Yes, Derek was angry, but not for long; he fell for the pink face, too, and so that little piggy stayed home, until a veterinarian told Jenkins that Esther was no mini, that she’d grow to outweigh both men and, well, it was a shock. Never mind that Esther had terrible housebreaking issues that almost caused her banishment.

It was true that their house was a permanent mess, but Jenkins and Derek couldn’t bear to think about giving up their “baby.” Esther was charming, smart, and sweet-tempered, a part of the family. But as Esther grew, so did the problems. Keeping a hoofed animal was illegal in their Canadian town and Esther’s size meant they couldn’t hide her anymore. Once they’d created a Facebook page for her, her story was picked up by major newspapers and they knew the jig was up.
Esther’s dads understood that her story was changing lives, both animal and human, which brought them to tears and a realization: their big girl had a big personality. Was it time to take her along on a big dream, too? Esther, today, is a spokes… uh, pig for the bettering of the lives of farm animals and the encouragement of a vegan lifestyle. Because of this tale and their Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary, fewer little piggies (and cows and chickens) go to market. ■