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Pets Large & Small

Animals know more than we give them credit for

Jennifer Vanderau
Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter

(12/2011) So I had shingles in my eye. Can you imagine this? Oh my stars, it hurt so bad there were moments the pain took my breath away.

I swear, I don't know what I've done to make my body react the way that it does.

Getting old stinks.

I'm sure you're asking, "What in the world do shingles in the eye have to do with animals?" Yeah, it's amazing to me when worlds collide like this, too.

The connection came, believe it or not, at the optometrist's office. I ran into a wonderful woman who works there named Cheryl. On my way out the door, she asked if she could tell me the story of her shelter dog. Naturally, I said yes. Happy stories about animals always make me feel good and I figured that could combat the pain of shingles in the eye.

Well, believe it or not, Cheryl adopted her dog 19 to 20 years ago from the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter. I remember getting a bit of a chill up my spine and thinking, what an amazingly small world.

She said she went into the shelter knowing that she couldn't just pick the cutest one. She'd actually read a book about how to pick a pound puppy and she understood that the animal's personality had mesh well with her home. Cheryl definitely went in with the right attitude.

She found a 9-month-old guy named Willy, who was a Cocker Spaniel mix, and she liked him a lot, but wanted to be sure. She took a couple of different dogs out to walk and get to know them and went home to think about it.

It just so happened that this was around the time the movie "Free Willie" had come out (great movie if you haven't seen it already), so her kids were convinced that they had to "free" this Willy. Adorable!

Needless to say, Cheryl and her family returned for Willy.

At this point in the story, Cheryl explained to me that she has a special needs daughter, named Katie, who suffers from seizures. When they first brought Willy home and her daughter had a seizure, Willy barked. Cheryl said she remembers thinking, "Okay, calm down, let's not make the situation any more difficult."

Eventually, Cheryl began to realize that Willy wasn't trying to hinder the family -- in fact, he was trying to help.

Willy was using that special "canine" sense that a lot of dogs have to anticipate when Katie was going to have a seizure. He actually got to the point where he would alert the family before it happened. Cheryl said he slept with her daughter every night and would wake everyone up to let them know of Katie's condition.

Katie and Willy were inseparable.

It's amazing to me that Willy, a shelter dog who someone else had given up on, was able to be such a treasure to Cheryl's family -- with absolutely no training. It's like he knew exactly what he had to do and what he was meant to do for his new family.

Two months ago, they had to say goodbye to Willy. Poignantly, he started experiencing seizures of his own and the family had to make the decision to end his suffering. Despite how difficult it is to say goodbye to a beloved pet, I think it's utterly incredible that Willy lived to be 19.

I know Cheryl and her family are hurting and missing their boy terribly, but his job may not be completely finished. I have a feeling I was supposed to hear about Willy.

When I left the optometrist's office, I remember wondering if maybe Willy knew what he was doing all along. Did Willy know he belonged with that family to help Katie? Did Willy stay with them for 19 years because he had such an important purpose?

Sometimes I think our animals know and understand more than we give them credit for.

These are the kinds of stories that keep us going at CVAS. When we have bad days, we have to look at the glass as half full and we have to focus on the animals that we can save and sometimes, we are provided a story where the ones we save truly help save others.

Additionally, Cheryl knew when she found Willy that this was a lifetime commitment and she had to be sure she chose wisely. Indeed, she chose perfectly.

But I have to take my pondering one step further. Was I meant to hear this story to keep me going? Did I have eye problems right when I needed to? Was the pain I suffered from my condition supposed to take me to the optometrist so I could be reminded of my greater purpose? Is telling it now helping you somehow?

The holidays are a time for reflection and family and warm sentiments and feelings and I think Willy's story is perfect for this time of year.

I don't think Willy's job will ever be done, as long as someone remembers what he did and shares it with others. So, help me keep this powerful tribute going and let others know what I told you.

Isn't it amazing how something so incredible can come from having eye problems? Remember that as you experience the twinkling lights of the season and feel the holiday cheer and keep your eyes open for the every day miracles that may seem small, but are, truly, all around us.

Jennifer Vanderau is the Director of Communications for the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter in Chambersburg, Pa., and can be reached at The shelter accepts both monetary and pet supply donations. For more information, call the shelter at (717) 263-5791 or visit the website

Read other articles by Jennifer Vanderau