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Pets Large & Small

Pet Therapy

Jennifer Vanderau
Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter

(9/2012) Part of my job with the shelter includes pet therapy visits to nursing homes throughout the area. It really is one of my favorite aspects of what I do.

The concept is quite simple. Studies have shown that cuddling with animals can actually reduce stress in people. So I find some four-legged souls here at the shelter with the right temperament to provide momentary respite for people and we head out to nursing homes. And believe me, many of the folks I talk with are quite happy to see me and my furry friends coming down the hall.

A few years ago I met a fellow that I simply must tell you about. He provided me quite the life lesson.

I met Harry at one of the local nursing homes because the staff suggested I stop by and talk to him since they knew he was a real animal-lover.

My friend Harry enjoyed dogs. Always had. And he’d spent his life with a number of canines over the years.

He loved to tell me about the fox terrier he trained to jump through a hoop. He said it took him less than a half hour. He’d also dress the pooch up in hats. Harry would always grin and say the dog didn’t mind.

Part of the reason I liked visiting with Harry so much, beyond the fact that we’re both like-minded animal-lovers, was that he was always able to make me laugh. Harry had one of the greatest attitudes I’ve ever been around. No matter what life threw at him, he told me he liked to leave people with a chuckle. And I think if you can hold onto that temperament for as long as he had, it’s quite an accomplishment. When I have bad days, I try to think of Harry so I can smile. And I hope I can continue that for the rest of my life.

One time Harry told me that the two things that keep him going are "faith and a good sense of humor." See? How awesome.

Well, his favorite story to tell me revolved around two of his dogs he had almost 20 years ago, named Laurel and Holly. He told me everyone would say, "Oh Laurel and Hardy. How cute."

After a while, Harry would shake his head and just agree. He said it was easier than explaining the names.

Laurel and Holly were mixed breeds. He thought they may have had some retriever in them, but they were just wonderful pets. And Harry loved them dearly.

One night, though, Laurel and Holly showed Harry how much they loved him.

Harry was such a great story-teller. When he spun a tale, you could almost see the action play out in your head. Allow me to demonstrate.

Harry said it was literally the middle of the night and he was awakened by a very low growling coming from the side of the bed – where his loyal companions always slept. This set off Harry’s instincts because it was odd. They’d never done this before. So he sat up in bed and quietly asked, "What’s wrong, girls?"

The dogs immediately stood and softly moved to the door of his bedroom.

At this point, Harry figured they knew more than he, so he followed them.

The one thing Harry remarked to me about that night is he’d never known his dogs to be so quiet. He said the three of them literally crept down the stairs and the dogs took him through the kitchen to the door that lead out to the garage -- almost silently. At this point, Harry said the dogs’ hackles were raised, but they didn’t emit a sound.

Once again, Harry’s instincts followed the warning his dogs were giving and he reached across the counter to silently pull a knife out of the drawer. Taking a deep breath, he slowly turned the knob and swung the door wide, allowing Laurel and Holly to leap – snarling and growling and barking up a storm now – into the garage.

He found, much to his (and anyone’s) horror, a man trying to cut the screen out of one of his windows. The dogs raced to the other side of the garage and set up such a frightening racket the shocked, would-be burglar raced for his life across the lawns through the neighborhood.

Harry said he never thought his dogs were capable of what he saw that night, but he supposed they were just protecting their family. He laughed about it, saying, "I bet that guy never thought he’d be face to face with that!"

Circumstances in his life led Harry to have to say goodbye to Laurel and Holly. Harry said one of the toughest days of his life was watching the car with those girls in the backseat pull out of his driveway. He said the dogs watched him until they couldn’t see him anymore.

One of my last visits with Harry just last week found him reflective and contemplative. We had some thought-provoking conversation about the nature of the world and how different it’s become in such a short time, especially since he'd been a boy. We spoke again of Laurel and Holly and I think he was surprised I remembered his story.

I told him, "Harry, I tell a lot of people that story. I think it’s amazing."

He agreed.

Eventually, I had to head out and Harry gave the pooch I’d brought with me a final pat goodbye. Then he looked at me and said something I think is remarkably profound and poignant.

He asked me if I wanted to know the secret of life. Naturally, because it was coming from Harry, I nodded enthusiastically.

He leaned back in his chair and with his hand on the dog’s head, Harry said, "Here it is. In the end, what really matters, is to have a handful of true friends you can trust, and a whole lot of memories of wonderful, loyal dogs."

I haven't seen Harry in a long while and I imagine he has since passed away, but I still remember those words. To this day when I remember them, I think, amen, Harry. I couldn't have said it better myself.

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