14-year-old handler’s cerebral palsy doesn’t stop him from competing in the world’s most famous dog show

By Helin Jung
Updated February 08, 2010 09:00 PM

The Westminster Kennel Club dog show is almost upon us! So, every day this week we’re bringing you the personal stories of some of the dogs participating in the show (held in New York City on Feb. 15 & 16). First up, Vala the Australian Canaan dog, who has an unusual connection to his teenage handler.

When 14-year-old Ethan Miller enters a show ring, unfamiliar judges often ask him to hold the leash with his left hand instead of his right. What they don’t know is that Ethan has cerebral palsy in his left side, and is restricted to walking his Australian Canaan dog Vala with his right hand.

Ethan and Vala have a special bond, one greater than that of dog and handler, because 4-year-old Vala can detect Ethan’s seizures. Though advances in medication have allowed Ethan to be seizure-free of late, Vala used to alert Ethan and his mother, Chris Miller, to an oncoming seizure two minutes before it happened.

“There’s that extra trust factor that he has with the dog,” Miller tells PEOPLEPets.com. “He knows that the dog understands him and his uniqueness.” Their connection has developed into a silent form of communication in the ring. “It’s a beautiful thing. They truly work as a team.”

Ethan and his mother will be the only non-professional competitors in the Canaan dog group at the Westminster Dog Show next week, but they still have a good feeling about Vala’s chances. After all, “Westminster is the show of upsets,” as Miller says.

Even if they don’t win in New York, Ethan won’t be too devastated; showing is just a hobby for the baseball-loving pitcher who dreams of becoming a professional player someday.

Vala’s vitals:
Formal name: Aust & Am Ch D&J Ha’Aretz Vertigo at River Rock
Breed: Canaan Dog
Group: Herding
Hometown: Conyers, Ga.
Age: 4
First time showing: Yes