Westminster Competitor Alert to Handler's Commands and Health

Vala will be alert to his handler's commands and his health.

February 9, 2010, 3:57 PM

Feb. 12, 2010 — -- Vala has a collar full of ribbons, just like the hundreds of other dogs that will be competing next week at the prestigious Westiminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

But unlike the pampered pooches who will be busy getting their fur styled and their nails clipped before the competition kicks off Monday, Vala will be focused on only one thing: her handler.

The young man on the other end of Vala's leash is 14-year-old Ethan Miller, who trusts his life to the instincts of his award-winning dog.

Ethan, who has cerebral palsy, is one of just a couple of disabled handlers who will lead their dogs around the ring this Monday and Tuesday at New York City's Madison Square Garden. It's expected to be a sold out show.

His mother, Chris, told ABCNews.com that the 4-year-old Canaan has alerted her to her son's seizures on "more than one occasion.

"One time, about a minute and a half before the first onset of the seizure, Vala started walking back and forth between me and Ethan and was clearly trying to indicate that I needed to come help," she said. "I knew what Vala was trying to tell me."

Miller said that while medication has largely controlled Ethan's symptoms in the past few years, Vala's early detection allows her son to get in a safe place or position before the seizures occur.

"It helps to prevent him from hurting himself with a fall," said Miller, who said that even though seizures tend to last only 20 to 50 seconds, they seem like an "eternity when you're a mom."

"It's very comforting for me, as a mother," said Chris Miller, who is coming to New York from the family's home and kennel in Conyers, Ga. "It also helps Ethan a lot. He is able to relax and lie down when he knows [the seizures] are coming."

Ethan told ABCNews.com that the bond that he has formed with Vala is more than just a boy and his dog.

"I would consider her more than my best friend," said Ethan. "She's just so nice. Her personality is great, and she's never mean. She loves me."

Ethan said, "I do believe Vala knows me very well."

The Canaan breed is known for being very attuned and empathetic to their owners. According to Chris Miller, the breed's natural instincts are often stronger than those of more domesticated breeds.

Vala is not only a lifesaver, she has style. Vala is currently the No. 2 dog of her breed, and if she wins the Canaan group best in breed award Monday, she will go on to compete in the Herding group later that evening.

Ethan Miller Heads to Westminster With Vala

Chris Miller said her son had a brain infection in the womb that later caused his cerebral palsy. He had undergone several surgeries to help improve his motor function but still has limited use of his left side.

Ethan has always responded well to dogs, and especially to Vala.

"Ethan is very shy," his mother, 40, said. "Vala really helps his confidence level. When you get Ethan to a dog show and he's there with Vala, all of a sudden he's just a social butterfly."

Ethan may not be the most skilled dog handler. Ethan and his mother are both what Westminster Kennel Club considers "unprofessional handlers," and often have to show with some of the most seasoned handlers on the circuit.

While Ethan's disability isn't always noticeable at first, his mother said that at times his inability to use his left hand can land him in a tricky situation with the judges.

"Typically at a dog show, the dog is presented on your left side, so you would hold the leash in the left hand," said Miller. "But Ethan doesn't have the fine motor skills to do that, so he has to hold the leash in his right hand."

"Many judges ask him if he could please hold Vala on his left side, and he just says 'no,' and explains why," said Miller. "He takes it stride, and the judges usually apologize."

Miller said that she and her husband were devastated when they learned Ethan had cerebral palsy, and worried about the challenges he'd face in life.

"He never crawled. He couldn't use his weight on his left side to crawl," remembers Chris Miller. "But to watch him, even as a baby, make exceptions for his disability was incredible. He'd scoot on his butt instead."

"Basically from then on we never treated him like he has a disability and never limited him in trying the things he wanted to," she said.

Ethan and Vala One of a Handful of Disabled Duos at Dog Show

There are no age limitations for handlers at the dog show, and David Frei, the spokesman for the competition, said that while there are usually only a few disabled handlers with disabilities who compete, it's not unheard of.

"We have one or two that we know of every year whose dogs are not only their show dogs and their loving family dogs, but also their service dogs," said Frei.

"Madison Square Garden presents special challenges for every handler. You're standing in front of a sold out audience, and it takes some courage," said Frei. "But here's a young man who faces life every day with a great amount of courage and thanks to this dog he's able to deal with that."

"To be able to come to the dog show and participate in an activity with the dog that he loves and who has dedicated her life to him, what better way to compete?" said Frei.

Ethan couldn't agree more. Asked what he's hoping for at the competition, Ethan said he just really wants Vala to win best of breed.

After that, Ethan's ready to enjoy his first trip to New York.

"I'm not necessarily going to be disappointed if we don't win. Going to Westminster is a great accomplishment," said Ethan.

Ethan also offered advice to other children like him, encouraging them to try things they might otherwise not think they're capable of doing.

"It hasn't always been easy for me," he said. "But even if you have a disability, it doesn't mean you just stop and don't try. You keep on trying. I kept going."

A fourth generation dog handler in his family, Ethan was happy to follow in the footsteps of his family and has actually beome quite competitive, said his mother, who often has to show dogs in the same ring as Ethan and Vala. In addition to the competition, Ethan had found comfort in the dog show community.

"The fraternity of dog show people is a wonderful place," said Chris Miller, who has been a breeder and a dog handler for most of her life.

"There are a lot of people who know us and know Ethan's story that when he wins, he's got a cheering section," she said. "They aren't so much cheering for Vala as they are for him."