For Sonja, two weeks in a PAWS caravan wasn't just about her love of animals - it was a personal journey of discovery about herself.
Sonja Lintunen from Finland was 26 and had worked as a sales woman in Scandinavia's biggest electronics company for eight years. It was a good job, well-paid - but it wasn't enough. Something was missing. She felt stuck in her job and in her own life too. She had always wanted to travel, but a casual conversation with the barman in her local gave her the impetus to put an extra ingredient into her journey abroad - do some volunteer work along the way.
"He had travelled through Europe many times, volunteering at different projects, and he found it really worthwhile. I also knew that just hanging out is fun for a while, but I would eventually need something concrete to do with my days. The decision to work with animals was easy. so I began searching the internet for shelters, and PAWS came up very soon. I looked at several other options but I knew that PAWS was the right place to go - I had really liked it from the start."
And from day she arrived she knew she had made the right choice. All through her childhood Sonja's shyness had left her feeling shut out of the natural groups which youngsters form. She went through some difficult times in adolescence, but she survived. But how would she fit in, having to work and share living space 24/7 in a caravan with others she had never met?
"Nobody cared what had gone before, they just accepted me. It was such a relief, and in a way life-changing, to just let go and do something I truly loved and just be me. All the caravan volunteers got along very well. After work we would sit out for hours just talking, and I felt safe to open up to them." "At PAWS I immediately felt that I mattered, that what I was doing was worth something. I felt like I belonged. I became so happy, happier than I have been in many years. The physical work and the so-lovely, super dogs ... sometimes they made me cry from sheer happiness inside. I shouldn't have worried beforehand about fitting in - everyone was there for the same reason, the true love of animals. The other caravan girls, the staff and the local volunteers were all so nice and kind.
Two years previously Sonja had taken her love of animals to a new level, embarking on a spare-time course in dog and animal behaviour and training. She really liked the school at which she was learning because it never used harsh or hard treatment. She learned a great deal, although she couldn't complete the exams. "Because I'm dyslexic the essays were just too much. But for me the important thing was what I learned and not the piece of paper at the end of it."
That learning was about to be put to a severe test. For the past year PAWS has suffered a continual deluge of "dumped" puppies - unwanted offspring cruelly abandoned because dog owners couldn't be bothered to have them neutered. Most of them, after a spell in quarantine, ended up in the hunting block, and this is where she was sent to work.
However a young dog in the area, Elf, became a bit of problem, with a tendency to bully the pups. After one incident the staff separated him and put him in with a group of mature dogs, where he seemed happier with no young puppies getting on his nerves all the time. Sonja began to spend some one-to-one time with him and a bond began to grow between them. "I melted towards him, I realised as I got to know him better that behind that hard shell was just an insecure dog who had been bullied himself at some previous time. And from being my least favourite at first he became the dog I loved most of all" "With 15 puppies and three adult dogs you can imagine how loud it was when they all started barking, especially in the morning before feeding. And the amount of poo which came from the pups was unbelievable! The cleaning was constant, never-ending. It was difficult at first before the puppies got to know me - they scratched me from jumping up looking for attention all the time, and they chewed my clothes and pulled at my hair. I didn't mind, I loved it all! And they became more relaxed and easier as time passed - I loved them all, every one of them."
"When the day finally came to leave, I just couldn't stop the tears from flowing. I couldn't believe I wouldn't see "my" puppies again. I said goodbye to them all and although I loved every one of them it helped to know that they would be safe and really well cared for when I was gone. I missed PAWS every single day of my remaining travels, but one of the other girls wrote to me a week later to tell me they were all doing great, and she would be travelling back with several of the puppies on the transport to Holland. Sonja had planned four weeks travelling around Andalucia after her volunteer stint at PAWS was over. But when the time came to leave she just couldn't tear herself away. "I felt I wasn't finished with the experience yet. Another volunteer was arriving to take over my bed in the caravan, but with (Shelter Manager) Yvonne's agreement the other girls were happy for me to sleep on the couch for an extra five days.
"Looking back on that amazing time, I now know what I want to do with my life, at least for the next few years. I plan to do more travelling and will look for different animal shelters along the way at which to vounteer. But I doubt if I will ever find such a special place again anywhere. PAWS has been my steady rock, and will contine to be so. And of course I want to come back to PAWS!"