In the two weeks on the farm, I learned more about the purity of animal companionship than I ever had before. Great Danes are capable of a bond to their person or people that has truly unmatched strength. A Dane doesn’t judge, won’t hold grudges and will always be happy to be near their person. Yet as strong as the bond is, that joined cord can still bruise from trust being broken or grow loose from training not enforced. The bond between a service Dane and their person, I learned, is a paradox of strength in the incredible amount of trust a dog has for their person and fragility in how easily a person can damage that cord. I learned it takes building blocks of mutual respect and unyielding commitment to communicate and express love to begin growing this connection. I can only pray that I’m doing this right with Ethel.
The first time Ethel wagged her tail when I pulled out her vest shattered my shield of pride and stubbornness. I have been alone, separated from my husband from deployments and training, for one third of my years being a paraplegic. Dusty prepared me the best he could before he would leave, stocking the kitchen with months of food and necessities, getting his friends and family to call daily to check on me, but there’s always the unexpected. I learned how to get myself through sinking, muddy fields to get back to my car, how to handle being locked out my apartment when I really had to pee, how to not freak out when I wake up with unusual back pain…. And how to still be happy when I’m all alone. Through this I developed a stubborn refusal to give up and a prideful determination to not rely on anyone. I sat firm in my independence and grew bitter at the looks of sympathy I received while struggling to carry groceries alone.
So when I saw Ethel looking at me with her blue eyes and wagging her tail because she saw her vest, I broke. She wanted to help me, but not because she felt sorry for me. She wanted to help me out of trust, training and hopefully love. She wasn’t judging me when I asked her to brace so I could reach something on the top shelf at Stop & Shop. She only wanted me to love on her and rub that spot under her ears. My prideful refusal to accept that anyone would respect my independence while giving me help was broken.
Our weekend alone at the guest house gave us a chance to go out on outings without supervision from the trainers, Meg and Kati. Dusty lined the backseat of our small car with fluffies and I packed a backpack with cookies, extra kibble, water with the attached water dish and her vest and leash. Ethel is still on steroids from her case of thrombocytopenia which causes her to drink a lot of water and frequently pant. We try to finish each outing with a water break and we bought a water bottle with an detachable doggy water dish so that we’d always have water for her.
The three of us left the guest house after breakfast and hopped in the car to do a few errands. By this time Ethel and I were pros at grocery stores, having gotten the hang of simultaneously telling her to “Leave it!” while navigating small pathways. We got what we needed for the week from Stop & Shop and then, for fun, headed to the nearest bookstore. Books were incredibly important to me growing up and continue to be a cornerstone in my life. I daily escaped into the simple worlds of Redwall or the American Girl Dolls, stories where the good guy will always win at the end. These stories gave me hope that only continued to grow as I passed from the Children’s section to Young Adult to finally simply Fiction. Leading Ethel through the colorful bookshelves of Barnes & Noble was a cementing variable to our relationship; I wanted to take her somewhere so special to me so that she could share it too.
Now, some people would say that a dog knowing what a bookstore is could be crazy but Ethel was simply serene as we wandered in between the shelves. People commented left and right as they passed, a little shocked at seeing a black and white animal flopped out on the floor of their bookstore, but we were happy. She braced so that I could reach titles on the top shelves and then flopped down to sleep while I took a minute to read. With Dusty by my side, reading his woodworking manuals, and Ethel’s paws in my wheels, I felt that true happiness that only comes from true peace in a person’s heart.
To the end of the second week on the farm, we tested our abilities with trainer Kati and volunteer Margaret by taking the Boston T (train) out of Beverly station. I fell in love with public transportation in Europe; the convenience, the availability and the cleanliness of German public transportation is unmatched in my opinion to anywhere else in Europe.
When we first moved to Germany, we stayed at the base hotel for two months while we tried to find an apartment. The base was at the top of a steep hill and there was a train station in the town at the bottom. The first week we arrived, we were already planning for what adventure we were going to try that weekend. In those two months, we didn’t spend any of the eight weekends in town. We saw villages and castles and drank German beer out of steins while eating pretzels like the genuine tourists we were. But on Sunday nights, when we were exhausted and dirty and let me repeat, absolutely exhausted, we learned that the buses going from the train station to the base stopped running early. We’d pull in to the town below the base at 10 o’clock at night, waking up from catching a quick nap on the ride to the realization that we’d have to walk the mile back home, up the hill. Well, Dusty would have to walk the mile home. He’d shoulder his rucksack full of everything we had used during the weekend (let me pause here to point out that for a female paraplegic, being able to share just one backpack with everything that’s needed for a weekend is very hard to do), tighten his belt for me to grab onto and begin to trudge forward. Every Sunday night, because we kept saying to ourselves “Oh, we can walk home, it’ll be fine. It’s totally worth staying later here at blank so that we can eat more blank”, he’d lift foot by foot to drag me hanging onto his belt behind him up the steep mile back home in the dark. So when we looked for an apartment, our priority was to find one next to a hauptanhof (train station).
And we did. A fabulous apartment close to grocery stores, bike trails and just a block away from the trains. Trains in Germany are all accessible and very clean. Almost all the stations in the major cities of Germany will have a lift to get down to the trains (something we found, the hard way, that is VERY VERY rare for Europe. I saw one station with an elevator in all of the train stations of our travels to Italy, for example) and will have handicapped seating in a roomy cabin on the train. With a German issued disability ID, riding that local trains are free for you and your companion. When I received my ID, we took advantage of this amazing opportunity as often as we could. We rode trains to Berlin, Heidelberg, Octoberfest, Frankfurt and countless Christmasmarkets (Christmas festivals celebrated all over Germany during the holiday season) in a countless number of villages. I could ride the trains by myself easily and preferred the trains over driving.
So learning how to be on a train with Ethel was very important to me. I love to travel, live to travel and I want to be able to share that with her whether we drive or fly or train. We climbed the raised platform for boarding the train and waited for it to arrive, enjoying chatting with Kati and Margaret and the two dogs they were training. Ethel’s very funny to watch when she’s with other dogs, whether or not she has her vest on. She’ll watch the other dogs run around or in this case wag tails and slobber goofily and then she’ll look up at me with a glance that says, “How disgraceful. It would behoove them to take this more seriously,” and then turn her head away like she just can’t handle their nonsense. That’s my girl.
When the train came, all three dogs shook and cowed from the incredible noise. We waited for one of the conductors to bring out that steel transportable ramp so I could board. The cabin openings were narrow and cramped with the tracks underneath visible on either side of the walkway. But the cabin itself opened up to a wider space next to the aisle for wheelchair seating and with direction from Kati, I gave Ethel the “Back Up!” command to back herself in the space in between the seat and my wheelchair for her to lay down. And as the incredibly professional service dog that she is, she backed up, laid down and crossed her paws like a lady as she waited for the train to start. I, however, kept dropping my sunglasses and sliding forward because I forgot to brake my chair, like the klutz that I am. But the ride was smooth and the other passengers and conductor were friendly.
Ethel and I learned that we are more than ready to start traveling on our own and I couldn’t be prouder. Let’s take on the world, girl.