There were a few things about owning a Great Dane that came as quite a shock to me over the weeks at the farm. For one, I was very surprised by just how large Ethel’s poops were. It’s not that I’d never spent time with big dogs before. In light of the newest additions to the Service Dog Project from the Netherlands, I’d like to share my experience of when I truly knew what “big” meant for dogs.
We left Germany last Thanksgiving to share the holiday with some of Dusty’s treasured friends from college. They were also stationed in Europe and were currently residing in Italy, working with education and outdoor recreation for soldiers and their families. We joined them in the northern reaches of Italy, where they were helping to host a group of soldiers having a skiing holiday in the Italian Alps.
I drove through the most hairpin turns I’d ever experienced as we navigated the Alps to reach our friends, my GPS route looking more like a crazy straw than a route. If GPS’s could laugh, I swear mine was. Due to the horrendous nature of Germany traffic (our town Stuttgart was called Stou-gart, in German stou= traffic jam), we always left for our road trips at 2 or 3 a.m. and were well on our way before most of the back-ups could happen. At the time, we thought this strategy was genius. Instead of leaving at 6p.m. on Friday night like everyone else to only sit in traffic for four hours, we had dinner with friends and frighteningly amounts of coffee to leave in the early morning. Again, genius. Or so we thought until we began driving in the dawn light through the ice and snow on the tiny, windy roads of the Alps.
By God’s grace and my terrified determination to go 20km below the speed limit, we made it alive to Cervino, Italy. I had never heard of Cervino, but I knew the town by the more familiar and infamous name of Matterhorn Mountain. This mountain lies on a range directly on the country lines of Italy and Switzerland. On the Italian side, the mountain and town are called Cervino. On the Swiss side, it is Matterhorn Mountain and its’ town of Zermatt that can only be accessed in the winter by train. The group our friends were helping to host was to take soldiers and their families up to this incredible mountain from the Italian side and have a Thanksgiving weekend of skiing in both Italy and Switzerland.
Both the Cervino and Matterhorn regions of the same mountain have very distinct and defined traditions concerning drink, clothes, language, music and dance. In Italy, we learned about the local drink coppa dell’ amicizia, the cup of friendship, a shared wooden bowl called the grolla with spouts to pass along the table so that everyone can partake in the coffee liquor that is set aflame when served.
The Italians we stayed with were warm and welcoming, even trying to serve a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner to us. But both the Italian and the Switzerland side have a shared, revered tradition of loving and using the esteemed service dog the St. Bernard.
These beautiful, long haired bear cub-like dogs freely roamed the ski lodges up on the mountains. I didn’t ski that weekend, but Dusty took videos and photos for me of the ski lodge St. Bernard’s that still protect the explorers of the mountain today. (See pictures and videos of that weekend Here!) The architecture of this area, including the ski lodges placed strategically along ski routes down the mountain, include white stone ground floors of houses and then dark, wooden planks crisscrossed the last half above the white stone. Entrances were usually not accessible, each doorway was elevated in preparation for the inevitable snow and contained a few steps to enter. But in the doorways of many were these beautiful, big fluffy bear dogs watching the people pass by. In one house, however, was the dog known throughout the town as being the largest, gentlest creature in the region. He was a St. Bernard as well and without knowing his weight, I’d guess he was at least three times as large as I was. I had not been to the Service Dog Project Crazy Acres yet, so I didn’t know that it could truly get better, but at that moment I learned how a big hearted, big dog could make my own heart sing.
And so it was the two weeks I spent with Ethel at the farm. Her presence, her personality and her big eyes carved a permanent spot in my heart as large as her own heart patch on her shoulder.
The final piece for me, however, was when I understood what it meant for me to regain my freedom and my independence from her help. Before Ethel, I was capable of being fairly independent of any caregiving. It may take me multiple trips to get all the groceries I need, but I could do it. I had learned the hard way about all the warning signs for medical concerns and had built a strong preventive care routine. But my independence was only possible when I had a calm, sound mind. My Achilles heel is anxiety, a crippling anxiety I’d struggled with before I became a paraplegic and that would overwhelm me whenever I was separated from my husband. The Army has given us plenty of months apart after I became a paraplegic and in these circumstances, it would exhaust me to have a handle on my anxiety long enough for me to care for myself. My battle turned into a metaphor of trying to hold three screaming, wriggling babies; my anxiety, my medical needs and whatever was demanded of me from life and school.
So the first weekend we were alone on the farm, Dusty and I wanted to do an experiment. I would go shopping, alone, with Ethel in the mall while Dusty would be somewhere in another store. He’d be close enough to come running if anything was needed but it would give me a chance to see what it was like handling her, and myself, without the extra set of eyes and hands. So Ethel and I said goodbye to Dusty at the entrance to the Danvers mall and she and I headed to Old Navy, the mission being to collect shirts and sweatshirts to be embroidered with the SDP logo to give to family. People watched us as we strolled to the store, but my eyes were on Ethel. I wouldn’t know if anyone said anything, I never stopped talking to Ethel. “Good pace,” I happily hummed to her. “Stay with me, sweet girl, good pace, good pace.” There were only a few times I needed to tell her to “Easy! (slow down)” or “Leave it! (stop sniffing around and pay attention!)” before we were at the store.
For anyone unfamiliar with Old Navy, there’s always a plastic dog mannequin standing at the entrance with his plastic, mannequin owners. Animals (and people) standing perfectly still, I learned, is a reason to be alarmed for a dog. It usually means the animal is about to or could attack making the dog alert and defensive. That’s why there’s an eccentrically dressed mannequin who greets you at the gate of the Service Dog Project farm and several mannequin animals placed throughout the grounds. When we entered Old Navy, the mannequin family of four with their small dog gave us a frozen wave and Ethel tried to steer me in the other direction towards the cash registers. “Nope, we’re going left!”, I directed.
And we started to browse, her patient steps going the pace I wanted and giving me the chance to happily dream of wearing all the clothes.
Other shoppers began to approach us or comment when they went past. An older lady walked towards us and I felt my grip on Ethel stiffen and my head drop. Before I knew whether or not she was approaching me or the stacks of clothes behind me, I was already resenting her presence. I was already bracing myself to hear some of the terrible things people have said to me in the past (“You can’t possibly go shopping by yourself. You need some help. Here, let me get that for you, I can’t believe there’s no one helping you.”) and I mentally shielded myself when she opened her mouth. “Well aren’t you just the most precious service dog I’ve ever seen! Well, my stars isn’t he big.” She smiled at me, chuckled and walked away.
I was confused. It was like she didn’t even notice I was in a wheelchair. People ALWAYS notice I’m in a wheelchair and they make sure I know I’m in a wheelchair while they’re at it. Maybe this was just a fluke. Maybe.
But it kept happening. All throughout the store, no one noticed me since their eyes were only on Ethel. She took all their attention and all the comments (“What a great horse you have there! Such a beautiful dog. Love your pony!”) were geared towards her. I was invisible. I was unnoticed. I was safe. Ethel was doing more than bracing for me so I could reach that cute sweater on the top rack, she was protecting me. She was acting as a social barrier for me so I could finally feel … just like anyone else shopping. Not someone different.
I was physically independent before pairing with Ethel. But only as long as my heart and mind felt safe. And in a world of constant fear, pain and struggle, feeling safe is a cherished moment that I previously only knew with my husband’s presence. Until now. Until I learned that safety is holding onto the dog that is giving me my life back. That safe can be spelled E-t-h-e-l.