Ethel and I now have vocal communication throughout the day. She grumbles, I joke, she barks, I answer. She pants to tell me how much she hates being outside in the Missouri heat or she’ll stand by the refrigerator to tell me that I haven’t given her nearly enough of the peanut butter ice cubes she knows are in the freezer. As soon as I open our front door, she dramatically begins to pant and sometimes will grumble to the floor in a faux fit. Her personality is as big as her theatrics about staying out of the heat. (Note: She wears a wet cooling vest, takes breaks in the shade with plenty of water and is only outside for minimal amounts of time. And still the drama.) Monday was no exception and after our morning walk, Ethel gave me absolute refusal to join me for breakfast on our back porch. When I asked her to come out to me sitting in the sun, she grumbled, flopped down on our floor inside and yawned in refusal. She stayed there for the entire time I was outside and would return to the “boredom” position of sprawled on the floor every time I caught her watching me outside.
Ethel, like all the service Danes, elicits some peculiar responses from the public. We’ve all heard “Wow, I like your pony!” or “How’d you fit that horse in your car?” or even “She must eat you out of house and home!”. My favorite, though, are the responses from some of the elderly vets in our community, shopping at the commissary in their “I served in Vietnam” baseball caps and electric scooters. They always laugh when they see Ethel, astounded at her size, her eyes and how she maneuvers me through some of the cramped shopping aisles.
I have a favorite veteran gentleman, someone I usually see when I grocery shop on Tuesdays at the commissary. He doesn’t say much, but has a smile that lights his whole face when he sees us coming. He’s always wearing some declaration of Vietnam, either in a hat, button or sometimes a leather vest, and has more wrinkles that just multiply when he smiles. He calls Ethel “his princess” and doesn’t try to pet her, but instead takes it upon himself to lead us down the aisle on his electric scooter. He’ll loudly declare to everyone in our way “Excuse me! My princess is coming through!” and then laugh and laugh when we get to the end of the aisle. Ethel loves him, as well. Her tail wags when she spots him now and will get into her “down, stay” position in front of his scooter while I grab what I need from the aisle. I don’t know his name, he actually hardly talks directly to me and instead prefers to coo at Ethel, but he makes our Tuesday shopping day something to look forward to.
Wednesday Dusty began a four day training exercise and had left early that morning with a rucksack filled with beef jerky snacks for the field, which Ethel had found very interesting the night before and proceeded to try to unpack for him. Nights without Dusty have been spread sporadically throughout our entire marriage, little reminders of the comfort of each other’s presence in the day to day and how big of a void that absence can become when he’s missing. Ethel has changed the emptiness of the house during these times for me with such magnitude that the hardship of this lifestyle have greatly lessened. Her personality is as big as her giant yawns, loud grumbles and deadly swinging tail, making our house still full of sound and love when I’m alone. All day she talks, chases the lone fly that gets inside, prods me for cookies and is only too happy to give a hug. That’s changed Army life for me, indefinitely.
On Thursdays I travel the two hours from Fort Leonard Wood to St. Louis for all-day treatments at Washington University Medical School. I have physical therapy sessions, occupational therapy sessions, meetings with spinal cord injury specialty nurses and occasional lab work. When these appointments were first made and I realized the potential travel stress on Ethel, I asked Dusty to help me modify my car to better fit her.
I drive a Dusty-designed three door coupe, a small sports car with a third suicide door behind the driver’s seat. This third door is crucial; a suicide door swings the opposite direction of a normal car door, so I can essentially open the entire left side of the car by pulling open both doors. When I transfer from my wheelchair to the driver’s seat, I can then pull my wheelchair directly behind me. Dusty figured out how I could drive soon after my accident and went on a hunt to find a car with this type of suicide door. When he found the car, he then removed the entire backseat and replaced the flooring with an elevated carpeted floorboard for my chair to be pulled onto and rest right behind the driver’s seat. I then drive with hand controls and when I park, I simply open both doors on the left side and bring my wheelchair down to transfer. I drove myself to college, was independent through Dusty’s deployments and am able to be as functional as I want because of the freedom given by this car.
So where does Ethel ride? A small car does not, at first, sound suitable for a Great Dane but Service Dog Project founder Carlene White told me about the time she fit three Danes in the back of a VW bug without a problem. Dusty modified the front passenger seat of my car and lowered the back of the seat to an almost horizontal surface for Ethel to lay. When I tell her to “load up!”, Ethel climbs in the car through the back floorboard, lays down in her seat facing the back and rests her head on the headrest. Sometimes she’ll bring her head up to lay it on the open window when we’re stopped or even try to sniff out the cookies I’ve hidden in the middle compartment between us. Dusty attached a bone to the headrest and for the two hour drive to St. Louis, she’s more than content chewing on her bone or sleeping. I was worried about the stress of traveling so much on her, but Ethel has proven to be one strong, resilient and goofy lady.
She’s grown to love car trips for another reason; Puppychinos at Starbucks. There’s one Drive-Thru Starbucks on our route and I’ll always pull in to grab a pick-me-up before heading on the two hour drive home. I learned a while ago about Puppychinos from Starbucks; you can ask for this special treat free of charge and they’ll present a cup of whipped cream for their canine patronage. When Ethel smells the coffee as we pull up to Starbucks, she sits up and pants in excitement. By the time I’ve ordered and approached the window, she’s nearly leaned over me to stick her head out demanding for her treat. The baristas now know us, but never fail to give a “Woah!” when they’re presented with this giant dog head trying to pant her way into whipped cream. Usually they’ll get a bigger cup when they see her size and add a little more than the usual amount of topping, which she’ll nearly inhale and then proceed to rip up the cup to get every last lick.
However, this has led Ethel to think that every Drive-Thru will have a cup of whipped cream coming out of the window and we’ve scared many a fast food worker with a giant head watching them in anticipation. The poor baristas at Panera felt so guilty when I explained her behavior to them that they returned with their own cup of Puppychino whipped cream, to which Ethel actually barked a thanks.
Friday nights are usually a date night with Dusty and by a stroke of luck (bad luck for the soldiers, good luck for me), it was raining so fiercely that Dusty’s field training had to be ended a day early. Dusty returned muddy, wet and ripe smelling but we were able to squeeze in an impromptu date night after all. A shower and a shave later, we were on our way to our favorite restaurant in this area, a little Italian ristorante hidden in the hills of the Ozarks. We learned in Europe that for many, the location of a good restaurant is based on a scenic view and not on accessibility for the best traffic. There were very, very few places to eat by the side of a major highway or near any discernable route. Dinner was something you valued enough to go out of your way to find and took time to enjoy.
There’s a large European population in the Fort Leonard Wood area due to all the branches here, mainly Army Engineers and Army Military Police, having a large presence in the bases of Germany and Italy. Many, many soldiers have tours in Europe like the one Dusty and I just finished (we were living last year in Germany) but many of these soldiers return to the States with German or Italian spouses. A large percentage of these same soldiers have lived in Europe for years and years, adapting to German or Italian culture and bringing some of their customs back. Oktoberfest is celebrated here and there are many German hubs and taverns built right outside Fort Leonard Wood. This Italian ristorante is no exception, the owners and chefs all of either European descent or citizenship.
The views from this ristorante portray the breath-taking green hills of the Ozarks but Ethel enjoys this restaurant not for the view, but for the special care she receives. As a family business, all members of the staff have come to know and greet us. We have a special, accessible table and Ethel is given plenty of space to spread out on her mat. But while we order wine and dinner, Ethel is given her very own dish of water with specially prepared ice cubes. After our third or fourth date night here, the chef brought out an ice tray to our table. “I just love your dog,” he sheepishly admitted. “And I thought she might like some chicken broth ice cubes. I give them to my dogs at home.” Her tail wagged and wagged as she chomped on chicken broth ice the rest of the night, completely content. Now when we arrive, the chicken broth ice tray is brought out with the appetizers and she’ll sit with her hips relaxed in anticipation of her treat. Needless to say, Friday nights are a date night for everyone involved.
On Saturdays Ethel will sometimes have a play date with our neighbors’ husky puppy, Max. Dusty and I will take our lunch outside to our back patio and Ethel will sleep on the cot outside or roam around the backyard sniffing and eating grass clumps. We’ve dogsat Max before and now whenever he’s brought outside to pee, he runs the two houses down to our house if he can smell that his friend Ethel is outside. He loves jumping on, batting at, and rolling onto Ethel but Ethel just tolerates Max in return. Every once in a while she’ll lift a paw to bat to appease the puppy, but she generally does not consider playing something worth getting up from her nap.
At least, until Max tries to jump on me. This little husky is still a puppy and is learning the commands of not jumping and not nipping at hands for play. Ethel will let Max run around to jump on Dusty, but as soon as Max tries to jump up on me to lick my face Ethel is by my side. She’ll stand and put her front paws on my lap and use her body to shove Max away from me, gently nipping at him if he doesn’t get the message the first time. She’ll stay close by for the next few minutes and let Max bounce around her, but she’ll mark me as her territory by continuing to stand in between Max and me. If Max ever gets too out of hand, all Ethel has to do is stand over him and Max rolls on his back in a quick surrender. Smart boy.
Sunday mornings we sleep in, eat late and head to church for the late morning service. Ethel loves church for the always available donuts carried around by all the people who walk past. Each Sunday she hopes will be the Sunday that someone drops one and I’ll let her eat it, but before the service starts she’ll grumble and flop over to surrender to boredom.
As some have seen, I’ve taught Ethel how to pray with me and we give the blessing before she eats breakfast and dinner. “Ok Ethel, down” I’ll command before I give her any food. She’ll be wagging her tail in anticipation and when food’s involved, she’s always very quick to get in the down position. “Let’s pray,” I’ll say leaning over and holding out my hand. She’ll lift one paw up for me to take or she’ll lift a paw and put in on my feet. “Thank you God for our food. Say Amen!” I’ll tell her and she’ll excitedly bark in return.
It took a week for Ethel to learn to bark on command and it was not something that seemed to come easy for her. She’s an incredible service dog, trained by the best, and I never have to worry about her barking at another dog or person when she’s in her vest. She’s vocal in other ways but barking is only something she does when someone knocks on the front door or rings the doorbell. So I used the doorbell to teach her to bark in response to the phrase “Say Amen!” and within a week, she had it. Watch here!
Then I saw the flaw in this plan at church. You see, the prayer is led by our lead pastor and we all declare at the end of the prayer a loud “Amen!”. This particular Sunday Ethel hadn’t yet achieved boredom and had been staring pointedly at me because Dusty’s donut was right by my side. When she heard “Amen”, she did what she had been trained to do and excitedly barked her contribution.
To preface the church reaction, let me explain that a Great Dane bark is no cute, little thing. It’s a loud, fierce sounding vocal expression that to be honest, can be a little intimidating. But Ethel doesn’t know this. So when the church body, including her owner, gave a loud “Amen!” Ethel shook a few chairs and prompted a few gasps with her contribution. And a woman sitting next to us, bless her heart, responded by shaking her head up and down and said “Mmhmm, that’s right sistah. Feel that Spirit!”. I couldn’t have asked for a more welcoming response. And Ethel still prays with us today.