After many years training animals for film and television productions, Carlene White decided to use her considerable talents to transform Great Danes into service dogs for individuals with mobility challenges. Eighteen years later, the organization she founded – Service Dog Project (SDP) – has placed more than 160 specially trained Great Danes with veterans and other individuals in need of assistance, all free of charge.
“I’ve carved out the one thing that people need the most, help getting around and walking,” Charlene explains. While canes and walkers have their place, there are limitations. “If you’re walking with a cane, you’re bent over to get your center of gravity over the cane,” she points out. One wrong move could land the disabled individual on the ground. In contrast, she says holding the service dog’s harness handle provides greater support, without cumbersome equipment.
SDP is one of the few service dog organizations to use Great Danes. While it’s more common to see Labrador and golden retriever service dogs, Charlene insists Great Danes are ideal for balance support work. In addition to their sturdy size, the dogs have a friendly and patient demeanor, making them well suited for home and office life.
Each working service Dane changes lives for the better. As evidence, Carlene points to Bella and her service dog George. Bella has Morquio Syndrome, a rare metabolic disorder that makes it hard for her to walk. Before she had George to lean on, Bella relied on crutches and a wheelchair to get around. With George at her side, Bella’s strength and mobility have improved, as has her confidence and independence.
Being a mobility service dog like George requires extensive training, which SDP begins when the pups are just three weeks old. As they grow, the young dogs learn to be steady in harness, match their gait to their handler’s speed, and halt and brace if the handler should fall and require assistance to stand. Daily outings into the community teach the dogs to concentrate amid noisy children, enticing smells, taunting squirrels and whatever else they might encounter.
Intensive training aside, Charlene contends her Great Danes intuitively provide support beyond their puppy hood lessons. “These dogs really become tremendously observant of their person,” she explains. “They can sense when a person struggling with PTSD is getting anxious and needs some help. It’s not something we teach them, they just know what to do, and it makes a tremendous difference in people’s lives.”