In November 2015, it was announced that George had been awarded “Service Dog of the Year”. I suspect that George was the first Great Dane to ever win this prestigious award because Great Danes have never really been use as service dogs in the past. George was born and raised at Service Dog Project. He is a product of a unique training program and good German breeding.
When Carlene White started the Service Dog Project (SDP) in 2002, she heard many times from many dog training experts that “Great Danes are too big, too lazy and too stupid to be used as service dogs.” I am not a dog trainer, and even I told Carlene (my mother) that training Great Danes to do anything but look stately, lean on people and sleep was useless. She proved me wrong, VERY WRONG.
When Carlene went to Germany to get a male Great Dane for breeding; I accused her of making excuses to go on a European vacation. When she came home with 2 massive puppies with gigantic paws and began breeding Great Danes; I said why you can’t just use regular dogs or rescued great danes? My skepticism continued when she built a whelping box in the kitchen then dragged all the nice living room furniture to the end of the driveway and slapped a “Free” sign on it. The barn was next. The horses were moved to one end of the barn, and the other was converted to a very elaborate kennel with heat and air conditioning. Even more concerning was that she was funding all of this craziness with her retirement money. My sisters and I began to panic that she would run out money and we would wind up supporting our crazy mother and the expense of feeding 40 pet Great Danes. AGAIN, Wrong.
George and Bella are just ONE of the many successful graduates of SDP. Every applicant’s story is different and often the dogs receive specialized training for the specific needs of the applicant. Their training begins at birth and within a year they are matched with an applicant. Graduates of SDP have a serious job: to provide balance to their owners who will often fall if the dog fails them.
Matching a balance dog with an applicant is not easy. George was almost a year and had met several applicants that were just not the right fit for him; no chemistry, incompatibility, or the wrong size. Every time he’d been passed over and remained in the kennel. That is until Bella arrived.
When Bella first came to SDP, none of the dogs liked her. Her small size, child-like voice and awkward gait caused the dogs to not only shy away, but several of the highly trained dogs actually tucked their tails and ran away. George was the only dog that was not fearful, but was curious when he met Bella. Bella sat on his dog bed to talk with George. He yawned (loudly) and put his big head in her lap. He had found his person, and we found our match for George.
Bella, George and the SDP trainers worked for weeks at SDP before she and George finally left together. It was a rocky start. Traveling through life with a monster-sized dog at your side is a new way of life. Despite his Service Dog vest that clearly displays “Do Not Touch”, some people just can’t help themselves from touching, patting, hugging and cooing over a handsome fella like George. However, while George attracts attention and loves to meet new people; Bella was very uncomfortable meeting and talking to new people. It would take Bella a long-time to warm up to someone new. In contrast, George was instantly warmed up and ready to be adored & admired in a moments notice.
Meeting new people was a skill Bella had not yet acquired. She has been disabled and different since she was 2 ½. Sadly, the general public doesn’t know how to react to a little girl bound to a wheelchair. Many avoid eye contact and limit interactions, which leads disabled people to feel isolated. It’s not that people don’t care or feel empathetic, they just don’t know how to care and don’t know what to say. George helps people know what to say; mostly they say “Beautiful Dog” followed by humor “You should just ride that dog!” to which Bella usually replies “Sometime I do!” And instead of a random stranger feeling heavy hearted as they pass a disabled child in a wheelchair, and Bella feeling isolated; both smile and usually George gets a pat from a complete stranger.
George makes life better for Bella and anyone he meets along the way.
However, not everyone is happy to see George and Bella. When George first arrived at Bella’s elementary school, he was not welcome. In fact, he was asked to leave. Massachusetts state law dictates that the school has the right to ask George to leave if he misbehaves, or if his service is not required. Bella’s parents were asked to take George home and Bella would use wheelchair at school instead.
Failure is not an option at SDP. The volunteers and trainers thrive on hard work and understand that perseverance is expected. They rallied to figure out why George was not behaving at the school. He had been trained & tested in all types of scenarios; trains, buses, taxis, offices, elevators, hospitals, shopping (and more), but nothing quite prepares any dog for the chaos of 100+ very excited 5th graders bounding around the school hallways.
George for the most part kept his composure, except during lunch. In the cafeteria, it w
as decided that it was best to have the dog sit on a matt right inside the door while Bella ate her lunch 20 feet away at the table. Logic would say that a 140 lb Great Dane comingling with young children holding large trays of food was not a good idea. However, without Bella at his side to tell him what to do, George would get very anxious and on several occasions he jumped up and ran out of the cafeteria and disappeared down the hall with several children and staff chasing after him. He was usually found under the desk of the school nurse. For some reason, George found that underneath the school nurse’s desk was a SAFE place for him. Unfortunately, he couldn’t have found a worse place to be safe as the school nurse had a raging allergy to dogs. The school nurse became accustomed to finding George under her desk and then spending the afternoon broken out in hives.
The Principle called SDP’s head trainer (Megan) who spent the next 2 weeks back in the 5th grade micromanaging George’s every move, and also brushing up on her long-forgotten history, english and math. It was not long before the excitement of being surrounded by school children became part of George’s normal routine. The lunchroom issue was solved immediately when Megan suggested George stay with Bella. She watched George carefully navigate through the maze of children and lunch trays and knew he was better at Bella’s side, than with the nurse. By this time, George had become so attached to Bella that his safe place was next to Bella wherever she was – next to Bella was where he felt most comfortable.
Yes, a wheelchair is a more logical solution in school than a 140 lb service dog; but the benefits of George for Bella defy logic.
George makes Bella feel less like the special-needs child and more like a special person.
George gives Bella balance and independence. She is not confined to a wheelchair where she needs help getting in & out. George gives her strength. He enables her use her legs to walk and with every step her muscles grow stronger, instead of atrophying by sitting idle in a wheelchair.
George is now welcome in school. He sleeps quietly behind Bella in the classroom. You wouldn’t even know he was there except that George snores, often loudly. And if you wake him from a deep slumber he yawns loudly. A strange yawn that sounds somewhere between a lion roar and squeezing a potbelly pig. George now sits next to Bella in the lunchroom and gets his own snack lunch. While in some cultures it is polite to burp loudly after a meal to show appreciation, George does not seem to understand that the school lunchroom is not a place to show this type of appreciation. He burps loudly after his lunch to the delight of the school children at the table.
Bella and George have good days and bad days. On a good day, they will have a normal play day; bikes, sledding, and time with family or friends. On a bad day, George will sit patiently beside Bella as she receives medical care (often transfusions) in the hospital. The good news is George is always cheerful as he balances Bella through her life and physical challenges; and after a long bad day, George is always ready to curl up next to Bella and take up most of the bed space, snore and steal the covers.
How can YOU Get Involved?
The Service Dog Project is a 501c3 charity, funded by the kindness and generosity of people like you. Please consider [DONATE], [FOLLOW] us on Facebook, or order your signed copy (from Bella and George) of the SDP book “Dogs, Donkeys and Circus Performers”
All proceeds go to SDP so we can grow dogs to help other little girls, veterans and mobility impaired.
Written by Dr. Janine Jacques, the Chairman of the Board at the Service Dog Project and the founder of the Equine Rescue Network, which has saved hundreds of horses from slaughter. Janine is an Author, Professor and Program Chair at the New England College of Business. She is an inspiring speaker who encourages audiences to care more and do more to help all of those who share our planet.