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Finding stability, and a companion from large service dogs

Stanley frequents Nashoba Brook Bakery in Concord, but not for the pastries and sandwiches. This 165-pound, 5-foot-long Great Dane, with yardstick-size legs and a nose waist-high to an average human, is on the job. Stanley accompanies his companion Becky Spencer everywhere, even just for a cup of Joe. And he wears a sign on his harness: “I’m working. Stop. Do Not Distract.”

Spencer, 39, is an Army National Guard veteran with two decades of service despite multiple injuries exacerbated in a Humvee accident in Iraq. Her complex medical conditions can trigger seizures, spills, or emotional distress. Stanley is her service dog. The colossal canine — and others like Stanley — fulfill a specific task: aiding humans with stability and balance issues.

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Stanley stands in a “brace position” when Spencer needs to steady herself or grasp her sturdy gentle giant to pull up from a fall. And if her post-traumatic stress disorder flares, he nudges her face to provide some canine calming.

Some 60 Great Danes like Stanley perform jobs such as these, thanks to the Great Dane Service Dog Project. SDP breeds, raises, trains, and donates the dogs, with priority to veterans and their families, but also to others dealing with Parkinson’s disease, Friedreich’s ataxia, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and traumatic brain injury.

Carlene White, president and head dog trainer, founded the nonprofit in 2003 on her private 12-acre Ipswich farm. SDP is the only accredited member of Assistance Dogs International to train Great Danes.

Some 40 dogs, from pups to seniors, live on the farm in the main house and four barns with dozens of heated kennels, cared for by five part-time staff members and more than 45 active volunteers. They place 12-25 dogs per year.

In a prior life, White, 76, ran Animal Episodes for 30 years, providing trained animal “actors” of all kinds for print ads, television, and movies in Massachusetts, including “The Witches of Eastwick” and “Good Will Hunting.” But life changed soon after her male Great Dane jumped a new USDA-required fence on her property — fathering 23 pups with three of her female Great Danes.

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“When you have too many lemons, you make lemonade,” she says.

She gave one pup to her father, who had Parkinson’s, and another to a friend with multiple sclerosis. The dogs, who love to lean against humans, provided a natural support for those unstable on their feet. The Danes are also intelligent, friendly, and patient and require limited exercise, she says.

She began training them to match their gait to a handler’s unsteady pace and soon consulted with staff at ADI, who affirmed White’s early training efforts. They suggested the Danes would be good for “guys coming back from the war,” she recalls.

She founded SDP, despite naysayers who believed Great Danes were not suitable as service dogs. The spunky White gloats when saying she proved them wrong, including debunking the stereotype about the breed’s short life span. Some live past age 10, and “my first stud lived to 14,” she says.

Bud Wilbur, 44, of Sterling, and his wife, Stephanie, attribute his return to society to his 135-pound, 4-year-old buddy, Indy. A Gulf War Marine veteran with progressive medical issues, Wilbur says he “soldiered on,” thrusting himself into work as a software engineer — putting in 80-hour weeks. At home with his wife and two sons, however, he “closed off to society in what we call ‘bunkering down,’ ” he says. “I had a hard time with any kind of crowds.”

This lasted more than a decade. No going to restaurants, stores, movies. Eventually, his condition affected his memory and he stopped working. Finally, Wilbur also faced up to his PTSD. “It’s hard to admit,” he says.

Then, hesitantly, after volunteering with service dogs, he pursued one. When SDP matches dogs to recipients, the pair bond for a few days one-on-one in a guest house on SDP’s grounds, and take excursions with trainers.

“One of the first places they took us was a hospital. It was a hard place for me to be,” he says. “Turns out, Indy wasn’t too keen on it either — I sat down and Indy jumped into my lap. It was perfect. She helped me relax.”

Since then, Indy is always by his side. She learned to help Wilbur with specific balance issues, as his feet “just go and I’m going down,” he says. He grabs her harness and “ends up on my knee, but it’s not as bad as a face plant. Things are not easy, but with Indy they’re possible,” he says.

Stephanie is also grateful for Indy. “She has opened up a world for us which other people take for granted,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The whole family was virtually isolated. Our situation was difficult to explain and very difficult to deal with. Now because of Indy, we go out to eat in some restaurants, go to movies and even the grocery store and mall on occasion. She has given us wings.”

One teenage recipient, Jocelyn Rodgers of Rochester, N.H., has Friedreich’s ataxia and weighed under 60 pounds when she met the folks at SDP. She was tired of having to hold her father’s hand to steady herself, even when out with friends, recalls White, who brought the girl and a dog to a local mall to try things out. “She walked by herself for the first time in three years.”

Jocelyn, 14, now brings her service dog, Teal, everywhere — including to school.

Trainer Megan Kokaras with a Great Dane pups at Service Dog Project in Ipswich.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Trainer Megan Kokaras with a Great Dane pups at Service Dog Project in Ipswich.

“The dogs are like a sturdy walker — the walkers can go up and over if a person falls backward, but you just hang on to a 140-pound dog and don’t go anywhere,” says White.

Becky Spencer credits 2½-year-old Stanley with saving her life. After Spencer was hospitalized and became depressed, her doctor suggested a service dog to assist with her frequent falls. Canes and walkers somewhat helped her balance issues, but in some ways they exacerbated her problems.

People would stare at her and “they would say, ‘You look normal, why do you need a cane?’,” she recalls while sitting in the rear of Nashoba Brook Bakery, Stanley resting at her feet, his massive body wedged between a chair and a coffee table. Occasionally, he rises and plants his hind quarters on her lap, his front paws resting on the rug, like a comical lapdog. Spencer believes he knows she needs calming at those moments.

“It’s tough being a strong female. I used to do triathlons. Now I feel broken every day. But with Stanley, I’m just a girl out with a really big dog. He takes the focus off of my disabilities.”

For more details e-mail info@servicedogproject.org.

Watch the pups and activity on the farm 24/7 on one of four cameras at www.explore.org. Click on Indoor Puppy Room/Great Dane Service Puppies.

Mindy Pollack-Fusi can be reached at mindy@theplace
forwords.com.

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