Carlene White is the founder of the Service Dog Project, in Ipswich, Ma. She turned 80 this year, but she isn’t a grandma who bakes cookies; she works hard and is a no-nonsense lady. Before the Service Dog Project, she founded and ran Animal Episodes, where she trained animals of all kinds for ads and movies. As a teenager, I worked for Carlene, making sure that every Great Dane got food and water, and that stud dogs didn’t get loose.
When I get to the farm for our interview, Carlene is sitting in her car with the heat on and a couple of Danes in the back seat. She’s listening to classical music. Before finding her here, I had wondered if she got any time to herself, since volunteers are huddled everywhere, with no place for escape.
Six pallets of dog food will be here in 15 minutes. It takes a minute and 28 seconds to unload (a) pallet. We have a record. I have to take it off with this (nods toward the little tractor) I have to get some help here. Keep talking ‘til the food arrives.
[I started the Service Dog project] because I got tired of schlepping rabbits around Harvard Square [for] Animal Episodes. I got too heavy; I got too old; something like that.
I had 23 puppies. There’s not a big market for Great Danes, so I had to create the market. I wanted to train seeing-eye dogs. I made a connection with [someone from Assistance Dog International] and I went down with three of my dogs. We were in a school down in New York, and I was talking to her. I let the dogs out and they were just walking around. She says, ‘you better get leashes on them, the kids are about to get let out of school, it’ll be a wreck here.’ I said, they’ll be fine.
The bell rang and these huge kids—basketball-type children—came flying out of the school, and my dogs were fine. She couldn’t get over it. You get so many people who say they can train dogs, and at that point I was just one of the mucky bunch. So all of a sudden she thought, oh, these dogs are trained. She said you know, these would be perfect for the guys coming back from Iraq.
I realized I had a thing going, so I joined this ADI, you have to be a charity, 501(c)(3), so I did that myself, I did not hire a lawyer. It was a zoo, dealing with the IRS in Cincinatti just about daily. Finally they gave me my 501(c)(3). Six months. It was a tough six months.
I handled all kinds of dogs, and so help me the Danes trained differently. They don’t think it’s fun to go chase a yellow tennis ball. You throw one of those they’ll think you’re crazy.
Thumper I got pretty well trained to pick up stuff for me and I was out giving a lecture at some place, and somebody in the back says, they’re no good they won’t retrieve things. I said, of course they will, you just have to teach them. I took my wallet out and I dropped it on the floor and I said Thumper, will you please come pick that up? So he walked over and he picked it up and handed it to me. I said thank you very much. The woman said, I didn’t see that, can you do it again? I said, sure. I picked it up and dropped it. He turned around and looked at me and he said fuck you. I mean that was not what he was going to do, and I had to bend over and pick it up.
And that kind of describes what it’s like. You don’t screw around with a Great Dane. They are very practical, they’re very good about stuff, they do things you wouldn’t believe, but there’s some stuff that they don’t do.
I put out my first dog in 2004. It was a gal who had balanced problems and was also deaf. I’d never fooled with training a deaf dog, but it’s not hard. Annie (dog) with Melissa. I had never trained a hearing ear dog, but it certainly wasn’t hard. If you have a noise-making device of any kind, and you keep treats up near it, and you sit at your desk and you make that bell ring or whatever, the dog will eventually come to you and say what the hell is that noise? The minute they go over there you give them a cookie.
We start training when they’re three weeks old and we spoon feed them to get their attention. Most of these other places give them to somebody else for 18 months to raise and then they take them back for training, and then they give them to some person… When you find one of our dogs, they’re thrilled. They love their person; they’re out having a good time. We don’t let our dogs get bonded to anybody until it’s time to go. We switch them around person to person.
The kennels are nice, but they’re not living in a house. By the time they’ve spent time in the Guesthouse with their new person, they begin to think this is the way to go and they settle right in nicely.
That gal in Woburn, Bella and George, you’ve seen her around? The little girl. She was in a wheelchair and her mother was carrying her, but she couldn’t walk. At that point I had Fido, a great big dog, a nice dog, sort of our demo dog. I took her to the mall, and I said, just put your arm over his back and see how far you get. She walked a quarter of a mile the first time. So that kind of set me off with little kids. We’ve had success now with, what, four children. There’s a wonderful video with [Bella] coming down a flight of stairs where she’s not paying the slightest bit of attention to George; George is looking at her feet. And when she hesitates, he hesitates, and when she steps down, he steps down.
We have now about 150 [dogs] out working.
Fourteen people work here; 100 volunteers; we have a budget of over a half million dollars. I have the job of making a half million dollars every year.
In the meantime it’s this stupid chicken shit thing. That works beautifully. It makes us a quarter of a million dollars a year–$20,000 every month. You go online, you can donate $10, you get a number. And then once a month we take all the numbers and put them on a table, take out some chickens, and wherever the chicken shits becomes a member of the Shat-Upon Society of Ipswich.
Between the Daily Doggy and mail call I put in about an 80-hour week. I haven’t got anything else to do.
That’s why I go sit in the car [to be alone].