Profile and photos by Rona Mann

Every now and then we come across something that could fill volumes instead of pages. This is one of those stories. Because we are limited for space, we cannot possibly tell ECAD’s whole story here, nor chronicle the hundreds of lives their dogs have touched. However, this might inspire you to visit their website, to see how you can help them help others, perhaps donate or volunteer, so the good work they do and the life-changing stories that result will never end.

It all began with her father’s stroke.

Not exactly what you might consider an auspicious beginning, but nevertheless this significant event is the seminal piece in Lu Picard’s backstory. Where it leads is inspiring, touching so many lives in its wake.

Lu Picard was just 34 when her father suffered that debilitating stroke. It affected his balance, his speech, and his strength; but most of all it affected his spirit. He subsequently moved in with Lu and her family, angry and withdrawn due to his loss of independence. At the time Lu and her husband, Dale had convenience stores, a career that left Lu cold because she felt it was going nowhere and was certainly not where she wanted to be in 25 years.

Seeing her father helpless both frustrated and saddened the woman who could not bear his not being able to stand on his own nor pick up items he had dropped. So on a whim she took one of her house dogs, “Jules,” and began to teach her to “fetch” what her father dropped. Picard started by giving Jules a rope toy, thereby making a game out of retrieving. In short order the dog would fetch anything. “It’s just common sense,” Lu relates. “If a dog can pick up a stick, they can pick up keys.”

Realizing she was on to something, Lu Picard was soon off to Santa Rosa, California where she trained intensively for six weeks with Bonnie Bergin, an American canine researcher who is credited with being the inventor of the concept of the service dog. Bergin is both founder and president of the Bergin University of Canine Studies and Canine Companions for Independence.

“Once I came back from Santa Rosa I knew this would be my life’s work. I already knew how to run a business and wanted to get rid of the convenience stores.” So while Lu set to work in her new career, she sent her husband Dale to California to take the very same course. Dale already had an inherent knowledge of animals and how to handle them. He had grown up on a farm and instinctively knew from the time he was a young teenager how to deliver piglets and calves without any instruction.

The couple started ECAD (Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities) in 1994 in a garage in West Granby (“I drove a school bus for the money to feed the dogs.” Lu says), but grew to where just recently they broke ground on a 9000 square foot facility in Torrington. Still, it’s everything that’s happened in between that’s the real success and the real story. It is not just Lu and Dale Picard’s story; it is hundreds of stories of people in wheelchairs, of autistic kids, of returning veterans with severe PTSD, and schoolkids  who just fell through the cracks and had been relegated to a residential treatment facility. It is all their stories…how they learned to smile again, how they learned to live life again, how they learned to function because of dogs, supremely taught, “from the day after they’re born,” to assist in every way.

Shortly after Dale and Lu began ECAD they received a sizable grant from the Hartford Jaycees that propelled them out of their garage straight to their present facility on the Torrington/Winchester Center border. This is “command central” where virtually everything happens. It is the breeding center where Goldens and Labrador Retriever puppies are whelped, and the all-important work begins. The dogs live here from the time they are born until they’re placed.  In summer, Lu and Dale have a one week camp where teenagers learn every phase of caring for and teaching (“we teach, we don’t train”) a service dog. Lu makes each of the teens 100% responsible for whatever dog they are teaching on a particular day (she does not want the dogs to bond with any one person, but get used to being handled by many). They only take teens till age 16, with the best becoming volunteers during the school year.

Lu wants these volunteers to know, “exactly what it means to be in a wheelchair which lowers their authority. The dog gives the person back their independence,” Lu says. As an exercise she takes them to a mall and makes them sit for hours in the wheelchair. “They find that they’re largely ignored by other people or talked down to,” but when we go back with them still in the chair but now paired with a dog, everything changes.”

Teaching these dogs is a methodical process, but really just common sense. Lu affirms, “Service dogs ask, they don’t guide. So we teach them to ask their handler, ‘What do you want me to do now?’ This way it becomes a partnership, and they’re both dependent upon one another.”

Over the last two-plus decades Dale and Lu have become experts on people with disabilities, whether their disability is readily visible or not. They have worked with clients from ages 3 to 103 from all over the country, always taking the greatest care to respect the dog as much as the person and to make matches that last. That’s why their application and acceptance process is very involved, why it takes two years to teach a service dog what it needs to know and almost that amount of time from application to acceptance to teach the person with whom they will be matched. There is re-certification for the first two years after someone takes their dog into their life, which once again speaks to common sense for both person and their dog. Dogs rarely come back, although “Tuesday” an 11 year old Golden who was the partner of a veteran with severe PTSD, is now a member of the Picard household. “Luis died, and Tuesday was lost; now he’s with us again and a member of our family.”

The newest litter has just been born at ECAD…eight tiny girls and one boy. The mother, “Midori,” spends many hours nursing, but this is not a mutually exclusive relationship. All the time Midori is nursing, she is being massaged by a volunteer which encourages her positive experience. A “nanny” sits in the whelping box, handling each puppy, cooing, rubbing, and loving them so they get used to human contact right from the first. And Lu is already teaching them to climb over a wooden barrier to go to the bathroom in another part of the pen. Sound remarkable for pups barely four weeks old? Not to Picard. It’s the way she always does it, and she expects her young charges to learn.

“They’re not pets,” volunteer Barbara Hayward reminds, “they’re service dogs.”

As it turns out, the stroke that Picard’s father suffered 22 years ago was not the horrible incident perceived at first, but in actuality was a stroke of luck…for her father, for Lu and Dale, for some 350 dogs and the hundreds of lucky people with whom they’ve bonded, making it a team effort fueled by the power of a cold nose, a willing paw, some common sense,  and the love that just naturally follows.

www.ecad1.org  (860) 489-6550 P.O. Box 831 Torrington,CT 06790

 

For every dollar donated to ECAD three lives are changed: The teenager that taught the dogs. The disabled person that received the dog. And the dog that has a job and lifetime partner

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