WINCHESTER — Dale Picard, co-founder and executive director of ECAD, described the volunteers known as Home Handlers as “livesavers.”
“Without their stepping forward in the early days of the pandemic and lock down and helping us with our dogs, I don’t know what we would have done. Lu (Picard) and I will be forever grateful,” he said.
The volunteers, after attending an intensive two-day course at ECAD’s Training Center in Winchester, take a Service Dog in Training between 8 and 16 months of age home for the weekends. Home Handlers know how to keep their visiting canine in a Service Dog frame of mind, seeing the dog follows certain dos and don’ts, while still ensuring that he or she enjoys their time in a home setting.
“Usually, a Home Handler has an ECAD visitor for three days, a week at the most,” Picard said. “But due to the lockdown and stay at home situation and the lack of kennel staff, these 35 volunteers kept the dogs for two months or more. They came, picked them up in March, knowing there would be no way to drop them off due to the stay-at-home order. This demonstrated an awe inspiring commitment.”
Those months had a negative effect on the actual hours of training each ECAD Service Dog requires before being placed at 18-24 months of age.
And with no staff, Lu Picard took over as the sole instructor of the eight dogs who remained at ECAD, continuing their training so they would be ready for scheduled placement in late summer or early fall.
“I’m not too worried about those 35 coming up to speed in their training now that the dogs are on their regular schedule. Lu will see to that – they will be ready to be placed when the time comes,” Dale Picard said.
To keep things more or less going, the Picards moved into the Training Center on a full time basis in mid-March, using the bedrooms and living space designed for clients.
But, Picard said, some good things happened, too.
“We delivered two litters of puppies for a total of 21 future Service Dogs, and the media stepped in to help us get the word out that we were in desperate need of funding,” he said. “So, even in these dire times, ECAD made new friends.”
Two weekends ago, ECAD welcomed nine new Home Handlers, bringing its total to 58. Areas of the state well represented include Torrington, Winsted, West Granby, Southbury and others. Lu Picard conducted the training session. Among those things taught were basic commands, how to walk with a leash, enter doorways (always with the needs of a person with disabilities in mind), and commands such as “Heel,” “Stay,” “Leave it.”
There is also a section devoted to Manners, and the Home Handlers had plenty of opportunity to develop their hands -on skills with the dog they just might take home for the weekend or longer.
“The contribution of the Home Handlers is awesome and means the world to us,” Lu Picard said. “They get how important it is to keep the Service Dog in Trainings’ mindset on the skills they have learned. At the same time, the dogs need to know how to behave in a family setting, with children perhaps, or even family pets. These are crucial lessons, too.”
Dave Roberts, of West Granby, was attracted to ECAD because of the organization’s mission to help people with disabilities live a more independent life through the assistance of Service Dogs. He felt this mission was closely allied with that of the Lions Club of which he is a long time member. His home, which he shares with husband Wally, five children, ages 7-19, a rescued cat, a dog and six gerbils, helped the ECAD canines adjust to a diverse household.
“So far I’ve brought Nova, Otis, Zen and Advocate home for a weekend. They and we have all enjoyed it. Being a Home Handler is a great opportunity to help a fellow not for profit in our community,” Roberts said.
In addition to Home Handlers, whose numbers include youths with adult supervision, ECAD also welcomes volunteers who want to be a member of the nursery teams. These volunteers take home a puppy when they are slightly over two months and keep them for six to seven months. During these early months, the puppies learn how to “socialize.”
Cheryl Carriere of Winsted has been a Home Handler for two years. She recently joined the nursery team and now can have the company of two dogs at a time.
Carriere said that she was looking for a way to give back and volunteer, and chose ECAD after seeing the dogs in training at a local mall.
“I had Collins with me during March and April and it was fine. I knew what to do and he was perfect. There are a whole lot of rules – don’t jump on the bed or furniture and stay in the kennel for meals and sleeping, for example. He even rang the door bell when he needed to go outside,” Carriere said. “Now I have one of the puppies, Crystal Cove, who was born on March 15. She already responds to lots of commands. I just love ECAD and try to stop by to help out during the week. They are a great organization.”
For more information and to learn more about volunteer opportunities, visit www.ecad1.org