WINSTED — Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities is hosting an open house on Oct. 3 to give the public a glimpse into the nonprofit’s work.
The organization, which trains service dogs for people with disabilities, was founded in 1995 by Lu and Dale Picard. Their daughter, Carrie Picard, is the nonprofit’s director of fund development and communications and was 14 years old when her parents founded the organization.
It started, she said, when her grandfather — Lu’s father — had a stroke. Her mother, who had already been training dogs for other purposes, decided the family dog could make for a good companion for her father.
“When my grandfather had a stroke he came to live with us,” said Carrie Picard. “He didn’t want the assistance of aids or his daughter or his son-in-law.”
It was clear that her grandfather’s morale was dropping though. She said he didn’t want to be anyone’s burden, but he needed some help.
“The spark in his eye was slowly diminishing,” Picard said. “He had a big affection for one of our family dogs. Noticing he was becoming more and more depressed...my mom asked him if she trained the dog to help him, would he get off the couch?”
The training employed was for small things that became hard for Picard’s grandfather, like reaching for items or simply getting up from a seated position.
“She trained the dog to help him get off the couch,” Picard said. “He felt more independent and he just felt more empowered. She then taught the dog to get the remote for him.”
Lu Picard quit her full-time job shortly after that and started the nonprofit she still runs with her family today.
“My mom has always been one who sees a problem and jumps into action. There’s got to be a solution,” Picard said. “She felt like this is what she should be doing. There are other people with disabilities who aren’t living their life to the fullest or on their terms. They don’t have to feel like they are dependent on another person. It’s the independence that everyone has the right to feel.”
The organization has placed well more than 350 assistance dogs nationwide. And they help in different ways than a guide dog or therapy dog might help others.
“It’s a different skill set. We always say that guide dogs become the eyes for the person. Hearing alert dogs become the ears for the person. These dogs become the arms and the legs for the person,” Picard said. “They do tasks that would otherwise be impossible...like opening a door, bracing for stability, helping people go up and down the stairs. It’s offering a different skillset.”
When they train a dog, the trainers try to put themselves in the position the person receiving assistance from the dog might be in.
“We put ourselves in the shoes of a person as much as possible. If they don’t have the use of their hands, as trainers, they’ll strap their arms down so they can’t use their hands,” Picard said. “So now, your pen just fell, or you can’t open that door. You want to go to bed but the light is on. It puts things into a clear picture of things that we take for granted.”
The nonprofit mostly trains Labrador and golden retrievers, or mixes of the two. Because of that, they said it’s important to have their own breeding program, which they established 20 years ago.
“People ask why we don’t use rescue dogs. The reality is that it takes a certain dog,” Picard said. “Not every dog can become a service dog. A person with a disability needs to make sure that dog is going to perform. We start training our puppies at a couple days old. We spend time grooming them from the time that they are born to the time they are placed. There’s a lot of pressure to perform when they’re in public. We want to make sure we aren’t putting our clients in harms way.”
The nonprofit opened a new building three years ago, but haven’t held many public events since then, particularly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They wanted to host this upcoming event to show the public the work they do and how they might get involved. Picard said they offer a number of volunteer opportunities to people of all ages, and even offer a program where people can take one of their dogs home for the weekend if they want to see what owning a dog looks like.
“We have a lot to offer the community and we want to make sure the community knows we’re here,” Picard said.