East Coast Assistance Dogs was founded by Lu and Dale Picard. Prior to founding ECAD, Lu helped several business organizations in their startup efforts and gained experience in business and administration. When her father suffered a stroke, she saw how much he hated being dependent on her. She taught their family pet to help him rise from a chair and retrieve some items, and noticed that her dad actually became more active and less depressed than when all his help came from a human. Lu saw first hand how Service Dogs could change people's lives, and in 1995 quit her full-time job to start ECAD. One year later, her husband Dale also gave up his own business to work full time for ECAD. Dale was self-employed for many years and developed skills and talents that he put to good use in helping Lu establish ECAD. He purchased land in Connecticut, constructed kennels and offices, and redesigned the house in which Lu, Dale, and their two daughters lived.
Since then ECAD has received a nonprofit status and has grown to have training facilities in Connecticut and New York, and have placed Assistance Dogs in over a dozen states.
There is always a lot going on at ECAD, from the time the puppies are whelped until the day they graduate and every day inbetween. So how does it all happen? One step at a time. Here are our steps to success:
Step One: A great breeding program
Our pups are specially bred for good health and good temperaments. Their parents were the best of the best, and the pups are whelped at our Connecticut Breeding Center. They get lots of socialization right from the start, including going on school visits before they are even weaned.
Step Two: Early Education
When the pups are about two months old they officially start life as Service Dogs in Training. They are introduced to their trainers, who are students attending alternative high schools at residential treatment centers in New York's Putnam, Westchester, and Nassau counties. Through the ECADemy program, these teens who have often received little nurturing themselves learn to provide love, care, and training for the dogs. It takes a lot of patience, responsibility, and dedication to turn an eight-week old puppy into a mature and capable Service Dog.
Step Three: Higher Education
At ECAD, the puppies go through "kindergarten", "elementary", and "jr. high" and "high school" at one or more of our ECADemy schools, but they all end up at the Children's Village for "college" and "grad school". By the time the dogs go to CV, they know all the basics of Service Dog skills like obedience, retrieving, tugging, and hitting light switches. The CV trainers then refine those skills until the dogs are 100% reliable. After extensive interviews with prospective clients, they start to match the dogs' strengths to the needs of individuals who have been accepted into Team Training. Some clients need skills others don't; for example, someone who walks may need the dog to wear a balance harness and never pull them, while someone in a manual wheelchair may want the dog to pull them with a different type of harness. Other specialized tasks include autism training and ventilator alert training. One client even asked us to teach the dog could cross and uncross his legs for him--and we did!
Step Four: A little help from our friends
The pups spend weekends with families from lower New York and Connecticut. These are selfless people who volunteer to help ECAD make the dream of independence come true for people they have never even met. All the people involved with ECAD make special bonds with the dogs they care for and train. It takes a lot of heart to give up a dog you have bonded with month after month. Our student trainers, HOME for the Weekend handlers, and other volunteers know just how hard it is, but also how rewarding. We could not have achieved such a high level of success without our friends from the community, including our sponsors at Nutro pet products.
Step Five: Team Training
While the dogs have been training for up to two years, their future partners have also been busy. The application and fundraising process can take six months to a year, and it may take time for us to find just the right dog for that person's specific needs. But the wait is finally over in this step, which is about the process of matching clients with a canine partner during a two-week period called Team Training. It's an emotional time for the clients, whose mental, physical, and emotional limits are tested for 13 days. For the dogs, the process of bonding with a new partner can also be very stressful. For the trainers and volunteers, seeing their work come to an end is often bittersweet.
Step Six: Graduation
Graduation marks the final step for the trainers and volunteers, and is always an emotional event. It is not easy to say goodbye to the dogs, but the sense of pride and accomplishment makes it all worthwhile. They get great satisfaction from knowing they have changed someone else's life for the better. Here's how one client, Amy, expressed it: "When I saw Robert [my dog, Rico's trainer] at graduation, the tears just welled up in my eyes and I let them fall. I could see the sadness and yet excitement in his face to see Rico going off into the world and helping someone, and I was so thankful to him and to the other boys who had given me this gift."
Step Seven: Steps to Independence
When each client returns home with their new canine partner, they take their first steps to gaining independence, confidence, and hope for a better quality of life. For example, Kim was once in the US armed forces, but injuries left her afraid to leave the house alone because she was likely to fall and be unable to help herself. With Ivy by her side, the fear is gone. Ivy has prevented her from falling several times, and even if she does take a tumble, Ivy is there to help her get up again. Ivy doesn't think any less of her for being clumsy, and will even offer a kiss to make it better! This is just one of over a hundred stories of clients whose lives improve dramatically with the help of skilled, loving dog.