Twenty-five years as an Army chaplain tested Tony Charles’ faith. But today, he has an angel that never leaves his side.
Dozer, a 4-year-old golden retriever, is Charles’ service dog. The two met in 2014, when Charles went to Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities in Torrington to be paired with one of their dogs, which are trained to help people with physical and emotional disabilities. On his fifth night at the center, Charles suffered one of the nightmares that had plagued him since he retired from the military in 2012.
“He woke me up out of the nightmare and chest-thumped me with his head,” Charles recalled. “I was disoriented as to where I was, and I said, ‘I got to find the lights.’ And when I said the word ‘lights,’ he went over and turned them on.
“I really believe he is an angel in disguise.”
Dozer is one of more than 350 dogs ECAD has placed with veterans, children with autism and people with physical disabilities. ECAD’s founders, Lu and Dale Picard, are now expanding their training center in Torrington, marking a new chapter in the center’s 22-year history.
“He’s helped me regain my sense of pride,” Charles said about Dozer. “I’m a different person. I’m much easier to live with.”
Match Made In Heaven
Charles returned from a tour in Kuwait with PTSD and a brain injury suffered when he was thrown out of an armored truck — “invisible wounds,” he called them. He had planned on getting a master’s degree in social work at UConn and working at Veteran’s Affairs, but he couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t rid himself of flashbacks from tours in the Middle East and Bosnia in the ’90s. The nightmares were happening three to four times a week, he said.
“I was lost as to what to do with my life,” he said. “I had thought I was going to be a social worker … thought I could spend the rest of my life helping families through the VA. But my doctor said I couldn’t do it.”
A psychologist suggested he apply for a service dog. Charles filed an application with ECAD, only to be told there was a two-year waiting list. He spent those two years raising money from the VA, the VFW and the American Legion to pull together the $25,000 needed to cover the cost of raising a service dog.
A family whose veteran son had taken his own life gave him $10,000. “They felt that if their son had gotten a service dog, that maybe he wouldn’t have committed suicide,” said Charles.
Finally, Charles met Dozer in 2014. “Without any coaxing he came and put his head between my knees,” he recalled. “It was a match made in heaven.”
The Picards have been raising service dogs since 1994, when Lu Picard’s father suffered a stroke and she trained the family dog, Juliette, to tug him off the couch and pick up the things he dropped. At the time, the Picards were managing convenience stores.
“I said, ‘Dale, this what I should do,'” Lu Picard recalled. “Running convenience stores is a job, but I needed something more. I needed something I could be passionate about.”
The two started ECAD in 1995 out of a two-car garage in West Granby. They’ve since moved to a larger facility in Torrington, and last week the Picards broke ground on the new center. They’ve raised $700,000 for the project, about half its estimated cost.
The 9,000-square-foot building will include housing for clients like Charles, who go through a two-week training session with their dogs before taking them home.
“There’s nothing worse than teaching 89 commands to a dog and giving him to someone who has no experience,” said Dale Picard. “The dog will just drive you nuts.”
Dogs That Open The Fridge
The Picards breed the dogs — all golden retrievers — on-site, and train them for a year before pairing them with clients. The dogs can open doors, fridges and washing machines for the physically disabled; they can press 911 panic buttons when their owners are hurt, and wake veterans like Charles from nightmares.
The dogs are remarkably attuned to their owners’ body language.
“I didn’t go to a mall for, like, seven years,” Charles said. “But now, if I get panicked because too many people are coming towards me, [Dozer] will sense that and pull me away from the crowd or the noise.”
The dogs are as indispensable to some clients “as much as their wheelchair is to them, or their cane,” said Lu.
Charles credits Dozer with pulling him out of the aimlessness that followed his retirement. The dog has given him a routine — three walks a day, grooming once a day, a toothbrushing every night.
Service dogs can help counter the guilt that often accompanies a disability, Lu said. After the stroke, her father felt he was a burden on his family; there was no convincing him otherwise, not until they trained the dog and he felt he was responsible, again, for something’s well-being.
“Nobody wants to be a burden on anybody,” she said, “and the dog needs you as much as you need them.”
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