Bergin College of Canine Studies in Penngrove dedicated to teaching students, dogs to help those in need

Bergin College of Canine Studies was founded in 1991.|

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Service animals are an indispensable resource for people with disabilities. And countless hours are spent by teams of professionals training these animals – most commonly dogs – to understand dozens of commands, ranging from opening doors to pulling manual wheelchairs and identifying potential hazards – all in service of their owner.

But who trains the trainers?

After observing the beneficial role that donkeys played with helping disabled individuals abroad, Bonnie Bergin returned home to Santa Rosa in 1975, to implement that concept with canines. Shortly thereafter, Bergin founded Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa in an effort to train and connect service dogs to those in need.

When the organization began receiving requests to train more and more people who could then train service dogs, Bergin decided to open the Assistance Dog Institute in 1991 as a nonprofit service dog organization. The Assistance Dog Institute then became Bergin College of Canine Studies, which became Bergin’s own organization and school that offers degrees after students complete the various programs.

“When I created the service dog, I created Canine Companions to place the dogs,” Bergin said. “When I got this constant onslaught of people who wanted to learn how to do it – we were the only ones (at that time).”

The school itself has bounced around locations since its inception. It started in an old dentist office in Cotati, moved to another location in Rohnert Park, then to Sebastopol Road, over to Los Guilicos in Santa Rosa, back to the Sebastopol Road property, then Labath Avenue in Rohnert Park, a temporary spot in an old hatchery in Penngrove, and finally to its current location on Old Redwood Highway. Eventually, the nonprofit hopes to make the permanent move to Oregon.

Despite all the moves and potential move, the college’s goal has remained the same: provide the means for college students to obtain the skills and knowledge necessary to train service dogs for individuals living with a disability.

Before students are enrolled in Bergin College of Canine Studies, they must go through general education requirements at another college or university, since classes like English and mathematics aren’t offered on this campus. Once accepted into the college, they then choose which academic track they want to take. It’s here where students can enroll in the Assistance Dog Education Program or the School of Business and Companion Dogs or learn through the seven week certificate program. Bergin College of Canine Studies offers an associate, bachelor or master of science degree varying from three semesters to two years.

Yayoi Jiko, a native of Osaka, Japan, is in the second semester of the Associates in Assistance Dog education program and, when the spring semester wraps up, not only will she get her associate of science degree, but she will also have the knowledge and basic concepts required to train service dogs at nonprofits like Canine Companions and Paws for Purple Hearts.

“I came here for this school,” said Jiko, noting the rarity of the subject matter taught and degrees offered at Bergin College of Canine Studies. “I’m currently trying to get a job here (in the United States), possibly. I wish I (could get a bachelor’s degree) right after the associate, but I’m planning to work first so as soon as I can save up some money, I can come back.”

Currently, there are 30 students enrolled at Bergin College of Canine Studies.

Finding the right pups for the job

Through many years of trial and error, Bergin has tested countless breeds to see which dog best suits the needs of individuals living with a disability, often taking into account certain traits and breed-specific instincts like approachability and protectiveness. Bergin College of Canine Studies only utilizes golden retrievers and labrador retrievers for its service dogs for their very specific attributes.

“At the beginning, I didn’t know anything and, believe it or not, there was no research at that time,” Bergin said. “I tried German shepherds, I tried dobermanns, I tried clumber spaniels and a lot of breeds in between … but the retrievers have obviously been bred to retrieve, to bring something back to people and, with all these years and years of breeding, they are the most responsive to someone with a disability.”

By the time the dogs graduate, they learn 112 different commands. Then, they go on to live with people who have mobility issues and veterans with PTSD while others help in workplaces like healthcare and education, among other things.

Although retrievers are designated service dogs, Bergin College of Canine Studies also takes in rescue dogs from animal shelters across Sonoma County and utilizes them to teach students through various portions of the program while also aiming to find the dogs their forever homes.

“The shelter dog program and our service dog program are very different,” said Shelby Snead, development associate at Bergin College of Canine Studies. “Those pups never will graduate as service dogs, but what we aim to do is make them more desirable and get them out of the shelters and into a better home.”

About Bergin College of Canine Studies

The nonprofit helps connect service dogs to adults who have mobility issues and veterans with PTSD while others help in workplaces like healthcare and education, among other things. Students who want to become certified service dog trainers can apply at the Assistance Dog Institute where they will receive a degree after completing the p/rogram. Since the nonprofit’s founding in 1991, the dogs and all follow-up services are provided at no cost to clients.


More information: 707-545-3647,

Dogs get matched with their best friend

At their temporary Penngrove campus, a puppy room houses many of the newborn rescues and their parents, along with young service dogs. Here, the staff works with them on things like basic house training and exposing them to as much stimuli as possible. Students can also volunteer as a puppy room supervisor.

The nonprofit is open to volunteers and foster parents, too. Some of the service dogs are placed in a foster home while they’re puppies. They begin training as young as four weeks old and by a year and a half, they are on campus full-time with students. This helps socialize the puppy prior to the rigors of its coursework and helps them understand basic commands.

Once a service dog graduates from the program – and not all of them do – they are placed with a client on a waitlist for a fee, one that is considerably more affordable than the costs associated with training the dog, which can easily reach $25,000 by the time they’ve been raised, trained and placed with a companion.

For many clients, a service dog graduate of Bergin College of Canine Studies will cost $2,200 for the dog itself and $558 for an intensive two-week training course between the owner and the dog, which is taught by a student. If the client is a veteran, then fees are waived. “Career change dogs,” or dogs that didn’t reach the service dog program’s high standards, are available for adoption.

While new clients can expect to wait months, if not a year or more for their service dog, returning clients connect with a dog companion much faster.

Kathi Pugh, a Berkeley resident, said she has gained independence and a true companion thanks to her mobility service dog, Zola, and her former Bergin College of Canine Studies dog, Westy.

“I really appreciate the program and having known the people,” Pugh said. “Going on long walks outside with her gives me great joy. It’s much more fun running daily errands like shopping with a helper by your side.”

Sharilyn Marshall, a Penngrove resident, and Gilmore, her facility dog, run a private practice where they help individuals with complex traumas and co-occurring mental health conditions.

“Gilmore has added a new and exciting dynamic to my work with clients, most of whom struggle to regulate complex emotions such as shame, fear, self hate and hopelessness,” Marshall said. “Gilmore is not associated with perceived threat or judgment for these individual clients, thus his presence and physical engagement helps facilitate a calming of the nervous system while offering a bridge to connection and building of trust between myself and the client, which is a critical foundation for trauma recovery to occur.”

For many clients like Pugh and Marshall, much of this wouldn’t be possible without the unique program offered at Bergin College of Canine Studies.

Looking ahead during trying times

Like many of the schools in California, the severity of natural disasters like wildfires and prolonged draughts, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, Bergin College has experienced an estimated 50% drop in enrollment.

“We now have 30 (students),” Bergin said. “It’s very small, but we now have 30 and we were up to 60 and growing. Then the pandemic hit.”

Bergin and Bergin College of Canine Studies’ faculty are insistent about continuing to take proper COVID-19 precautions and they continue to maintain a strict mask policy among students and visitors.

Through a variety of gifts, grants, charitable contributions and tuition costs, the university is continually able to thrive in spite of a declining enrollment, though changes are being implemented to attract more students. Most importantly, the board is anticipating a relocation to Oregon where a campus is being conceptualized, one that can house and accommodate a larger student body.

“We’re in the process of looking at going to Oregon,” Bergin said. “We don’t have dormitories, the cost for student housing is outrageous, then there’s the drought … The board actually bought a place in Oregon that has tennis courts, a gymnasium, an auditorium, three dormitories and tons of classrooms.”

While the location may change, the differences that Bergin College of Canine Studies makes in the lives of its students and clientele are immeasurable.

“I would never have been able to obtain a certified facility dog without the specific and unique program offered (at the Bergin College of Canine Studies),” said Marshall. “The preparation and attention given to pairing the dogs with the handlers and dedicating several days on targeted skills for each dog’s specific settings showed a level of professionalism, care and affordability I know I would not have found working with any other organization.”

Sonoma Gives

Read more stories about locals giving back to their communities here.

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