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