Service dogs have become a commonplace part of society today, but the story behind their origin proves it wasn’t an easy road to success.
Bonnie Bergin still smiles when she sees a storefront sign that reads “Service Dogs Welcome.” These signs are now commonplace in the United States, but more than 40 years ago, they didn’t exist. Back then, most Americans with disabilities were separated from society and institutionalized. During the mid 1970s, Bergin began exploring the idea of partnering canines with humans to aid with basic life tasks, and her notion eventually revolutionized life for those with disabilities worldwide. Today, many Americans with disabilities are able to maintain independence and integrate into the everyday world with the help of their loyal, four-legged companions.
A self-described shy, country girl, Bergin grew up in Cloverdale with two siblings and the family dog, Buck. Later, the family moved to Willits and expanded with a new brother and a dog named Sport. For a time, young Bonnie and her mom drove to Ukiah every week to train Sport. Choke collars and jerks were the norm then, but the trainer taught Bonnie and her mom to use treats instead, a practice that would influence her later.
Bonnie attended Humboldt State College in Eureka, where she met her husband, Jim. In 1968, they moved to Sonoma County. Bonnie finished her degree at Sonoma State University (SSU), while Jim taught at a middle school across the street from where they lived in Rohnert Park. They adopted a mixed-breed pup, which they named Socrates, who had a tendency to dig and kept them amused with his intelligence and antics.
Though the couple had built a fence around their yard, Socrates mastered his escape route. “Socrates would dig under the fence to get to the school where Jim taught,” Bergin recalls, smiling. Socrates would amble into Jim’s classroom, take a seat on his haunches and place his paws on the desktop, mimicking the students in class. Says Bergin, “Dogs are amazing, and most owners know it. They sense their pets’ knowledge and abilities, but science is only now proving it.”
And though Bergin planned to remain in education and take a back-seat position to Jim’s career (as many wives did during that era),her vision to partner dogs and people happened after her experience with Socrates and a string of seemingly random events.
In 1971, the Bergins left the United States for a two-year teaching stint in Shepparton, Australia. Once they completed their contracts, they booked a low-cost overland trip through Asia and Europe before returning stateside.
One day, in Katmandu, Nepal, Bergin watched with great awe as a man limped along a road using a donkey like a crutch. The donkey was also equipped with pots and pans the man sold on the street. In that environment, he was part of the economic fabric of the community, she says, and he was able to live a life of purpose. Another striking image during their time abroad came from watching a quadriplegic man, lying flat on the ground, propel himself by his elbows across a six-lane freeway in Ankara, Turkey. Both images remained with her, but she soon found it to be a familiar sight. Donkeys and burros commonly transported kitchenware for people, many of whom also used them as crutches while making their way to various street corners to sell their wares.
She saw similar sights in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey. While the sight of the man with his donkey faded into the cultural norm, she noted the stark contrast of how people with disabilities were living in the United States, which often meant living in an institution, unintentionally isolated from everyday society.
A defining moment
In 1974, the Bergins returned to the United States and Bonnie enrolled at SSU to get a master’s degree in special education. One day, in her early childhood special education class, Bergin’s professor posed this question in class: How could people with disabilities be better helped?
“One student suggested providing better meals in the institutions,” Bergin recalled. “Another suggested that stainless steel should be used on walls in the institutions to prevent viral and bacterial problems.”
The memory of the man in Katmandu with his donkey, selling pots and pans on the street came to mind. Though still shy at 30, Bergin’s hand shot up, and when the professor called on her, she had only begun with: “In Asia…” when Bergin’s classmates who had heard the stories before, immediately shut her down.
One student shouted, “Don’t bring up Asia!”
Another chimed in, “In Asia they let their disabled people die!”
Bergin remained silent that day, but the idea took hold inside of her and the images of the people of Asia using donkeys and burros as helpmates continued to ribbon through her thoughts. She knew it was highly doubtful those animals could be used in the same way on the streets of Santa Rosa, due to sanitation restrictions. But what about dogs? Dogs could perform tasks that would let individuals with mobility limitations live independently and integrate into mainstream society.
Having never formally trained a dog on her own, she suggested the idea to Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael and inquired about the possibility with other dog experts, but the response was always the same: It couldn’t be done. “They told me it was a bad idea and wouldn’t be good for the dog or the owner,” says Bergin. Further complicating her idea was the punishment-based manner in which dogs were trained at the time. “A disabled person wouldn’t be able to use a choke chain,” Bergin explains. But Bergin was determined and, she now admits, naïveté was on her side. “I was a novice and had no formal knowledge. But sometimes ignorance is bliss,” she says with a smile.
Bergin, who was substitute teaching at the time, left education and started working at a dog kennel for $2 per hour to learn about dogs and dog breeds. She remained there for several months while searching for a way to bring her idea into reality. Her experience there would become the foundation of an internationally acclaimed “service dog” concept that would change life for disabled Americans in extraordinary ways.
Meanwhile, her own Golden Retriever at the time, Jada, was accidentally bred to a neighboring Labrador, which resulted in a litter. The first pup Bergin trained was from that litter, but she needed someone willing to take a chance and work on the project together.
The first service dog
In 1975, Bergin called Santa Rosa’s Community Resources for Independence. She was hoping to speak with the chief executive officer and gain support for the project. As she explained her request to the receptionist, Kerry Knaus, over the phone, Knaus’ response took Bergin by surprise. “I’ll try it,” she said.
Knaus was living with severe quadriplegia. The most she could lift with an arm was one ounce, and if her head fell forward, she needed help lifting it back into place. She required 24-hour assistance from an attendant, but sometimes the attendant had to leave Knaus alone for short spans of time. If the TV remote fell out of her lap or her head dropped forward, Knaus remained that way, alone and sometimes in the dark, until her attendant returned.
Bergin asked Knaus what she needed from a service dog. Her requests were simple: A dog that could turn on the lights, pick up a TV remote or a pen, open a door in case of a fire and lift her head back into place if it fell forward. If these tasks were possible, it would dramatically change her life.
Together, Bergin and Knaus began working with a pup from Jada’s litter that Knaus named Abdul. Since neither had ever formally trained a dog, there were fumbles trying to get Abdul to elicit a response. But Abdul was a happy, loving pup that wanted nothing more than to please Knaus. “Dogs are dyadic; they want a partnership and it’s important to them,” Bergin explains. “And their relationship with humans is stronger than with other dogs.”
As it turned out, Abdul was an exceptional dog and paved the way to the service dog concept. It was his translation of the information he was given into “dog talk” that transitioned Knaus’ needs into service dog commands. For example, Bergin showed Abdul how to turn a light switch on and off with her fingers, but Abdul was able to achieve the same result with his nose. (See “Dog Talk” on page XX.)
After two years of training, Abdul became Knaus’ faithful companion, helping her with the daily tasks that were challenging, and his skill set expanded. Abdul learned to tug down zippers and take off socks. Equally important, Bergin found that Abdul’s companionship brought another unexpected gift. “A service dog serves as ‘social bridge’ for someone living with a disability,” says Bergin. They attract attention and conversation, smoothing the way for those living with disabilities to interact socially.
The service-dog concept
Bergin eventually returned to teaching, but she spent evenings and weekends developing a vernacular for the service-dog concept. She ran her business out of her home and called the program Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) to represent the loving partnership that a four-legged companion would afford a person with disabilities.
She settled on the term “service dog” for canines helping people with mobility limitations, and “participant” for the individuals getting a dog. New commands that signified behaviors they wanted the dogs to perform included “wait,” “pull,” “tug” and “better hurry.”
What’s more, Bergin followed her own instincts when it came to dog training. There was no choke-training involved because she didn’t have formal training skills. Instead, she relied on the treat-training method she had learned as a 12-year-old girl.
Bergin placed another puppy with an individual with mobility impairments, expecting the pup to grow up with a more in-depth understanding of the disabled owner’s limitations. (This pup, Rusty, also came from Jada’s litter.) But she quickly learned this didn’t work since raising a pup is strenuous, and when the pups weren’t monitored properly, they developed problematic behaviors. Eventually, Bergin returned to her original idea of breeding for the type of dog that’s easily trainable (meaning not interested in chasing cats or birds), has a gentle temperament, is eager to please and dedicated to a disabled partner.
Despite the challenges, the number of successful placements continued to increase, and Bergin started planning to market the concept throughout the U.S. and abroad. By 1980, she had expanded the business in major metropolitan areas in the country, including Long Island, San Diego, Ohio and Florida and laid the groundwork to open in Texas as well.
Service dog skills
Service dogs learn to work beside an individual in a wheelchair and learn a variety of useful tasks, which can include retrieving dropped TV remotes, mobile phones, and pens; turning on and off lights; tugging open and closing doors; handing a clerk an item to purchase and the credit card to pay for it; and pulling wheelchairs.
Aside from helping individuals in wheelchairs, service dogs are also placed with children living with autism or diabetes. When an autistic child experiences an emotional meltdown, for example, the dog will lie on the child to calm him. Or, if a baby is diagnosed with Type I diabetes, a service dog is trained to alert the parents that the child’s blood sugar has reached a dangerous level.
Service dogs are also helping children learn to read. Science proves oral reading helps children improve their reading skills. As a result, dogs are now being trained to look at a book and sit or lay still, so a child can read aloud to them. (Dogs can be trained to read simple words such as “sit” and “down.”) Studies show that when a child reads to a dog regularly, their reading levels increase two to three grade levels, says Bergin. If the dog begins to lose interest, the child is taught that, by tapping the page, the dog knows to focus again on the story.
In the spotlight
During the early 1990s,Bergin’s service dog concept made national news. She was featured in Reader’s Digest, Life magazine and the television program “20/20.” She received an avalanche of letters and phone calls from people wanting to learn how to train service dogs, which created a dilemma: Responding to these requests would create competition for CCI, but the need for service dogs was monumental.
CCI had a five- to 10-year waiting list for service dogs. “I’d painted myself into a corner,” she recalled. Bergin made a bold move and left the organization she founded, realizing her loyalty was to service dogs. By educating others on the techniques to train service dogs, she would be creating CCI’s competition. But Bergin’s passion remained with her service dog concept. Training others in the techniques would ultimately help more people with disabilities.
A new beginning
In 1991, Bergin left CCI and founded the Assistance Dog Institute (ADI), offering a six-week seminar to educate others on how to develop assistance dog programs. Though she’s no longer involved with CCI, she still takes great pleasure in the organization’s success.
Eventually ADI’s work training students evolved and was recognized as a professional skill that should be awarded a college-level degree. Bergin applied to the California Bureau of Private and Post-Secondary Education for approval to offer an associate of science degree in assistance dog education and human-canine life sciences. Later, a formal application followed to the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, an accreditation arm of the United States Department of Education. The board of trustees of the university chose to rename ADI to Bergin University of Canine Studies to honor Bergin for her work. Today, Bergin University, located in Rohnert Park, offers four degree programs.
The human-canine partnership
In the 25 years since Bergin University was founded, about 180 students have earned degrees and 271 students completed the service-dog training seminar. Students can earn an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree. And while the organization has made great progress in working with their four-legged companions, its philosophy remains the same: The possibilities of the human-canine partnership are limited only by human imagination.
“We don’t give enough credit to what dogs can do,” says Bergin. “They’re not domesticated wolves; their DNA, capabilities and psychology are closer to that of humans and continues to astound me.” Case in point: Canine graduates learn more than 106 commands during their two-and-a-half year training program. Bergin once taught three-week-old puppies how to switch off a light, and then never commanded them to repeat the task. When those pups were six months old, they responded appropriately to the command.
As for the training methods used at Bergin University, they continue to evolve. “The methods we use aren’t lightweight,” says Bergin. “Training involves scientific methods, and no pain or aggression is involved.” Bergin is finding that dogs are master imitators. She demonstrates her point when she asks her own faithful companion, Judy, to twirl. Bergin holds a treat in her hand, which commands Judy’s attention. Bergin twirls in her office. Judy watches her intently. “Mimic,” Bergin commands. And Judy twirls for her master and is awarded a treat. “I believe mimicking will [one day] become the most common method of training,” she says.
On the horizon
The woman who invented the service dog concept is still looking for new ways to help people and canines work together. At 71, Bergin is still in the prime of her life and she’s doing what she loves doing most.
As for the future of the university, Bergin continues to blaze new trails. She plans to expand the college and is currently looking for a new property for their students and pups. She’s also working with the Sonoma North County Detention Facility to teach inmates how to train service dogs. Early work there shows the canine-human interaction is beneficial to both inmates and service-dog students—inmates learn a useful skill, the pups receive training and both parties feel a sense of purpose and accomplishment. And according to Bergin, the warden has observed, that once the pups arrive, there are fewer behavioral issues at the facility.
What advice does Bergin have for women who have a novel idea? “Be persistent and be passionate,” Bergin says. “If you love your work, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Meanwhile, work continues at Bergin University one day at a time. The resident cat, Rags, who lives outside Bergin’s office, plays a key role, teaching the dogs to befriend their natural nemesis. A new litter of pups was born in January¾six males and five females¾and this litter was designated “R” names. The pups are busy learning new skills with the hope that one day, they’ll bring a bit of light and magic to the everyday life of their human partners.
Service Dogs vs. Assistance Dogs
What’s the difference between a service dog and an assistance dog? A service dog helps a person with mobility limitations. An assistance dog is the umbrella term used for those dogs helping people with all disabilities. (There are hearing dogs, guide dogs, autism dogs, diabetic alert dogs and dogs trained to help with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, among others.)
The “Cuddle Hormone”
The relationship between humans and canines is unique and develops much like the bond between a mother and her newborn. “It’s an amazing, enriching relationship. Touch and eye contact [between humans and dogs] releases oxytocin,” explains Bergin.
Oxytocin is a hormone secreted by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland, a pea-sized structure at the base of the brain, that’s sometimes referred to as the “cuddle hormone” or the “love hormone.” Even playing with your dog can cause an oxytocin surge, according to a 2009 study published in the journal Hormones & Behavior.
How does a service dog student master a skill such as closing a door or switching on a light? Dogs are highly intelligent and will translate the command into what Founder Bonnie Bergin likes to call “dog talk.” So while a dog trainer will close a door with his hand, the service dog student will respond to the command in an appropriate dog way. Says Bergin, “Most dogs will shut the door with their paws, but we had one dog that used his nose to shut doors.”
Did you know?
It takes about $25,000 to train a service dog, which includes training time, feed and vet bills. There’s a 70 percent success rate for the pups they train.
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