|Making the grade at college for canines
Bergin University for Canine Studies draws pupils from many countries to help train service dogs
In a school office it is usually uncommon to be greeted by three smiling and patient dogs, but at Bergin University of Canine Studies they are as plentiful as the human students. Founded in 1991 and authorized by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) in 2004, Dr. Bonita Bergin has since educated hundreds of students from all over the world to better understand the undying relationship between human and dog.
“We have a lot of high school students who are really eager when they find this place,” says Dee Dee Ford, Director of Student Services on campus. “It combines their two loves: helping people and dogs. They didn’t think there was such a thing.”
Because Bergin is one of its kind students come from all over, mostly from the Midwest, and some even from Japan and Spain. They offer four training certificates, two Associate’s Degrees (Companion Dog Studies and Assisting Dog Education), a Bachelor’s in Canine Studies and a Master’s in Canine Life Sciences. Applicants are required to complete 24 units of general education beforehand.
“People tend to oversimplify what we do,” Ford explains, adding that all students are required to complete college-level presentations and papers.
After moving in January from their previous location in Santa Rosa, they are still settling into the old Cotati-Rohnert Park School District offices on Labath Ave.
The move was simply because they outgrew that spot, and the setting before was not beneficial for dogs having a place to run. The new campus is ideal, as the buildings were already set up as a school providing classrooms, activity rooms and an outdoor play area for agility training.
“Rohnert Park unfortunately is not as dog-friendly as Santa Rosa,” says Ford, referring specifically to her struggle when trying to house her students.
Still meets intolerance
Even when she goes to apartment management personally to introduce their program and what they do for the community, many places refuse to allow even service dogs because of their size. Bergin University only trains Labradors and Golden Retrievers because those breeds are best suited for the activities they teach.
Out in the quad, students line up with their dogs close beside as they move to a different classroom.
Each door handle is equipped with a knotted rope for the four-legged companions. Everyone is assigned one 4-month old canine in their first week and as long as they are a student, “the dog is with them always. And when I say always, I mean always,” Ford says, stressing it is an extensive commitment.
In the puppy-petting room, volunteers care for about four litters at a time, stimulating the newborns to human interaction as soon as possible. After four weeks they are sent to a care home and the caretakers are then called if a dog is needed for school.
Once at the university, the dogs learn to open and close doors, fetch items, answer phones and understand up to 106 vocal commands; they are trained only by positive reinforcement, not by shock collars or choke chains.
“We want the dog to want to do it,” Ford says of the training exercises. “They really want to do whatever they can to help their person, not for food, not to please but because they want to.”
Like their human students, each dog learns at their own pace in indoor and outdoor activities, including a mock apartment to practice household commands in, and mock training, where the student pretends in a wheelchair to be the dog’s client for a day in a public situation.
Unfortunately, 30-50 percent of dogs do not pass because of medical or temperament issues, which usually are discovered early, in which case it will be given to a home as a pet.
The student and pup graduate together, making for an emotional ceremony as it preludes their eventual separation. Alumni dogs then provide their services to those with disabilities and search-and-rescue. A recent project included a dog able to sniff out the Vine Mealybug, a pest detrimental to vineyards, in order to save the crops.
Serving military veterans
They also provide service dogs for military veterans with severe cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“We’ve had veterans who couldn’t go out in public, or couldn’t go to the mall. Then they got a dog from us, and they felt they could go outside for the first time in years.”
Alumni students, on the other hand, often end up continuing to train service and therapy dogs, enter the veterinarian and medical field or even open their own canine service facilities. The Autism Service Dogs for America in Oregon and the Hawaii Canines for Independence were both centers founded by Bergin graduates.
Much of the work and materials, such as the new flooring in the puppy room, at Bergin are donated or run by volunteers and many of the students present during summer do not attend class until fall, but simply volunteer their time to their embedded passion.
Volunteering spirit rises
“After what we’ve gone though in this country with the economic downfall, people see that there’s a bigger picture,” Ford says of the sudden surge of volunteerism. She is a hospice volunteer herself and encourages community involvement. “Enjoying your job and helping people out has become more important then large salaries.”
Bergin has taken it upon herself to inform the world there is a science between the role of dogs in human society and because of its uniqueness, popularity has spread worldwide. Because of one local university, highly trained service dogs for those whose lives depends them can be more readily available, as well as a school for students who want to combine their love of dogs and their love of helping.