Bonnie Bergin

Bonnie Bergin

Infobox Scientist
name = Bonita M. Bergin
box_width =

image_width = 100px
caption = Bonnie Bergin circa 1970
birth_date = 1945
birth_place = Port Angeles, Washington
death_date =
death_place =
residence = California
citizenship = American
nationality =
ethnicity =
field = Assistance Dog Education and Human-Canine Life Sciences
work_institutions = Bergin University of Canine Studies
alma_mater = Nova Southwestern University
doctoral_advisor =
doctoral_students =
known_for = Originator of the "service dog"
author_abbrev_bot =
author_abbrev_zoo =
influences =
influenced =
prizes =
religion =
footnotes =

Bonita M. Bergin Ed. D. (born 1945 in Port Angeles, Washington United States) is President of the Bergin University of Canine Studies and originator of the "service dog", dogs that are trained to help people with mobility limitations.

Early Years

Bergin moved to [ Sonoma County] two years after she was born. She was raised in the small northern [ California] town of Cloverdale.

Bonnie attended her first year of College at San Jose State University. She then traded the breadth of San Jose for the more familiar redwoods and countrified atmosphere of Humboldt State College in Eureka, California. There she met her husband Jim Bergin, who in 1968 took a teaching position that moved the two of them back to Sonoma County.

Living Abroad

The Bergins left the United States in 1971 for a two-year teaching stint in Shepparton, Australia. At the contract’s end, they took their savings and booked a low-cost overland trip through Asia and Europe. In Katmandu, Bergin witnessed sights that laid the foundation of the "service dog" concept. Donkeys and burros carried kitchen-wares for people who also used them as crutches while making their way to a street corner to sell their wares.

Similar sights in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey became commonplace and Bergin accepted them as a part of the culture. The awe of that first experience in Katmandu faded into a cultural norm.

Completing the overland trip in London, the Bergins applied to the Turkish Embassy for teaching jobs there.

ervice Dog Epiphany

At the end of that first school year Jim established his career in the United States. Since their contract with the Turkish schools required their presence throughout the summer months, Bonnie moved in with a school teacher.

There Bonnie experienced an epiphany which would be awakened in the Master’s class in Early Childhood/Special Education at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California. As she listened to her fellow classmates’ suggestions on ways to improve the lives of institutionalized people with disabilities, she was horrified by a perspective aimed at maintaining institutionalization: put stainless steel on the institution’s walls to prevent viral and bacterial problems; cook more nutritious meals.

Having seen people with disabilities make their own way in under-developed countries, Bonnie tried to share that vision with her fellow classmates. With only, “In Asia . . .“ out of her mouth, other students shouted her down with, “Don’t bring up Asia; in Asia they let their disabled people die!”

Shocked into silence, Bonnie reviewed those Asian memories of people with disabilities making do for themselves, often using burros as helpmates. Another striking memory, long set aside, was of a quadriplegic man propelling himself by his elbows, his whole body being dragged along behind in Ankara, Turkey.

Her first thought, that the sanitation department would not likely allow burros on the streets of Santa Rosa, was followed by, “… but dogs could do it!” Dogs could do tasks that would allow individuals with mobility limitations to live independently, on their own, a part of mainstream society.

Having no formal knowledge of dog training, she tried to convince others of the validity of this vision. Many dog organizations and dog trainers with whom she shared her idea all said it wouldn’t work, that it was a bad idea, to forget it, it was bad for the dog, bad for people with disabilities.

So strongly had she been struck by the idea, she couldn’t let it go, and left teaching to work in a dog kennel for $2 an hour to learn about dogs and dog breeds. Armed with this knowledge and a determination to help people with disabilities live more fulfilled, independent lives, she began the experiment that has resulted in the internationally acclaimed “service dog” concept.

Implementing the Service Dog Concept - Kerry and Abdul

Kerry Knaus, a severe quadriplegic, answered the phone at Santa Rosa’s Community Resources for Independence. Bonnie was hoping to speak to the CEO, to gain her support for this project and her help in locating someone willing to give it a try. Bonnie’s short explanation to the receptionist produced an amazing response, “I’ll try it,” from Kerry Knaus. Kerry’s disability was so severe that if her head fell forward, she could not lift it back up. At most she could lift one ounce, but in her power wheelchair she was a dynamo. Together the two of them, Bonnie and Kerry, worked with the very first service dog, Abdul. Bonnie would ask Kerry what help she needed and the two of them would work out a way to teach Abdul how to do it.

Had Abdul not been exceptional, the service dog might have had wait for another visionary to come along. But his gift to the world was that, as a happy, loving black Lab-Golden Retriever cross, he wanted nothing more than to please Kerry. Often he seemed to intuit what was needed as Bonnie and Kerry fumbled through an afternoon trying to elicit a response from him, neither having formal dog training experience. The application of Bonnie’s teaching experience seemed to produce results, but in truth, it was Abdul’s translation of that information into “dog talk” that transitioned Kerry’s needs into “service dog” commands.

Kerry’s attendant might leave mid-afternoon, returning after dark, leaving Kerry sitting alone in the dark. This resulted in teaching Abdul to turn on and off lights. That Kerry might drop the TV remote or a pen but not want to bother the attendant resulted in teaching Abdul to pick up frequently dropped or needed items. The fear that the house might catch on fire when the attendant was gone resulted in teaching Abdul to tug open doors. Those skills expanded to pulling wheelchairs, tugging down zippers and taking off socks as others sought out Bonnie to get a service dog to help with their special needs. Bonnie also learned over time how incredibly important the service dog’s role of partner and best friend was to those whose disability often left them socially marginalized. Equally important, to a public that heretofore looked right past them, the dog now acted as a social bridge attracting attention and conversation.

Canine Companions for Independence

Having gone back to teaching, Bonnie spent evenings and weekends developing a vernacular for this new concept, settling on the name “service dog” for dogs helping people with mobility limitations and “participant” for those individuals getting a dog – to represent their involvement in the process of getting a dog. She finally settled on the name “Canine Companions for Independence” (CCI) to represent the independence this loving partner would make available to a person with disabilities. After many tries, her sketch of the disabled symbol and an outline of a retriever-type dog with his paw raised facing each other were settled on as the concept’s logo. Behaviors that Kerry and others wanted the dog to perform, like “wait,” “pull,” “tug” and “better hurry” became new commands. The pressures that came with building a new concept were enormous. Days and nights were absorbed by decisions, perspectives, problems, and developing solutions.

Initially operating the program from her home, Bonnie worked at two part-time jobs to support it, while placing dogs with individuals with disabilities as far east as Sacramento and as far south as San Jose. She initially placed puppies with individuals with mobility impairments, expecting the pup to grow up with a more in-depth understanding of the disabled individual's limitations. This did not work, since caring for a pup was so strenuous. And when not monitored properly, the pups were learning problematic behaviors.

Continuing to experiment, Bonnie worked with local humane societies and animal shelters hoping to incorporate the rescuing of adult dogs with these new assistance dog functions. While an occasional dog was successful in its efforts, Bonnie found that with most of these dogs, some unknown problem behavior would appear at the most inopportune time causing the placement to fail. She returned to her original idea of breeding for the quality dog needed, but implemented a puppy-raising program to fill in the gap between puppyhood and a trained SERVICE dog placement.

During that same time, requests began coming in for dogs that could work in facilities. Bonnie personally visited, worked with, and trained others to work with convalescing and geriatric patients using obedience-trained dogs. It soon became obvious that in order for the greatest benefits to be derived from this pet-facilitated therapeutic function, the dogs needed to respond to specific commands that would facilitate the speech, physical and recreational therapy programs currently being offered the residents. As a result, specific activities were identified and commands were developed such that the dog's function was more fully integrated into the specific facility's functions to the greater benefit of the residents and staff.

In early 1981, with the basic program outline in place, and the service, hearing and social dog concepts functioning fairly well, Bonnie wrote and received her first grant, and was thrilled to move the program out of her home. CCI was moved into a small kitchen and one car garage on 7th street in Santa Rosa. At the time, Bonnie knew nothing about kennel permits, nor about employing staff. The first individuals hired were for minimum wage, and acted accordingly.

In October of that same year one of the recipients of a dog offered to purchase a location for CCI to use. Bonnie was grateful, but had modest, unassuming expectations and would not let the recipient spend much money. Thus the recipient ended up purchasing and leasing to CCI an old broken down warehouse on Sebastopol Road in Santa Rosa that, almost immediately upon moving into it, was condemned by the county.

Despite the numerous setbacks, the successful placements kept adding up. The demand for service dogs also grew. Bonnie made two trips to Israel placing one service and one hearing dog there. Her innate business acumen saw a need to market this concept such that more people with disabilities could be served throughout the United States and abroad. Consequently, she worked toward expansion, risking the opening of regional centers in order to position CCI in the major metropolitan centers of the country – Los Angeles, New York, Ohio and Florida, with a plan to open in Texas.

Matching Recipients and Dogs

Years of placing dogs with people with disabilities brought another issue to the forefront. How best to identify the personalities of recipients and their assistance dogs and how best to match them. Recipient would call complaining about a behavior of their dog that was more a personality issue than a workmanship issue. Until then, gauging either’s personality and matching them was very subjective. A structured method was direly needed. At a fundraising seminar that categorized people according to body language Bonnie realized that same body language personality cues could be applied to dogs. She began using the Wilson Learning “social styles” to categorize both recipients of dogs and the dogs themselves, then matched the two. It became obvious that recipients liked dogs more like themselves, but preferred the dog to be somewhat less assertive than they to minimize challenges. This became the foundation of the Institute recipient/dog matching process.

Assistance Dog International

In 1989, while attending a hearing dog conference sponsored by American Humane in Colorado who had offered to support the development of a “hearing dog” association, Bonnie encouraged the group not to accept that offer suggesting instead that the association that needed to be developed should be inclusive of all dogs helping people with disabilities: guide, service, hearing and others. She also lobbied [from her travels] for its being international in scope. Her point of view prevailed and her suggested name, [ Assistance Dog International] , was adopted. She was voted the founding president of the new organization.

American with Disabilities Act

That same year Bonnie received a call from the Justice Department asking for her help in developing the [ Americans with Disabilities Act] (ADA) regulations regarding assistance dogs. Testifying before a congressional committee and providing information about service dogs to the Justice Department inadvertently resulted in Bonnie’s terms, “service dog,” not the umbrella term for all assistance animals and “signal” dog representing the generally accepted “hearing” dog terminology. To this day Bonnie and the industry use the term “service” to represent dogs helping people with mobility limitations and “assistance” as the umbrella term for dogs helping people with disabilities. Terminology aside, the ADA assistance dog regulations have put a mark on the future of assistance dogs helping people with disabilities for years to come. When passed by Congress in 1990, Bonnie was invited to the Rose Garden to witness President George H.W. Bush’s signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Leaving CCI

As a result of regional and national print and broadcast media about the service dog, Reader’s Digest, 20/20, Life magazine and others, letters and calls poured in from people wanting to be taught how to train service dogs, colleagues from the Hearing Dog meeting amongst them. This presented a difficult dilemma. Firstly, CCI had no materials that taught “how to do it,” and no time to develop them, and secondly, responding to these requests would create CCI’s competition. On the other hand, there was now a five-to-ten year waiting list for service dogs. Bonnie had to decide if her loyalty was to CCI or to the “service dog.”

The Assistance Dog Institute

In 1991, she left CCI to found the [ Assistance Dog Institute] offering a six-week seminar to educate others on how to develop assistance dog programs thereby reducing the wait for a service dog. Her move from a program providing dogs to an educational institution allowed her the opportunity to respond to the Delta Society’s 1992 request for help to start their very successful People Pet Partner’s program and the National Disaster Search Foundation’s development of their search dog program.

The Assistance Dog Institute was dedicated to both education and research and development of new and better assistance dog methodologies. Bonnie had long felt that the assistance dog industry was operating with anecdotal methods, thrown together with little science to back them up. Results of the Institute’s research is shared with all assistance dog programs so that more disabled individuals can benefit from the independence resulting from this unique working relationship with a dog.

High Schooled Assistance Dogs

Despite having completed a doctorate at Nova Southwestern University, Bonnie became convinced that training dogs had provided her with the most relevant education. She called El Camino High School in Rohnert Park, a school that concentrated on youth at-risk, requesting to run a dog training program for some of the students. She had the students work with shelter dogs – and it was magic! Although at CCI she had required her trainers to have a Bachelor’s Degree, she realized that these young students had the sensitivity and motor skills to train service dogs thus beginning the High Schooled Assistance Dog Program whereby youth at-risk in juvenile halls and other specialized facilities trained service dogs to help individuals with disabilities, providing therapy for the teens and an “unconditionally loving” helpmate to people with disabilities.

Assistance Dog User Council

Bonnie was concerned that the assistance dog industry was top-heavy with program control, allowing for no input from the recipients receiving the dogs. She felt it needed balance. In 1993, she invited a group of individuals with disabilities who had assistance dogs to meet with her to resolve this imbalance. The goal was to empower dog recipients by developing a recipient organization whose objectives would be to develop a national network for assistance dog users advocating for access rights for all assistance dogs, mediating between programs and assistance dog recipients, and educating the general public abut the services provided by assistance dogs. Such an organization, Bonnie thought, would ensure that the recipients’ needs were met. It was provisionally named the Assistance Dog User Council (ADUC). A group of assistance dog partners attending this first meeting were determined that any such organisation should be user led, and thus formed their own organisation which is known as the [ International Association of Assistance Dog Partners] (IAADP) currently offering many benefits to their members.

Simultaneously Bonnie created the Assistance Dog United Campaign, a program that provides vouchers to low-income individuals with disabilities to take to the program of their choice to get an assistance dog. Again, it was about empowering the dog user, in this case financially, to ensure their voice would be heard when applying for a dog. The concept of not charging for a dog, one that Bonnie supported initially by turning down money from participants, was revisited. Bonnie came to realize that refusing to take money from dog recipients decreases their empowerment at the program to whom they apply.

Fees for Services

Bonnie came to realize that not taking money from people living with disabilities is a form of discrimination. Where else does one find highly trained dogs given away for free. Certainly a sliding scale or scholarship should be available for low-income applicants, but a service dog provided to someone whose adjusted gross income tops $60,000 needs to be reconsidered. Was that donor who squeezed $25 out of a very tight monthly budget expecting that her donation would support an assistance dog going to someone with a disability whose adjusted (after medical expenses) monthly income exceeded her own? So Bonnie's approach to the disabled recipients changed over time. Individuals with mobility and hearing impairments and facility placements were required to pay a small application fee in order to get a dog. This was a way of ensuring more accountability on their part. The program was essentially restructured, making the recipient carry significant responsibility. Classes were held, trading the costly one-on-one home placements for a team dynamic amongst the recipients. The person with the disability or facility handler and his/her dog had a lifetime working partnership for which no third party could be responsible - it needed to be between the two of them.

Early Puppy Education

One area of Bonnie’s research involved puppies, paralleling her Master’s work in Early Childhood Education. Her staff and students began training pups earlier and earlier peaking at 3-3.5 weeks of age. Her research found that this early learning not only teaches a pup how to learn but that it makes lasting behavioral impressions in the mind of the adult dog. One pup, taught to turn on the light at seven weeks, then given no exposure to this task for six months, upon request immediately turned on the light at eight months. A similar study, a two-year period with no intervening practice, resulted in the same response. Early puppy training is now an integral part of all Institute dog training classes.

Euro-Assistance Dog organization

In October 2000 Bonnie with the help of ANECAH of France gathered a group of European programs together to share the results of her research, and seed the beginning of a Euro-Assistance Dog organization hopefully to become a part of Assistance Dogs International. This dream is now reality with both the European organization in place and its membership in Assistance Dog International secured. Bonnie has spoken or taught in numerous other countries around the world, notably Japan. Her flight to Buenos Aries was cancelled on 9/11/01.

Teaching Dogs How to Read

A dream Bonnie had for many years was to see if dogs could read static abstract symbols. Her research supported this hypothesis suggesting that learning to read symbols affects the plasticity of a pup’s brain, potentially expanding their ability to conceptualize. Their keen perception was actually able to recognize and respond to the difference between a doggie stick figure in a “sit” posture and one almost exactly the same with the subtle difference of its paw being held up in a “shake” posture. A further assumption, that an increased ability to conceptualize will increase the service dog’s ability to problem-solve for his human partner.

Vine Mealybug Detection Dogs

Seeking to help the local vineyards eradicate the devastating pest, the glassy-winged sharp shooter, Bonnie approached a local grower who immediately pointed to the vine mealybug as the pest needing immediate attention. Working with the vine mealybug working group, the Institute trained dogs to sniff out the presence of the female vine mealybug’s pheromone thereby locating the pest before it spread through the entire vineyard.

Bergin University of Canine Studies

In 2001, first rejecting, then considering and finally accepting the revised application, the California Bureau of Private and Post-Secondary Education approved the Institute’s application to become the first college in the world to offer Associate of Science Degrees in Assistance Dog Education and Human-Canine Life Sciences. Bonnie’s dream of the dog becoming an academic, scholarly subject of study was realized.Bonnie applied to and the Bureau of Private Post Secondary and Vocational Education approved the Institute’s offering of a Master’s Degree in Assistance Dog Education and Human-Canine Life Sciences in 2004 and a Bachelor’s Degree in Cynology in 2006. Her application on behalf of the Institute for accreditation was accepted by the regional Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) in 2007, starting the intense six-year process of gaining full accreditation. The Institute has also applied to the national Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) for accreditation and expects to complete that process in late 2008.

In appreciation for all her work, the Institute’s Board of Trustee’s renamed the Institute, the Bergin University of Canine Studies. The Assistance Dog Institute’s name will remain in use representing the college of assistance dog studies. Other divisions like the College of Scent Detection focusing on dogs being trained in any area of scent work including cancer detection and bomb detection will develop. The College of Canine Health, the College of Canine Behavior and Training and others are expected to develop as the University grows. Currently the University is located on Sebastopol Road in [ Santa Rosa] , California, but a new site is being sought that will allow for future growth.

Published Books:

[ "Teach Your Dog To Read. Broadway Books, 2006.]

[ "The SMARTEST DOG: The Selection, Training and Placement of Service Dogs"Assistance Dog Institute, 1998.] [ "Author: Bonnie Bergin's Guide to Bringing Out the Best in Your Dog" Little Brown and Company, 1995."]

Television Series:

"1994 You and Your Great Dog. - KQED TV Dr. Bergin hosts series"

Awards and Recognition

"2001 Angel Productions “Use Your Life Award” [Oprah]

2000 Daily Point of Light – George Bush’s Presidential Points of Light Award

1987 Distinguished Service Award

President's Committee on Employment for the Handicapped"

External links


Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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