Changing Lives through the Service of Dogs

A unique and very popular college degree program is located quietly in local Penngrove, CA and serves students—and clients—from all over the world. Somewhat non-traditional in its focus, its mission is to provide service dogs to those with mobility issues, cognitive challenges and other disabilities as well as veterans with PTSD.

They train not only dogs, but their human counterparts as well—students of all ages from all over the world. Those students are earning their degrees and learning how to train the dogs that can change people’s lives.

The Bergin College of Canine Studies is accredited by the American Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. They offer Associate of Science (preparing students for careers in the service, facility, canine therapy and affiliated assistance dog related fields), Bachelor of Science (designed to bring the dog into the academic mainstream for scholarly study) and Master of Science degree programs (fueling students’ thirst for more development in the theoretical and applied studies of human-canine relationships). Students do their general education at another college then transfer to Bergin College to begin a rigorous course of study in the area of Cynology (canine studies).

“The dogs serve an integral purpose in a person’s life often serving as the difference between independence (i.e. going to a doctor’s office or to work, living alone) or perhaps feeling confined to home or having a limited quality of life,” says Connie Van Guilder, the college’s Director of Admission Services.”

Founder and CEO Bonnie Bergin is one of the dozen or so faculty at the college. Many years ago in Bergin’s travels she saw an elderly man leaning on a donkey in order to make himself mobile. That gave her some ideas. Why couldn’t her beloved canines be trained to help others live full, independent lives? Later she was asked to train a dog for a friend and found it changed her friend’s world.


Bergin College for Canine Studies was born.

Bergin started the college in 1991 with a heartfelt goal to populate the world with service dogs and to move canine studies into mainstream as a legitimate field of academic study. Her life’s goal was set and now, she and her faculty and staff further that mission every day. A typical student day is made up of one academic class and one class where the student trains his or her dog. Each student is assigned a dog that is with them 24/7. They go to class together and go home for nights and weekends together. The Bergin University dogs are trained for up to two years to learn more than 100 different words and commands.

Bergin’s received multiple awards over the years for her work, but a special one was in 2001 when she was awarded the Use Your Life (“real life angels who are changing lives and creating miracles”) award from Oprah Winfrey.

The college grew over the years as there is such a need for such training in the U.S. and around the world. Graduates leave equipped with the skills and knowledge to start their own assistance dog organizations or dog-related businesses.

“The school gave me my future. If I had not been able to find this school, I would not be running my current organization, and not able to help many people. I can't think of any other school that would give me the education that I got from Bergin University,” said Sae Hokoyama, service dog trainer in Tokyo.

Currently Bergin College has a student enrollment of 50 students—a pretty full load for them as much teaching and training space and resources are required. Students are taught by professionals in the animal world such as veterinarians trained from around the country and PhDs who teach such courses as sales and marketing, teaching students how to market and grow their own programs; research methodology and breeding and whelping. Bergin’s mission is two-fold: to train students to go out into the world and create programs to help others; and, to actually train the dogs to be service dogs and have them placed with those who need them to live independent lives.

Bergin College has its own breeding program, although sometimes dogs are gifted to the college. The dogs begin their training when only a few weeks old.

Connie Van Guilder, Director of Admission Services, says Bergin College primarily train Labs and Golden Retrievers as they breeds receptive to psychological and social training more than other breeds. What they look for in a dog in order to end up a successful service dog? The dog must be sweet, mellow in nature and have the ability to be trained. Simple attributes, but many dogs don’t make it as service dogs. They must be ever-alert and present with their owners, sometimes picking up items from the floor, summoning elevators, helping their owner dress or undress, assisting with standing or going up stairs. Some dogs are trained to be PTSD interrupters and recognize signs of anxiety and serve to calm their human, often called therapy dogs. For those who do not end up suitable as a service dog to a disabled person, for example, they work as facility dogs, visiting hospitals, working with police departments or serving as “nose” dogs, detecting cancers or drug sniffing. Some are released and go to the public as smart, loving pets.

While there is a charge for assistance dogs, Bergin has kept the cost extremely low compared to other training institutes and, “of course” she says, “there is no charge to veterans.”

While temporarily housed in the Penngrove Hatchery building, Bergin College for Canine Studies has recently purchased the old Green Mill Restaurant site on 10 acres on the Old Redwood Highway in Penngrove as its forever home. They plan to move in soon.

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Written by: Susan Kashack