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Bonnie Bergin: The First Service Dog Team

 In Events, General, National

What better way to commemorate Women’s History Month than by sharing and celebrating the story of our founder, Dr. Bonnie Bergin! 

Dr. Bonnie Bergin is the creator of the concept of the service dog. She founded the world’s first mobility service dog organization in 1975 and has devoted her life to teaching and training dogs for individuals with disabilities. She also founded the Bergin College of Canine Studies, the first and only program of its kind that focuses on teaching individuals how to train dogs while providing them the knowledge to start their own assistance dog organizations. In 2006, at Bergin College, she started a research program with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Palo Alto Healthcare System’s Menlo Park, CA team and it led to the creation of Paws for Purple Hearts.

Bonita ‘Bonnie’ Bergin
Bonita ‘Bonnie’ Bergin, founder of Bergin College of Canine Studies

Bonnie is an inspirational person who has had world-wide impact.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the language for which Bonnie helped write, service dogs are allowed access to almost every public place with their handler. They make it possible for their human handler to live independently and overcome the challenges of everyday life. And Bonnie believes we have barely touched the surface of the human canine partnership.

Bonnie started as a special education teacher. In her work, she traveled to various countries in Europe and Asia. There she saw people with disabilities using donkeys to help them brace and walk. While getting her Masters at Sonoma State University, her professor asked her “What do you think you can do to improve the lives of people with disabilities?” She recalled what she had seen during her travels and answered “Dogs!  Dogs could do it. Dogs could help them.”

At the time Bonnie started training dogs, guide dogs for blind people were the only assistance dogs available. Bonnie didn’t know anything about training dogs and sought out advice from guide dog organizations but they said that it couldn’t be done. This is because the trainers at that time thought the only way to train dogs was using harsh training methods based on physical domination, and that mobility impaired people would not be able to physically command their dogs. But Bonnie found another way. A kinder, gentler method of training based on positive reinforcement. This kind of training opened the door to a while new population of dog trainers and owners; people who did not rely on physical domination.  She found that dogs are actually quite eager to please and they have the cognitive ability to understand. She used her love of teaching to instill methods by motivating them positively with treats to help them understand and carry out the tasks desired of them.  The dogs responded and a new era began!

Looking for support for her project, Bonnie contacted Santa Rosa’s Resources for Independence. The receptionist answered and Bonnie explained her idea and that she wanted to start a program. The receptionist was Kerry Knaus, a quadriplegic who was inspired by Bonnie’s idea. The two of them trained a dog that Bonnie had and they became the first service dog team. She didn’t know how to train in the existing orthodox manner.  She also had not yet found the limits of the capacity of what a dog can know. However, she asked Kerry what she needed and based the training off of those requirements. Kerry had 24 hour attendant care, but she wanted some independence of her own to enjoy life more. If she dropped something or needed someone to hold open the door for her she didn’t want to have to ask her caretaker all the time. These tasks formed the core of the mobility service dog repertoire used around the world to this day!

Dogs provide both physical and mental support and can be very helpful in mental health treatment. Paws for Purple Hearts helps Warriors with PTS, TBI and mobility issues. Using the Bergin method of training, we continue to involve our brave injured Warriors in the training and preparation of service dogs for their comrades in need during our innovative Canine Assisted Warrior Therapy®.   We are truly changing the world one paw at a time!  As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we want to take a moment to recognize Bonnie, a true pioneer who has done so much to develop and support people with disabilities and the service dog community!

To help support our mission, please consider visiting our website to donate or text “purplepaws” to 707070. Join with us to help serve those who served us by helping them on the road to recovery today!    

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