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Interview with the CEO: Bonnie Bergin

 In National, News

For over a decade, Bonita Bergin has been the founder and CEO of Paws for Purple Hearts, the inventor of the mobility service dog concept, and a key innovator in the development of the concept of involving veterans in the training of service dogs as a therapeutic activity.  She was revolutionary as an early service dog training pioneer in developing an understanding of the best ways to train a high quality service dog. Over the past week, we had the opportunity to sit down with her and ask her some of the most frequently asked questions about service dog training. She is incredibly knowledgeable and was happy to share her wealth of knowledge on this topic with us, so without further ado, here is an interview with Bonnie Bergin.

Bonita ‘Bonnie’ Bergin
Dr. Bergin, the innovator of the service dog concept

Getting down to business

We first wanted to break down the most important aspect of what we do; whelping the dogs we train in our programs. Within Paws for Purple Hearts, we train Yellow and Black Labradors and Golden Retrievers, and crosses between the two breeds for those applying for one of our dogs. We wanted to better understand why we do this by asking the question, “In regards to training service dogs, facility dogs and specialist therapy dogs, why do you believe that labs and golden retrievers make the best fit for these training programs?”

Bonnie replied “These dogs are retrievers, they are bred to go out and bring something back for people. They want to work for people, help people.” This is undeniably true. These breeds are famous for their helpful demeanor and eagerness to learn. They not only pick up new commands quickly, but they are also incredibly enthusiastic about their training in general. Their desire to help is what makes them perfect for our mission, which is why our main focus is utilizing their abilities and allowing them to go out and serve. Within their first months of life, our puppies learn their basic commands that are the stepping stones to their future training.  Their natural traits make them perfect to retrieve and help others.  This is clear very quickly after they are born.

Retrievers love to serve!
Retrievers love to serve!

Commands, Training, and Difficulty

 Of course there are going to be complications and hiccups with training that we are all aware of. Not every dog is born to be a service dog, which is why we spend many years training them and watching what they pick up versus what is more challenging for them. When asked the question, “In your experience, what are the most difficult commands for a dog in training to pick up and on the flip side, what do you believe are the easiest?” Bonnie did not hesitate to respond that “when it comes to difficulty during training, it all depends on a specific trainer.” Her philosophy is that whenever a trainer struggles with a certain command and its implementation, then the dog will also struggle to learn and cognitively understand what the command means.

Our dogs begin learning commands from the time they are puppies.
Our dogs begin learning commands from the time they are puppies.

Whenever a dog in training is learning new commands, Dr. Bergin confirms that each dog, regardless of litter, defaults to sit. This means that the “sit” command is always the easiest for the dog to pick up because it’s an automatic response since they come up to you and sit regardless of understanding what the word means. Within our training program, there are over 110 different standard commands that a dog learns, so starting with “sit” in their first weeks of training only makes sense as it is the easiest for them to retain and then build upon as they learn more.

The sit commands is the easiest for dogs to pick up.
The sit commands is the easiest for dogs to pick up.

Separating From the Bunch

One of the most important questions we could have asked her was by far the easiest for Dr. Bergin to answer. “What makes Paws for Purple Hearts different from other organizations in this industry?” She responded: “There are a variety of attributes that separate Paws for Purple Hearts from organizations that provide high quality service dogs. Our main focus, and the key thing that separates us from the pack is our Canine-Assisted Warrior Therapy® program. Paws for Purple Hearts was the first service dog organization that prioritized the inclusion of canine-assisted therapy for Active-Duty Service Members and Veterans with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injuries as part of the process of placing and training dogs.”

Unlike other organizations, our innovative Canine-Assisted Warrior Therapy® is a major part of what we do. Here’s how it works: the therapist of a Veteran patient organizes a visit with us to come onto our site so the Veteran can help train the dog alongside our professionally trained Paws for Purple Hearts staff members. This therapy is like no other and has been shown to help reduce isolation and depression. The clinical outcomes that we have seen from our therapy program, which is the largest difference between us and other non-profits, surpass what we could have ever imagined and continue to amaze us every day.

David’s first Canine-Assisted Warrior Therapy® session
David’s first Canine-Assisted Warrior Therapy® session

Dr. Bergin continues to develop cognitively challenging commands that will further enhance the service dog industry, allowing Paws for Purple Hearts to remain an incredibly influential assistance dog organization. As we continue to grow and expand around the country, so does our reach to help more of our brave Warriors.

Think you or someone you know might benefit from one of our programs? Our Canine-Assisted Warrior Therapy® is free to all veterans and easy to attend, just follow the steps on our website to explore opportunities.  Interested in applying for one of our service, facility, or specialist therapy dogs?  Follow the link here to read more about the applications for each type of dog and see if you would be a good fit.

We are proud to offer a variety of different volunteer opportunities to those interested in helping out at their nearest PPH location. You can also help financially by donating through our website and support the training of our amazing four-legged friends!

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