‘Home of the Service Dog’ USA
So here I am at Bergin University of Canine Studies in California. The widely recognised ‘Home of the Service Dog‘ is the life work of it’s founder Dr Bonita Bergin. The first contact I made in the USA about the WCMT ‘fellowship’ and my plans to visit was in 2014. I managed to speak on the phone to Dr Bonnie Bergin and was absolutely astounded at her generous offer of ‘immersing’ myself in service dog training by becoming a ‘mock’ client for two weeks. That was an opportunity too good to miss and I built the ‘fellowship’ around this.
The University is an amazing place! There are all kinds of courses for almost every aspect of canine learning. Dogs are bred and cared for, they can become medical detection dogs, dogs for autism, hearing dogs and all manner of service dogs. During every stage of the dog’s development there are students at various stages of their own degrees teaching them as other more senior students teach those students.
Somewhere in this rich cycle of learning and development I am being taught both the theory and the practise of training the assistance dogs I work with. We learn how a dog thinks, what motivates it and what hinders it’s learning, then we go and put what we have learned into practise. All the training is, of course, ‘positive reinforcement’ and we intersperse each session with copious amounts of doggie kisses and fun! When the dog needs to ‘reset’ a ‘happy circle’ or ‘throwing a party’ are great techniques to regain attention and get the focus needed to complete the task. It can take a while to achieve the goal and in doing so you get a great sense of accomplishment and so does your dog!
The superb trainers are always there to encourage, support and guide you, when you make a mistake they show you why something didn’t
work and suggest a change that might just make the difference, it usually does!
On my third day at Bergin University I was assigned my own dog! He is a big furry handsome Golden/lab crossbreed called Lance. Strangely enough he was the dog I most wanted to work with from the start. Mostly because he is smarter than I am and can help me through the rest of the course! We use the lead as our umbilical cord and we go everywhere together until we are ‘bonded’. I don’t know about Lance, but I’m loving spending all my time with him and I get to keep him with me for the rest of the course. He chills out with me at the hotel and we enjoy pizza and TV to relax after a hard (but enjoyable)
The University has an almost tangible air of ‘positivity’ to it, an openness and a willingness to share knowledge. I had the privilege of meeting a remarkable young man and ex marine Dan Fudge who is now a top trainer within the Uni. Dan has jointly set up the ‘Dogs Helping Veterans’ organisation with an ex soldier under the umbrella of the Bergin University. This programme has veterans teaching dogs to become service dogs. In doing so they build up their confidence and skill base and get the positivity of working closely with these wonderful dogs. Chris is one of the ‘actual’ clients on my course with PTSD who went through this programme prior to undertaking the two week course that I am experiencing. It has, without doubt, helped him to the point where he was assigned his service dog ‘King’.
The last few days have been intense, instructive and rather amazing! We have learned over 80 commands and put our classroom theory to the test. I’m not sure if it’s the oxytocin I crave or the joy of working with such a super smart furry fellow, but I will have a smile on my face and a spring in my step as I walk to the Bergin University with my Service Dog ‘Lance’ to resume out training tomorrow!
(Buddy and Max – if you get to hear about this … it’s in the name of research!)
*Buddy & Max – are Garry’s dogs