Assistance Dog Institute
Received by: Bonnie Bergin
Sponsored by: Paul Newman, Newman's Own
For more Information, please contact:
Institute 1215 Sebastopol Rd. Santa Rosa, CA
95407 PH: 707–545–3674 E-mail:
How it Began — Puppy Love
Bonnie Bergin is using puppy love to help heal the hearts of troubled teens. The Assistance Dog Institute program works with at-risk teenagers at high schools and juvenile centers to train dogs for people with disabilities.
"I actually chose to work with at-risk teens because I thought that bringing a dog into their lives would make a big difference," says Bonnie. "These kids are not just learning to train a dog, they're learning life skills. They're learning to work with people, to know how to get the most out of a relationship. It's amazing what they're getting out of this class."
Tyrone, a student in the program, had been caught stealing and doing drugs. His mother, Rebecca, was concerned about her son's future. "I definitely doubted at one point in time that this kid could love something," says Rebecca. "His connection with the dogs brought out a side of him I had never seen. Tyrone learned a lot of responsibility. Now he goes to school and he holds a job."
Tyrone says, "I want to be a veterinarian or something that involves being with animals."
The Solution — Training Helps Heal
The Institute's High School Assistance Dog Program includes hands-on dog training, dog and people psychology, and dog care and grooming. The dogs ride the bus to the juvenile center every day to meet the high school students for dog training. The students then teach the dogs basic commands as well as more sophisticated service dog commands like turning light switches on and off, and opening doors. The students must train the dogs using wheelchairs. Bonnie says, "Not only do they have compassion for someone that is disabled, but they have experienced it."
"I think one of the things we see most commonly lacking in these at-risk teens is self-control. But when you're working with a dog, you've got to control your emotions," says Bonnie. "And I think that's a critical thing that these kids take away from here."
"It's helped me feel good about myself knowing that I'm helping somebody who needs a disability dog and knowing I can be the person to help them," says Melissa.
"The dog program's helping me to make up for what I did to everyone else around me," says Garritt.
According to Bonnie, students in the program have a 50 - 60% decrease in violent behavior, and an 80% increase in school attendance. "I think they're learning to get in touch with a part of their being that allows them to feel joy and happiness to be loved and express love," says Bonnie.
"When I got into trouble, I was really depressed. I had no self-esteem, no self-confidence, self-worth. I'm really proud because I get to see how much my dog is learning from me," says Megan.
Check in with Assistance Dog Institute — See what they've accomplished with the Use Your Life Award!
Published on January 22, 2001