At 13 years old, Makenna Enger is very outgoing, loves to sing, and charmed all attending the Bergin University of Canine Studies summer graduation ceremony last year with her electric smile and her rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Makenna also lives with a disability that limits her mobility, and she and her service dog, Ming, are one of the university’s recently matched service dog teams.
Founded in 1991 by Bonnie Bergin, Bergin University of Canine Studies is the world’s only university accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools to provide associate, bachelor and master’s degrees in canine studies while placing high-quality assistance dogs trained through only positive methods. In keeping with Bergin’s original goal when she invented the concept of the service dog, the university provides assistance dogs to people with physical disabilities at a low-cost and to veterans with physical and mental combat-related disabilities at no cost. Since the founding of the university, over 460 students have earned their degrees or participated in its summer seminar, and staff members have placed over 220 assistance dogs with clients.
Makenna came to Bergin University at the urging of her grandmother, Garnie, who has followed the work of Bergin for many years. Garnie foresaw that Makenna’s disability would require her to have a loyal companion who was ready and willing, even eager, to help her with the day-to-day tasks that might prove to be more difficult as she grew older. So at the age of 11, Makenna applied for a service dog and prepared to wait, for as long as it would take, until she was invited to Bergin University to meet her future companion. The long wait ended last summer.
After 2 1/2 years of socialization, training, and learning over 100 commands, Ming—a gorgeous golden retriever—was carefully chosen to be Makenna’s canine partner. From the moment she was born, Ming and her littermates received hours of physical and emotional stimulation from a cadre of dedicated volunteers. At as early as 3 to 4 weeks of age, Ming began hearing training terms and started learning basic commands not long after that. At 12 weeks, Ming went to stay with her puppy parent so she could experience what it was like to live in a home environment outside the university. Then she was placed with students who not only taught her how to perform valuable tasks such as picking up dropped items and turning a light off, but also exposed her to different environments on countless field trips.
Those involved in raising and training Ming at Bergin saw clearly that she would be a great service dog: loyal, smart, and loving. Whether it was fate or luck that brought Ming and Makenna together in the summer of 2015, it was obvious that theirs was a special bond, exemplifying a human-canine relationship that we know to be thousands of years old. The success of this match was reinforced as Makenna and her family spent two weeks on the Bergin campus training and bonding with Ming before taking her home.
Makenna has begun to understand both the reward and responsibility that a special partner like Ming brings to her life. The responsibility became clear when Makenna’s family was ordered to evacuate their home during the devastating wildfires in Lake County this past summer. Makenna, her family, Ming, and the family pets were all safe—and relieved that their home, while covered in ash, was untouched. While the family wasn’t home when the evacuation order was issued, it’s not hard to imagine the emotional effect this might have had on a young woman unable to move freely, possibly feeling threatened and vulnerable by the fast-moving flames. But with Ming at her side, Makenna has the confidence to handle challenges that come her way.
Since then, Makenna and Ming have become quite the celebrity team at school, taking in stride the focused attention that status brings as Ming demonstrates daily the emotional and physical support that a trained service dog can offer. Moreover, their partnership is an inspiring example of the social bridge that service dogs are for their partners: Many people with disabilities feel isolated from their communities. Their dogs often become the best type of icebreaker, bringing people together. Makenna and Ming have truly become the perfect pair.
Anastasia Pryor is the director of development at Bergin University of Canine Studies in Rohnert Park, BerginU.edu.
Main article photo by: Sherri S. Rieck