All staff members at Bergin University of Canine Studies share the same expectation that the puppies born there will become service dogs to be matched with people with mobility limitations or veterans with combat-related injuries. But as with all assistance dog organizations, there comes a time during training that it becomes clear that a dog might be better suited for a different type of work.
In Larry’s case, that became evident when his student trainer took him on a field trip to a local elementary school as part of the University’s Kids Reading to Dogs program. Research shows that having a nonjudgmental canine listener helps children reading below grade level gain the confidence to improve and even enjoy the activity. Larry took to the task like he was born to do it, and it was clear that he was at his happiest and most effective when he was spending time with kids.
As his training progressed and he neared the age that Bergin University places dogs in their working roles (around 2 to 2½ years old), the university received an application for a facility dog from a school in Santa Rosa that serves children and teens with high-functioning autism and related social, emotional, and behavioral challenges. Heidi Adler, the Anova Center for Education Sonoma School Director who submitted the request, is a lifelong dog lover and knew that a facility dog would be a wonderful addition to the school “staff.”
After comparing ACE’s needs with the strengths of the dogs that were nearing being ready to graduate, Bergin client services staff found a perfect match in Larry. Adler was invited to campus for a two-week client training where she was presented with Larry, and together they worked with Bergin students and staff to learn the commands that would enable Larry to be most helpful to the students at ACE.
Once training was complete, Larry came to work with Adler and was an instant hit with students, parents, and faculty. His responsibilities grew quickly as students were able to take “Larry breaks” to help during emotionally challenging times.
“In his capacity as a facility dog, Larry has the ability to touch so many lives, and I’m so grateful to Bergin that they care about and know their dogs so well that they can place them so that their talents are utilized and they are happy working dogs,” Adler said.
Before long, more reports of Larry’s impact on the school came flooding in. Teachers started noticing students recovering more quickly from shutting down and feeling less anxious about attending group sessions if Larry was involved. Parents shared that students were not only experiencing more joy at school, but gaining skills to make friends and learning confidence, boundaries, tenderness and respect—all from spending time with ACE’s newest canine staff member.
So much wonderful feedback came from all aspects of the student support system, but the most inspiring comments come from the students themselves:
“Why is Larry so important? Because he helps whoever is sad or nervous calm down. I had a time when I came back from Christmas break, and I was really sad and angry. Larry helped me calm down,” one student said.
As Bergin University founder Bonnie Bergin always signs off when writing a letter, “In dogs we trust.” In this case, we entrusted one dog in particular with our future—our students—and these kids are in very good “paws” indeed.
Anastasia Pryor is the director of development at Bergin University of Canine Studies. A graduate of UC Berkeley, Anastasia spent the first several years of her professional career in the advertising industry before transitioning to the nonprofit sector in 2011. She has been an animal lover her entire life and has found the ideal match in her position at Bergin. The university’s mission to advance the human-canine partnership aligns perfectly with her passions of working with dogs and helping people.
Main article photo by: Heidi Adler