"Tug! Good boy, Get it! Uh ah, Get it! Bring it here, Good boy. Push! Yes! Good boy, Hercules!"
He's smart, handsome, eager to please and soon will become an indispensible companion to someone who needs him. Hercules is a service dog in training at Bergin University of Canine Studies in Rohnert Park. His handler, Samantha Mack, also a student at Bergin, is building a career of teaching dogs and teaching them to help others. Almost 2 years old, golden retriever Hercules is spunky and energetic.
Samantha says, "He's very good at all of his commands. And we're just waiting for him to mellow out a little bit before we place him."
"Switch!" (Hercules hits light switch) "Good boy. That's very good."
"We're looking for pretty mellow dogs who have enough energy to stay with a person all day and do things like jump up and turn the lights on and off," says Samantha. "But they also, you know, can't have too much energy and if they're wanting to run constantly and chase all day after birds and cats and other dogs, they're probably not going to be a good service dog."
That's because highly trained dogs such as Hercules may be matched with a quadriplegic or paraplegic person. The university begins with pups just 3 or 4 weeks old that it has bred and will work with them for two or more years.
"There's no negative reinforcement when working with them because a lot of times they're placed with somebody who's in a wheelchair and somebody who's in a wheelchair may not be able to use leash correction. Maybe they can't even hold a leash," says Samantha."So the dog has to be willing to work for anybody, no matter their strength and personality."
Samantha completed an associate degree at Bergin and is training another assistance dog for a boy with autism. She says they're making progress.
"Now that the boy has a service dog able to go with the, the boy is more willing, let's say, they were able to go on their first family walk ever. So it's really helping the family to become a family again."
Samantha to Hercules: "That was so good!"
"Dogs are way smarter than most people give them credit for and Bonnie has proved they can learn just about anything."
Bonnie is Bonnie Bergin, founder of the university and a canine researcher for more than 35 years.
Bonnie to handlers: "I want to see these puppies doing a sit just on the verbal command and sit!"
"We're the first and only program in the entire world that focuses on training dogs and learning about dogs," says Bergin.
"Sit! Whoa, great, Danielle, that was beautiful!"
Bergin says the dogs themselves are often the teachers.
"There's no doubt dogs train us. I mean, Judy (her golden retriever) would come over here and press my arm and I'm supposed to pet her and if I stop, she'll press it again and I know what the rules are 'cause I'm supposed to pet her."
Bergin University, which isaccredited by the U.S. Department of Education as well as in California,also offers bachelor's and master's degree programs. Beyond studying canine behavior, genetics, and nutrition, students also learn about dogs in literature, in art, and thedog "ethics"in society. And of course, students work with the canine students.
"We're not training them, we're educating their minds to do something to understand it and evolve further in terms of its problem-solving abilities, etc.," says Bergin. "Because again, when you place a dog with someone who's quadriplegic, that dog has to figure some things out."
Bonnie to handlers: "Go in under and see if you can get a 'down' when you go in.
"It was the dogs that told me they could learn more, it was the dogs who told me they could do more if they had a better education," Bergin says.
Bred to work with man to hunt, golden retrievers' desire to please and their sensitivity make them excellent service dogs for the severely physically disabled, Bergin has found.
"A quadriplegic has so little arm movement, the sensitivity and the relationship between the two that gets the dog functioning for them."
Student to dog: "Speak!"
"Watching the mind of the dog," Bergin says, "I don't know if I could say there's anything more exciting than that.
"The kinds of thing that we are helping provide is a better understanding of the dog and how that dog is incorporated into human lives."
It's very satisfying work, Bergin andstudents like Samanthasay.
"Who wouldn't want to get a degree in dog training?" says Samantha with a smile.
Bergin University's director of development Becca Richardson says between breeding the dog and two years of training and care, it costs $25,000 for each dog to go through the service program.
There is a waiting list of quadriplegic and paraplegic individuals for a Bergin service dog, for which the university charges $2,750.
LEARN MORE: the Bergin University website has more information including details on how to support its work.