Man's Best Friend
By Dana Razzano, Internet Reporter

The Assistance Dog Institute (ADI), located in Rohnert Park, Ca. follows the motto "Helping Dogs Help People." It isn't their motto that makes them stand apart from other service dog training organizations, but instead it's who they help and how they help that makes ADI unique, innovative and noteworthy.

Through the High Schooled Assistance Dog (HS A-Dog) Program, juveniles from the Sierra Youth Center train and care for dogs that will graduate to assist persons with disabilities. Youths are partnered with one dog and form a close bond, that ultimately helps the dog's next owner and significantly impacts the youths themselves. Youths learn hope, patience and compassion from working with their dog and past participants have experienced a rise in self-esteem, improved school attendance and higher grade point averages.

Dr. Bonnie Bergin, president of ADI, founded the Institute in 1991 and has been recognized nationally for her efforts, receiving the Daily Presidential Points of Light Award and Oprah Winfrey's Use Your Life Award. 

Time2Act spoke with Jorjan Powers, Community and Public Relations Director for the ADI, to find out more about the HS A-Dog Program and how it benefits everyone involved.

Q: How do students get involved in the HS A-Dog Program?

Powers: At our site, we work with incarcerated kids from the Sierra Youth Center, 
which is located on the grounds of our facility. [Youths] are chosen by their supervisor based on their school work [and personal history, including] no previous animal abuse, kids that still have at least a few months left in the program, and of course, those who ask to be in it. We only are able to teach five at a time and there are 20 kids at Sierra. We work with the kids as long as they are in the program, which is usually six to 12 months. 

The dogs are placed [with their new owner] when they are 1-1/2 to 2 years old, so they usually have a few trainers over the course of time. The five students [in the program] are each paired with their own dog and if their dog graduates during their time here, they are re-assigned another dog. We also have a breeding program, so [youths] are involved in playing with the puppies too. 

[The HS A-Dog Program] meets every school day for one hour. Once a week we take a field trip out into the public such as to a restaurant, park or store, which is a two-hour trip. Also, once a week [participants] get to keep their dogs overnight, which is 24 hours of [constant care]. They take [their dog] to school, in the dining hall, and whatever else they are doing that day.

Q: What kind of disabilities are these dogs trained to assist with?

Powers: The dogs are trained to help people with mobility problems. Generally they are in wheelchairs, but not always, due to being paraplegic, quadriplegic or due to some disease. The most common [conditions] are multiple sclerosis, cerebal palsy, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy and ataxia. Others may be able to walk, but only short distances, or [may] have a balance problem and [that causes them to] fall over a lot. We also place social/therapy dogs, which help people emotionally by calming them and have been proven to help promote healing. They are placed in group homes, convalescent hospitals, and other places where a dog's love would help people.

Q: What kind of effect does working with dogs have on youths in the program?

Powers: The dogs give unconditional love, which is something these kids are badly in need of. Affection and kindness work wonders, as well as seeing the positive results they get from their training. These teens are constantly told what a good job they are doing, which is a far cry from being told how "bad" they are for most of their life. The kids have a sort of peer competition too, because they want their dog to be better than the others. We are constantly comparing dog and human behavior, and they can see that clear communication, patience, anger control, and praise are all important aspects of a relationship between dogs and people as well.

[Even] the students that are exposed to the dogs but not in the program benefit from their calming effect. It has been proven that petting a dog lowers your blood pressure and makes you feel better. Having a dog in an institution provides a calming, soft effect as well. Staff say that kids who are normally disruptive and tough show their "child" side when around a dog.

Q: What are the basic components or, as Institute calls them, the "ABC'S" of dog training?

Powers: As I mentioned, dogs and people are a lot alike. You have to know where a dog is coming from to work with its instincts, motivations, and cognitive abilities.

"A" stands for association training. When a dog sits, you say "sit," and it associates that word with the action. "B" is for bonding, which is an important element. A dog that feels close to a person will work much better for them because it wants to please. "C" is for consistency, another important thing in training. The dog has to know what to expect from you - when you say "down", you mean down - they better do it because they are not going to get away with ignoring the command. "S" stands for synchronization - the dog adapts its behavior to yours. If you are running around screaming, it will be hyper too. If you sit quietly, you dog will soon follow your lead. There are others letters that are used in association with training tips too.

Q: What role do staff members play?

Powers: We have six staff [members] at ADI. At Sierra Youth Center, each teen is assigned a particular counselor, although there is other staff around such as a psychologist, teacher, secretary, cook, among others [to help out].

We have a HS-A Dog component during the service dog instructor course, which every staff member takes. We work one-on-one with the kids and learn about the issues that are involved. We also have a yearly conference with special trainings from gang task force members, psychologists, and other people, including a panel of the kids themselves.

Trainers also go through a training camp, exactly like the disabled people do. This gives them a better understanding of what it's like and what they need to learn. They also learn more detailed things like selecting dogs, breeding, the business aspect of starting a program and working with people with disabilities. They also are assigned dogs of various ages to train for short periods of time to get used to the different stages of canine development.

Q: How are owners selected to receive a dog that graduates from ADI?

Powers: People who apply for a dog from us go through a personal interview first as well as having written references from friends and their doctor. We conduct a personal interview and decide if we have a dog that would meet their needs. This includes not only doing tasks the person needs, but also a dog that suits their personality. If accepted, the person comes to a two-week training camp where they learn the commands and how to work with the dog. We have lectures and hands-on training the first week, followed by a second week of field trips to simulate things they will do back home (going to dinner, the movies, the mall, etc.). Then if they pass a series of tests, they graduate and go home with their new dog. It is a group process with the trainers to make the decision of which dog goes with a person.

Q: Dr. Bergin was honored with Oprah Winfrey's "Use Your Life Award," which includes a $100,000 grant for use within ADI. What has ADI decided to do with the grant? 

Powers: We have divided it into three parts: we bought a van to transport our puppies, bought surgical equipment to set up a veterinary clinic on site, and also to hire our students for after school work. [Students] come three days a week and are paid to do office work, kennel clean up and facility maintenance.

Q: What plans does ADI have for the future?

Powers: There are ten [HS A-Dog Programs] currently in operation. The programs are run by people that Dr. Bergin has trained on how to open their own agency and do this kind of work. Some work with emotionally disturbed kids, ones at residential treatment centers, kids that have been expelled for behavioral problems from regular public schools, special education classes, etc. All are considered "at-risk." There are two programs in Israel, three in New York, and one in Florida, New Mexico, Hawaii, California and Ohio. Several more are in the planning stages. We train about 15 people per year how to be service dog instructors and many of them plan on doing an HS-A Dog component.


Jorjan Powers
Assistance Dog Institute
P.O. Box 2334, 
Rohnert Park, CA 94927. 
Phone: 707/537-1960 
Fax: 707/537-1954 
Web site:
159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339