How Different Therapy Dog Personalities Can Affect Client Behavior

According to the ADA National Network, a service animal is “…any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” These include tasks such as guiding people who are blind, protecting a person who is having a seizure, reassuring a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during an anxiety attack or performing other duties.  The task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). ADA and service animals

What I’ve learned from personal experience is that these dogs can have a profound effect on client self-awareness and behavior.

Anyone who works with or trains dogs seriously, knows that they teach us about ourselves.Assistance dogs can provide useful information naturally and spontaneously to a client who needs to learn or improve on socially acceptable behaviors.


My job is to provide this kind of opportunity to my clients, to allow them to learn about themselves and their behavior through various activities and tasks performed with the help of a dog. It really doesn’t matter what the task is, just how the client reacts to the animal, how it then responds to the client, and finally, what the client does asa result.

The interaction between my clients and my canine partners continues to fascinate me every day.

I have had the pleasure in working with five different service or other assistance dogs in the last three years, all certified through the paws4people foundation. Of the five dogs, I trained two of them myself, two of them work with colleagues, and the most recent dog was given to me by the paws4people foundation ten months ago.

Each of the five dogs is unique in what they bring to the job. Mostly, clients want a dog to listen to them. If the dog is not doing what they want during an activity, they soon learn that if they change their behavior in the moment, it affects a change in the dog’s behavior. It is so fascinating to watch that light bulb go on in the special moment when they are finally able to understand.

One Client’s Journey

A year ago I was working with an adult female client—we’ll call her Sally—who was socially awkward, physically violent, and had a child-like temperament.  She sought attention in inappropriate ways, like hugging people without permission and interrupting conversations.

I began our work with Sally with my 10-year-old female service dog, a chocolate Labrador named Molly.

Molly’s nickname is Queen Victoria, and no, she was definitely “not amused” when Sally tried to fuss over her by roughly tousling her head. She so badly wanted Molly to accept her but didn’t know how to properly go about it. Molly showed her displeasure by then turning away and ignoring Sally, but Sally still did not understand. Sally had reactive attachment disorder. Molly had worked with clients with this diagnosis before, and it generally took them several weeks to start to understand that Molly needed them to build a relationship in a polite way, and show her respect. Sally didn’t know how to start or build that relationship in a proper way—or even realize that’s what she needed to do.

Willson Joins the Effort

Sally also worked with Willson, my five-year-old male golden retriever. He brought Sally different challenges. Sally wanted to walk Willson on a leash, which required firm, calm, low-toned verbal cues and clear instruction.

Well, you can imagine how this went. Sally screeched the cues I had instructed her to use. She didn’t focus on him or where she was going or what she was doing. He sensed this and so would start to go his own way and pull her. She would get annoyed and try to physically yank him back. He refused to relent, and so they fell into a power struggle—one that she really couldn’t win. When Sally’s voice was less than calm, he simply did not see her as a leader.

When Sally managed to remain calm while petting him, however, he loved it. He began to have fun with and play with her. Sally started to realize that to get what she wanted from Willson she had to stop using a childish voice and be more grown up. When this happened, she became much more successful at leash walking and really got quite good at it. Within months, she was even showing and telling others how to behave with Willson.

Two of a Kind

Sally had the biggest breakthrough with my colleague’s nine-year-old female golden retriever Bailey. Until I observed this relationship developing, it hadn’t occurred to me how well Bailey fitted in with my own two dogs. They were all friends and often spent time together. What struck me was that Bailey was so like Sally. Baily wasn’t a leader. She was a follower. She craved love and attention, and she had difficulty focusing, but also had a stubbornness that she shared with Sally. As a result, Bailey was not demanding with Sally. She went with the flow. She let Sally love her and reveled in whatever attention she would get when they met. In turn, Sally felt accepted and loved and got the attention she wanted.

Because she loved Bailey so much, she began to notice whenever Bailey would turn away. This would happen when Sally was behaving childishly or trying to get into Bailey’s space. It didn’t take long for her to begin changing her behavior to do things that Bailey liked. If she was doing something that annoyed Baily, I had only to say, “Bailey doesn’t like that,” and she would stop.

As time moved on, Sally began to take Bailey for walks, giving her clear and calm cues most of the time. Bailey cooperated for the most part, so Sally’s confidence grew. She even taught Bailey new tricks and showed them to staff and peers. Bailey challenged Sally after a few weeks by refusing to get up and go where she was told. Sally had to work out how to get her to move without physically handling her, and she did so with food and a fun, encouraging voice.

Once Sally was accomplishing all of this with Bailey, she began noticing what the other two dogs needed, and her relationship with them improved as well.

The Most Challenging Partner of All

I haven’t yet mentioned Phin. Of all the dogs, he is easily the most energetic. He is a ball-crazy, on-the-go, easily excited black Labrador retriever. He was a handful, even for me, but by the time Sally got to work with him, she was able to give him firm, clear, and sometimes loud cues that he would listen to. Again, with Phin she had to change her behavior to get what she wanted.

To this day Sally is more polite, asks to pet the dogs, and has learned a great deal about how to approach people through the experiences she had with these dogs.

After all, isn’t this work about teaching a client how to be independent and more socially acceptable in society so they can live fuller and happier lives.

That’s what I strive for everyday, and I am lucky and blessed to have such wonderful and giving canine partners to do it with.