Volunteer Spotlight: Karen & Sophie

When volunteer Karen Profenna and her certified pet therapy dog Sophie visit Montefiore Nyack Hospital, magic happens. “I’ve seen unresponsive patients respond to Sophie. Crying children and adults start smiling when they see her. Sophie got a woman to eat and drink after no one else could, by doing a trick each time the woman would take a bite of food or drink. She got a patient to respond when physical therapy wasn’t helping,” says Karen, a certified therapy dog handler and certified trick dog instructor.

Karen volunteers with Sophie for more than 60 hours a month throughout the hospital, in addition to working full-time. They visit almost every department of the Hospital—including the Emergency Center—asking patients and their families if they would like a visit. “Sophie has done tricks to convince patients to take their medicine,” Karen says. “She makes people laugh, calming them down until their pain medicine kicks in. She’ll clap her paws to a song, ‘say her prayers’ and do other tricks to get a giggle out of people.” Doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff also look forward to Sophie’s visits.

During the height of the pandemic, Karen continued to volunteer at the Hospital pharmacy, and other areas of the Hospital but without Sophie. Once it was safe to be with patients again, Sophie and Karen returned, starting with outdoor visits with patients recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.
Karen originally became a certified therapy dog handler with her previous dog Hailey in 2007. Sophie, a four-year-old Boston terrier/beagle mix, was a rescue dog who came to Karen three years ago. Sophie is trained to do more than 130 tricks, delighting patients, families and staff alike. She completes children’s puzzles, plays Jenga, and Connect 4, does a handstand, wraps herself in a blanket, and completes stacking toys, among other tricks.

According to Paws for People, which trains pet therapy animals and their handlers, pet therapy has been shown to lower blood pressure, release hormones that have a calming effect, and diminish overall physical pain. Therapy pets can provide comfort, lift spirits, decrease feelings of isolation, and increase socialization. In addition to Montefiore Nyack Hospital, Karen and Sophie visit West Point, soldiers being deployed, soldiers returning from deployment, senior centers, assisted living facilities, convents, and nursing homes.
For people interested in learning about how to train their dog to be a therapy animal, there are a number of organizations that can help. “These include Therapy Dogs International and the Alliance of Therapy Dogs,” Karen says. “Look them up online, and see which group fits you best. Pet therapy is the most rewarding thing you can do with your pet. Seeing a patient or staff member light up like a Christmas tree when they see Sophie is more rewarding than getting a million dollars!”