PeoplePeople Interviews

Sophie: A Dog Who Plays with Human Toys!

Putting puzzle pieces back in their proper slots, sliding plastic rings onto sticks, playing tic-tac-toe…all of these are games that Sophie–an adorable therapy dog–loves to play! Sophie and her human mommy, Karen Profenna, are based in Rockland County, upstate New York, where they frequently visit senior citizen centers, hospitals, and other community venues to bring joy, awe, and laughter. They also run a YouTube channel titled “Karenpro1” where Sophie’s remarkable skills are shared with the world.

Karen Profenna is a CTDI (certified trick dog instructor with “Do More With Your Dog), an AKC ACT Evaluator, AKC Tricks/CGC/CGCA Evaluator, a Stunt Dog Judge, an APDT member, a CPE member, and a NADAC member who has been training her own dogs since 2007. Early on in her efforts, Karen attended numerous seminars and read many books on dog training and trick training. Today, she has conducted several of her own trick dog seminars and has certified many dogs in trick dog titles.

Karen’s first trick-performing certified therapy dog was a Boglen Terrier named Hailey who entertained and provided therapy for the Newtown community immediately following the December 2012 shooting in which dozens of kindergarten children were shot dead by armed gunman, Adam Lanza. Hailey also entertained for 200 returning soldiers from Afghanistan during their debriefing, as well as 600 seniors for Senator. Carlucci and was the entertainment for the closing ceremonies for the International Macabee games. She helped raise in excess of $35,000 for Hospice by doing tunnel relay races. Hailey could also perform in excess of 177 tricks and was on the National All-Star Performance team. When Hurricane Irene and Sandy came around, she entertained people who had been displaced by the storms. She tried just about everything including sheep herding, lure coursing, fly ball, agility, Frisbee, obedience, rally, free shaping, tricks and free-style dance.

Hailey competed and titled in Agility, Rally, Obedience and tricks. Hailey had in excess of nine National Championships and competed in AKC, USDAA, CPE, NADAC, CDSP, DOCNA and Cynosports. She was the highest scoring mixed breed at the 2016 Westminster Masters Agility competition held in February and 3rd place overall in the finals for her height category. Hailey had an amazing work ethic as well as play ethic. She loved everyone and everything! She was a true inspiration who earned the AKC Silver and Gold Award for her therapy work as well as the TDI Gold Award. She was recognized by the President and board of directors of Nyack Hospital and was also the Grand Marshall of the Cancer Walk.

Hailey had an agent and did TV commercials and print ads. Her most recent was for Seresto flea & tick dog collars, co-starred with Jessie J, was on the Jimmy Fallon show, played piano for Purina for the National Dog Show on Thanksgiving Day and enjoyed herself entertaining at a few birthday parties where she met some really awesome families. She was also featured in a couple of books and training videos. In the summer she enjoyed going to Camp Gone to the Dogs where she had so many awesome trainers.

When Hailey passed away, Karen missed her terribly…and then she found Sophie, another Boglen Terrier who needed to be re-homed after she was attacked by a cat. Sophie and Karen bonded upon meeting and now the almost two-year-old pup performs in excess of 90 Tricks, has an agent, and has already performed doing tricks for a Christmas Party in New York City and appeared on the “Wonderama” TV show and in a Halloween Parade for TTPM (Toys,Tots, Pets & More).  Sophie is working diligently in tricks, obedience, rally and agility and enjoys performing her therapy dog work at hospitals and nursing homes. Her favorite pass time is Frisbee and tricks and making people happy during her therapy visits.

Karen has collected an array of props over the years, with one toy industry professional being only too happy to provide her with free samples for Sophie to “test out” to the delight of all those around her.

“Making a difference matters,” Karen stated in a recent interview. “I have seen instances where a person that has never gotten out of his wheel chair actually stood up to try to go see her, stroke patients that didn’t react to physical therapy reacted to her, cancer patients who knew their end was near light up like a Christmas tree, psychiatrists, social workers and a teacher that was working with special needs children used her as examples of what could be done and were inspired by her. I will never forget one time at a hospital visit. The patient wouldn’t eat or take the medicine from the nurse. We asked the nurse if we could help. Both the nurse and the patient’s caregiver asked us pleadingly if we could get the woman to take the medicine and to eat and drink something. We were going to give it our best shot. After all, we had all these tricks up our sleeves. Well, the tricks actually DID work! I told the patient that I had a very special dog that did tricks that she has never seen before. I had the dog go on the bed and do a trick. Then I said, if she took a bite of the salmon she would do an even better trick. We totally worked the trick angle and, trick by trick, bite by bite, the woman took the medicine and ate.”

Since securing her therapy certification on her first birthday, Sophie has become a beloved fixture at the hospital and other places she visits.

“My first dog, Hailey inspired me,” Karen stated. “She was so eager to think and learn new things. My appetite for learning was insatiable. The opportunities to teach my little girl were endless. I was creative in everything we learned and when we used the tricks. I would use tricks as I was waiting my turn before going into the agility ring. At one point, Hailey was up to 177 tricks. Clubs started asking me to do seminars and although at that point I hadn’t done any, I accepted and invested in purchasing multiple items so that the classes would be able to use the props!”

Treats were a big part of the training. “Treats all have values,” Karen explained. “A dry Charlie bear is a low value treat whereas Cheese, roast beef, etc. would be a higher value treat. If it is a simple trick I use a low value treat. If it is a difficult trick I would up my anti and use a higher value treat. There is also a thing called ‘jackpot’ where you give multiple treats to reward something. Treats and toys are used because a dog is more eager to comply with positive reinforcement as opposed to negative reinforcement.”

Certifying a therapy dog depends a lot on the organization that you are certifying with since different organizations have different requirements. The majority require stringent obedience when it comes to reaction to other dogs, jumping on people (not allowed), taking food off floor (as it might be a medication), reaction to people coming up to you and shaking your hand, walking through a crowd, going in an elevator and going through doors. The dog also has to be ok with things dropping such as walkers, bed pans, etc. The dog must always walk under control. As a handler you must also be aware of HIPAA and other regulations. In a hospital you are not allowed in rooms that must remain sterile (most use a diaper bag on the outside of the room which holds gloves, gowns, hand sanitizer, etc.  You must always sanitize your hands before entering a room and after leaving a room. Karen was mindful of all of these rules when she got her dogs certified.

“Someone was talking with me regarding my dog and the tricks she did and said she would make an awesome therapy dog and that she visited a nursing home and would love to have me accompany her on the visits,” she explained. “I looked into getting Hailey certified and then contacted the woman. After seeing what an impact dogs have on patients I was totally hooked. I started calling nursing homes and hospitals and seeing where my services were needed. Then I started calling police stations when disasters occurred as I not only had a Champion Trick Dog but also had a therapy dog. Hailey and I performed in excess of 200 volunteer visits a year.  Sophie is working on getting up to that rate!”

From there, they got an agent while competing in a Rally competition and that greatly helped them book venues and events. The biggest reward was being able to help patients by using the dog to delight them and distract them from pain. Getting the dogs to play human games is a great way to amuse people and break the ice to start conversations with them. “We go to the $1 and $5 stores and pick up things,” Karen explained. “It is just so much fun just looking at a toy and trying to figure out how to teach it.  There is always a way!”

Karen’s biggest goals for future of her YouTube Channel and Sophie’s career is to get the word out on how wonderful Sophie is as a therapy dog so organizations/people who are in need can reach out and utilize her.

“If you want to do this, learn as much as you can any time you can and from everyone and every experience that you have,” Karen stated a la words of advice. “You can learn so much from watching others and what people really need versus what you want to teach them or show them.  Therapy is the most rewarding service you can provide. My last dog and I had such an amazing bond and I attribute that to doing absolutely everything with her and teaching her as much as I could teach her and now I’m doing the same with Sophie. Dogs are really smart and have such an amazing thought process. If you put in the time you will have the best friend of your lifetime. I totally enjoy giving dog trick seminars and am so proud and happy to be certified by both AKC and Do More With Your Dog to title people when they earn their trick dog titles.”

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To learn more, visit Karen’s YouTube channel and Facebook by searching “Karen Profenna”.

Meagan Meehan

Meagan J. Meehan is a published author, poet, cartoonist and produced playwright. She pens columns for the Great South Bay Magazine, Examiner and AXS. She is also a stop motion animator and an award-winning abstract artist. Meagan holds a Bachelors in English Literature and a Masters of Communication. She is an animal advocate and a fledging toy and game designer.
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