Sophie, a seven-year-old German Shepherd, has a kind heart and gentle spirit. Bone deformity cost Sophie her right front leg. In spite of her physical condition, Sophie is living her life to the fullest. When she’s not busy running and playing with other dogs, she’s motivating patients at UNC REX Hospital as a therapy dog.
At her home in Wake Forest, NC, Sophie lives with her family of five German Shepherds who compete in dog shows throughout the year. Her owner, Sarah Bridges, raised and trained two champion show dogs from Sophie’s family. Though the tradition of a show dog lifestyle runs heavily in her bloodline, Sophie has unique talents that can only be shared off stage.
“She’s extremely friendly with people of all ages and has the ability to sense emotional needs without any commands,” Sarah says.
Three years ago, when Sarah visited a friend at UNC REX Hospital, she discovered REX Fur Friends, an Animal-Assisted Therapy Program.
“The second I saw the pamphlet about dog therapy teams, I said to myself, ‘This is where Sophie and I are going to apply,’ says Sarah.
Fur Friends has a total of nine dog teams who volunteer each week, offering companionship for patients at the hospital. The program’s mission is to provide encouragement and support to patients during their stay, bringing comfort and healing in every interaction. Studies show that pet therapy helps lower blood pressure, reduce overall physical pain, and cope with anxiety or stress. Sophie not only volunteers to relieve the stress of patients, but she works as a role model showing others how to take difficult situations in strides.
Today, Sarah and Sophie are cheering up patients and staff members, making new friends and building stronger relationships with every trip. Wheeling through the hallways, Sophie is instantly recognized as she cruises along in her signature red wooden wagon labeled, ‘Sophie’s Ride.’
“There’s not a day that goes by when we don’t get stopped by a staff member or visitor who wants to pet Sophie,” she says.
While therapy dogs build one-of-a-kind relationships between patients, so do their owners. Looking back at her most memorable moments as a volunteer, Sarah remembers the joy one patient experienced when meeting the therapy team for the first time.
Recovering from a stroke, the patient had difficulties moving her hands and legs on her own. Taking caution because of the patient’s physical condition, Sophie carefully sat on the bed with the woman to keep her company. Petting Sophie with a smile, the woman laughed and said, “My children would not believe that I’m lying in a hospital bed with a dog!”
“After Sophie laid her head on the lady’s right hand, she slowly started scratching Sophie’s chin,” says Sarah.
Then, a nurse in the room asked the patient to scratch the top of Sophie’s head, lifting her right hand.
“We watched the lady slowly move her hand over Sophie’s head, it was so meaningful to witness and be a part that milestone,” Sarah says. “When we left the room, her medical providers told me that it was the first time she had moved her right hand since beginning treatment,” she continues.
No matter what the level of impact the pair brings to patients, Sarah hopes to continue delivering inspiration from the little red wagon for many years to come.