||Viola Mars, called “Vi” by everyone at the Children’s Inn, offers kisses to Brett Young of Tennessee.
Nearly all therapies found at NIH involve a medical device, a prescription or perhaps
a set of exercises.
But one kind of therapy, found at the Children’s Inn, is delivered without words or expectation through the warm presence of Viola Mars. She offers her services at ground level with a furry snuggle and a wet nose.
Vi, as she is affectionately called, is the residence’s
in-house therapy dog. A 7-year-old golden
Labrador retriever, Vi is a former Seeing Eye dog who found a new calling as well as a new career thanks to a fortunate series of events.
“The person with whom she was assigned [to provide Seeing Eye services] needed something different,” said Meredith Daly, the inn’s media relations manager.
So, in 2008, after several years as a Seeing Eye dog—a taxing career for a canine—Vi returned to the Seeing Eye organization in Morristown, N.J. The group typically expects dogs to work as service animals for 5 to 7 years with a client, so when Vi returned, she wasn’t a good candidate to return to the field. After a short while with staff at Seeing Eye, “it was determined Vi really needed to be in a place with kids,” Daly said.
Meanwhile, inn CEO Kathy Russell—herself a dog lover—thought the inn would make an ideal
place for such a four-footed therapist and set about looking for such a dog.
Sophie Rosvik (l) of Norway hands Vi a treat before story time as family program assistant Caitlin Farren looks on.
Alyssa Jochem (l) of Wisconsin and Rosvik (seated at rear) visit with Vi the therapy dog at the inn’s learning center.
The stars aligned and Russell was put in contact with staff at Mars Inc., the company best known for its candy but that also has a presence in the pet care market and operates the Waltham Center,
a large veterinary nutrition research hub in the U.K. A connection at Mars pointed Russell
to the Seeing Eye group. Staff there agreed Vi would be a perfect fit for the inn and soon the fuzzy therapist was on her way. Mars also agreed to pay for Viola’s every expense, including
veterinary care, dog food and treats.
“It’s a wonderful gift for us to have her without
having to worry about anything,” said Daly, who added that Vi is soothing company to the staff who often must keep the emotional stress of their jobs under wraps as they provide for the residents, many of whom are seriously ill.
Vi did require some retraining to get her fully comfortable with wheelchairs, a different setting
and people flocking to her. Earlier this year, she earned her full certification from the Delta Society, a therapy program that certifies dogs. She’s now permitted to visit with children as they receive treatment in the Clinical Center.
“When she was wearing her [Seeing Eye] vest, it was a signal to her that she is doing a job and she’s not meant to be distracted by people or children,” said Dr. Karyl Hurley, Mars’ director of global scientific affairs, who delivered Vi to the Children’s Inn. “She needed a reminder that she could now be a true pet and that she was allowed to go up to children.
“When we walked into that main entrance, so many of the staff were there waiting to greet her,” Hurley said of the day Vi arrived in November
2008. “It wasn’t long before children started coming out of the woodwork, flying down the stairs and flinging their arms around her.”
The stories about how positive an effect Vi has had on visitors and staff seem never-ending. Take the one about the little girl from Boston whose own dog has become so attuned to her owner’s condition that she alerts the child’s parents
when the girl’s temperature climbs. The two are virtually inseparable. That youngster was distraught about the idea of leaving her dog at home in order to come to Bethesda for treatment.
That is, until her mother told her the inn had a therapy dog.
“Then, she couldn’t stop asking about Vi. She wanted to know everything about her,” Daly said. “When she got here, she was alright because Vi was her source of comfort.”
Staff at the inn have watched as children make beelines to Vi at the end of the day, eager to tell her how things went. Even children who initially
are tentative around dogs soon dissolve into squeals and giggles when she licks their hands or flops on her back, begging for a belly rub.
There are many studies that show a benefit
from having a pet, but no one watching Vi needs a study to confirm that.
“It’s hard to put into words, but what she represents
is a piece of normality,” Hurley said. “Yes, [these families] have to be away from home, but there’s this small piece of normal life there and that’s the dog. She’s nonjudgmental and she lets the kids forget—as great as the Children’s Inn is—where they are and why they’re there.”