- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2008

Young residents at a children’s care facility in Bethesda don’t seem to mind that their new roommate has four legs and a penchant for licking their faces.

Vi Mars, a 5-year-old yellow Labrador, looks right at home as the new resident therapy dog at the Children’s Inn at the National Institutes of Health.

Six children and their families gathered Wednesday in a sitting room decorated with gingerbread houses and a towering Christmas tree to pet Vi in front of a burning fireplace at the facility, which houses dozens of sick children and their families from around the world.

Meredith Carlson Daly, a spokeswoman for the Children’s Inn, said having a live-in pet is a part of the inn’s nurturing efforts. “She gives the kids the opportunity to forget about the pokes, prods and needles they receive when they’re in the hospital.”

Benjamin Lopez squealed as Vi licked his face and sniffed him. The 3-year-old held on to his mother, Alejandra, and watched as his father, Christian, showed him how to gently rub the dog’s belly.

“He likes very much the dog and he is happy,” said Mr. Lopez, who brought his family to the Inn six months ago from Chile so Benjamin could be treated for brain tumors. “I think he is thinking that the dog is more big than him.”

Vi is a retired seeing-eye dog and was donated to the Children’s Inn by Mars Inc., a McLean-based food manufacturer that has partnered with NIH to research genetics and the bond between humans and animals. Therapy dogs have visited the residential facility on a monthly basis, but Vi is its first live-in dog.

The Children’s Inn provides a homelike environment for children with life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, HIV and heart, lung and bone disorders. The children are receiving groundbreaking medical treatments as part of research at the Institute.

Lori Wiener, the Children’s Inn co-founder and coordinator of a pediatric program at the National Cancer Institute, said that bonding with a pet offers several benefits to a sick child.

“There are many studies showing that pet therapy is one of the different avenues outside traditional care that can aid in healing,” she said. “When the families arrive at the inn, they have a dog whose only mission is to provide them with unconditional love, licks and acceptance.”

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