A Short Walk for Zilly is a Long Time Coming

The Children’s Inn’s therapy dog resumes NIH Clinical Center visits

Melissa and Zilly (on the right) make their return to the Clinical Center in July

For nearly a decade, one staff member at The Children’s Inn at NIH has been sure to greet each family with open arms – or at least a wagging tail. Zilly, a multigenerational Australian Labradoodle (a mix between a Labrador retriever and poodle) and certified therapy dog, joined The Inn’s team in 2015.

“Zilly came to us from Riverbend Labradoodles, a breeder in Ohio,” explained Melissa Dell’Omo, the Associate Director in the Office of the CEO at The Inn and Zilly’s certified handler. “We specifically contacted them knowing we were looking for a therapy dog with the right temperament and skill set to interact with children every day. They brought Zilly down when she was 11 months old, and we knew she was the perfect fit for our environment.”

Dell’Omo and Zilly started at The Inn within weeks of each other. They bonded quickly, and one of Dell’Omo’s first tasks with The Inn was to go through a therapy dog certification training alongside her furry new colleague.

Together, they enrolled in a six-week course with National Capital Therapy Dogs. Although Zilly was already bounding through The Inn and making friends with the families in residence at the time, this certification was necessary to allow her to go to the NIH Clinical Center, where she could visit inpatients unable to be at The Inn. Together, the duo of Dell’Omo and Zilly earned their certification.

“At the Clinical Center, we visit patients in the playroom, where families can relax with Zilly, or in their rooms, where she provides bedside comfort,” Dell’Omo explained. “Zilly can snuggle with patients, letting them pet her, take photos, or even perform tricks. She offers the soothing companionship and joy that only an animal can provide, and Zilly is the ideal dog for this role.”

Those visits were paused in the spring of 2020 when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted increased protocols about who could and could not visit patients staying at the Clinical Center. However, earlier this summer, after nearly three-and-a-half years, Zilly and Dell’Omo could finally resume their visits.

“We received many requests from families who missed seeing Zilly at the Clinical Center during their stays,” acknowledged Dell’Omo. “Bringing back this missing piece from the pandemic is something we are deeply grateful for, and we are confident that these visits will bring about nothing but positive outcomes.”

Except for a short hiatus in the early days of the pandemic, Zilly continued seeing families at The Inn itself. And as the therapy dog of The Children’s Inn, she makes sure that each child, teenager, and young adult who comes through the doors knows they have a canine friend there for them whenever they want.

Zilly with a friend at The Inn

The excitement goes both ways. Many families make repeat visits to The Inn, though the visits are often spaced far apart. When Zilly sees a familiar face, that spark of recognition is undeniable.

“She warmly embraces our families, whether or not she’s met them before, and there are numerous families she knows very well,” Dell’Omo said. “Her enthusiastic greetings and ability to remember them create a heartwarming experience for both the families and myself as her certified handler.”

While The Children’s Inn is known as “A Place Like Home,” Zilly’s renewed visits to the Clinical Center extend that feeling to a medical facility, which can often be imposing and intimidating, especially for younger patients. As her certified handler, Dell’Omo is always present for these visits and sees the transformative impact Zilly has. “Zilly immediately makes any room we enter at the Clinical Center feel like home,” Dell’Omo chuckled. “She knows just what to do and how to behave. She truly is a remarkable dog, and her visits are incredibly important.”

One family was so deeply touched by their interactions with Zilly that they decided to get a Zilly of their own. Early in Zilly’s tenure at The Inn, a young boy instantly connected with Zilly on a visit to The Inn. His treatment involved receiving injections outside the hospital, administered by his parents. For the first injection, the parents asked Dell’Omo if Zilly could join them to keep their son as calm as possible.

“He was anxious and upset,” Dell’Omo recalled. “But Zilly just sat right down next to him. Even as he cried, she nuzzled up next to him. He placed his arm on her and bravely received the injection, all with Zilly by his side.”

The bond between Zilly and the whole family grew stronger over repeat visits to The Inn. Soon, the family – who did not live near Ohio – reached out to Riverbend Labradoodles, got their own labradoodle, a relative of Zilly, and named her after the dog who had helped them through challenging moments at The Inn.

“It just goes to show the lasting impact that Zilly has on our families,” Dell’Omo smiled. Indeed, The Children’s Inn’s star staffer continues to be a huge hit with families and is once again bringing smiles to faces at the Clinical Center.

Zilly with Melissa and Chief Development and Communications Officer Fern Stone. Zilly splits her time away from The Inn at their homes.