AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — When Woody first trotted into the pediatric ward at an Austin hospital, the staff came running in panic. It was 1986 and no one had seen someone bring a dog to the hospital before to comfort sick children, said Debbie Cobalis, the sheltie's owner.
Cobalis had just started the Woody Pet Therapy Program, which is now celebrating its 25th year with a mosaic wall in honor of Woody and all the dogs that have followed him in the program.
About 50 artists have been working for several months with glass tiles to create panels for the 26-foot-long wall in the healing garden at the Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas, said Susan Ribnick, one of the chairs of the Woody Pet Therapy Program.
The wall will include individual panels of the dogs involved in the therapy program as well as a large panel of children's hands reaching out to touch a chocolate-colored Labrador retriever standing in the grass.
Dianne Sonnenberg, an award-winning Austin mosaic artist who designed the wall, said being part of the project "makes me feel warm and fuzzy."
On a December afternoon, volunteers at the Artisan Stained Glass store were laying down bright green pieces of mosaic tile for the Labrador panel.
"I've never done such a huge project before but this is such a good thing to do," said volunteer Cindy Sailor. There were several finished panels surrounding her, including a panel of a dog with a nurse's cap on, one with a dog standing by an IV stand and another with a dog with a halo.
The pet therapy program has had 52 dogs in it since it started with Woody at University Medical Center at Brackenridge, Ribnick said. Volunteers in the program now bring their dogs to visit with sick or injured children a few times a week.
Polly Coons said her 5-year-old daughter, who was in the hospital for surgery to remove a tumor, found it difficult to get out of a hospital bed after the operation until the day a volunteer brought in a dog.
"She got out of bed and sat and petted it," Coons said. By the time her daughter left the hospital she had been visited by four different dogs in the therapy program and wanted to stay to meet the rest of them, Coons said. "They got her excited and relaxed her somehow."
Jennifer Phillips, who has been a volunteer in the program since 1993, said her first dog was a corgi named Thistle who was good at snuggling with sick children in their beds.
"There were times when she brought children out of a coma," said Phillips. "They were not really conscious and she was in the bed with them and they would rub her fur."
Woody "seemed to have a sense of duty" about visiting sick children, said Cobalis. "One boy was recovering from a head injury and was real shaky on his feet, but he wanted to walk the dog so badly I handed the leash to him," she said. "Woody had a sixth sense and walked really slowly."
Phillips said the mosaic wall will be a good way to illustrate what dogs can do for sick children. "It's a very colorful positive way of exposing people to the fact that these dogs are healing animals."
Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com