Meet Vandy, Mary Free Bed’s animal-assisted therapy dog

Important new member of Rec Therapy team helps patients on road to recovery

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital has a (furry) new family member.

Vandy is a 2½-year-old black Labrador retriever who works on Mary Free Bed’s recreational therapy team. The sweet-natured pup helps patients meet rehabilitation goals that restore independence.

She is the first dog trained in animal-assisted intervention by PAWS With a Cause, a national non-profit organization based in Wayland, Mich. PAWS field trainers have been working with Mary Free Bed recreational therapists since she was acquired by the hospital in November and will provide continuing education. (See video below.)

“Vandy motivates and encourages patients to reach their therapy goals,” said Maria Besta, manager of Mary Free Bed’s recreational therapy department. “Sometimes her presence alone can lift the spirits of patients who need support to keep going. She’s been a wonderful addition to our team.”

Vandy is supervised by recreational therapists with specialty training in animal-assisted therapy. She’s considered a full-time employee and works each day with up to five patients of all ages and abilities. Vandy and her handlers work with physical, occupational and speech-language therapists on a variety of tasks to improve fine and gross motor skills, mobility and endurance as well as cognitive function and emotional well-being.

She encourages patients to walk a little farther and sit up independently. Patients in speech therapy give her verbal commands, while others improve strength by brushing her or throwing her a ball. She even plays cards with patients working on hand dexterity.

“Her sweet disposition encourages patients and maximizes their potential for functional outcomes,” Besta said.

As difficult as her sweet face is to resist, Mary Free Bed employees, patients and visitors are asked not to pet Vandy without permission. She is working when she is on campus and should not be distracted. Unnecessary contact could result in deconditioning of her behaviors.

Mary Free Bed is a not-for-profit, nationally accredited, rehabilitation hospital. For more than 125 years, Mary Free Bed has restored hope and freedom through rehabilitation for children and adults who have experienced brain injuries, strokes, spinal cord injuries, multiple traumas, amputations, cancer and other diagnoses. The combination of comprehensive services and an exclusive focus on rehabilitation enables specialty physicians and staff to help patients achieve outstanding clinical results. For additional information, visit

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