Comfort Dogs Come To Boston

Meet Maggie, Addie, Luther, Ruthie, and Isaiah — the five golden retrievers trying to help Bostonians recover after the marathon bombings.

Jessica Testa

ID: 1086117

Five golden retrievers made their way around Boston Wednesday, visiting some of the 176 victims of Monday’s marathon attack. Maggie, Addie, Luther, Ruthie, and Isaiah are comfort dogs, dispatched to various communities in the aftermath of tragedies. They’re trained like service dogs, but focus on providing emotional support.

“The dogs work for about two to three hours at a time, and then we make sure to give them a break,” Lizzie Brose, a handler for the K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs, told BuzzFeed. “They really do absorb the feelings of the people around them.”

There are about a dozen dogs in the K-9 Parish, which is based at a Lutheran church in Chicago. This isn’t the only comfort dog group in the country, but it is the most popular group, and the only one that travels extensively around the country. Other comfort dog groups typically work locally out of churches, hospitals, and universities.

Debbie Custance, a London psychologist who’s studied the empathy of dogs, explained to National Geographic that during times of crisis, interactions with humans involve “expectations and judgments,” but interactions with dogs are refreshingly simple.

“[It’s] a very uncomplicated, non-challenging interaction with no consequences,” she said. “And if you’ve been through a hard time, it’s lovely to have that.”

All five of the dogs spent time in Newtown, Connecticut, last December. Two of them even stuck around permanently, becoming five-days-a-week employees at the relocated Sandy Hook Elementary School. Newtown was the dogs’ first high-profile event, but earlier this month they also went to Wadsworth, Illinois, where a school bus carrying 30 children tipped over. (None of the children were seriously harmed.)

After visiting patients at Tufts Medical Center on Wednesday, the dogs were stationed on the porch of First Lutheran Church — a half-mile away from the marathon explosion site. They were petted and embraced by dozens of passersby.

“I saw the explosion, and as one would be, I was incredibly shaken up,” said Nick Holmes, an acting student at Emerson College. “But I saw online yesterday that the dogs were going to be at the Lutheran church, and I was like, ‘I know what I’m doing after class tomorrow.’ Because I need this.”

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Of the five dogs, Maggie is the most social.

Jessica Testa

ID: 1085975

She usually works at Sandy Hook, but the school is on spring break this week.

Jessica Testa

ID: 1085978

Her handlers say she likes to take off people’s socks and wrestle with her sister Addie.

Jessica Testa

ID: 1085976

Addie and Maggie are from the same litter, bred in Illinois.

Jessica Testa

ID: 1086082

They both turned 1 in January.

Jessica Testa

ID: 1086081

Addie would play with tennis balls “all day long if she could,” her handler told BuzzFeed.

Jessica Testa

ID: 1086080

Luther is the oldest of the five. (He’ll turn 2 on Friday.)

Jessica Testa

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He’s also the most laid-back.

Jessica Testa

ID: 1085991

“He’ll do pretty much anything you say,” said Dona Martin, co-director of the K-9 ministry.

Jessica Testa

ID: 1085992

Ruthie, at 1½ years old, is the most energetic of the group.

Jessica Testa

ID: 1086089

She’s curious, too, sniffing at everything in a room as soon as she enters it.

Jessica Testa

ID: 1086007

She normally has to be taken on daily exercise runs, but she was clearly worn out by the dogs’ long day in Boston.

Jessica Testa

ID: 1086006

Ruthie’s little brother, Isaiah, is the youngest, at 5 months old.

Jessica Testa

ID: 1086111

Like the other comfort dogs, he started his training as an 8-week-old. He can continue working for several more years, Martin said, as long as he stays healthy.

Jessica Testa

ID: 1086112

Isaiah and the rest of the dogs will be at Boston’s First Lutheran Church through Sunday.

Jessica Testa

ID: 1086113

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