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.”