Comfort dogs are returning to Boston for marathon weekend

The comfort dogs rest in Boston, April 2013. (Courtesy Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dogs)

BOSTON — Tens of thousands of spectators and runners at next week's Boston Marathon will be greeted by some familiar, furry faces: golden retrievers.

The K-9 comfort dogs from an Illinois-based church organization are returning to Boston to distract those still coping with memories of the 2013 marathon bombings.

"Dogs just bring a wonderful comfort," Tim Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dogs, told Yahoo News. "They're a calming presence and allow victims to open up and talk about what happened — which is a critical part of the healing process."

The dogs, which first gained national attention for their presence in Newtown, Conn., in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook School shootings, are being deployed at various locations in and around Boston during marathon weekend.

Four retrievers — Luther, Ruthie, Hanna and Rufus — are flying in from Chicago and are scheduled to arrive in Boston on Thursday. Two others — Maggie and Addie, who've been embedded at the Connecticut elementary school since it reopened in a new location — have already arrived in Boston. All six canines (aged 2 to 4) and their human handlers will be based at the First Lutheran Church of Boston on Berkeley Street, four blocks away from where two bombs killed three people and wounded more than 260 others.

Last year, the "therapy" retrievers arrived in Boston a day after the tragedy, visiting hospitals and comforting victims, first responders, families and residents in the aftermath of the blasts.

"Our goal is to bring mercy and healing to those that are not only physically affected, but emotionally affected, too," Hetzner said.

Or, as Boston magazine put it, "Snuggling with a pooch makes everything better."

The parish's comfort dog program began in 2008 after a school shooting at Northern Illinois University, with just four therapy pups. It has grown to about 80 certified training dogs in 10 states. The dogs were sent to comfort survivors of the Moore, Okla., tornado; West, Texas, plant explosion; Prescott, Ariz., wildfire; Boulder, Colo., flood; and dozens of other traumatic events. (After the marathon bombings, they returned to Boston three times to help the city heal.)

In Newtown, the dogs were omnipresent in the days after the massacre, stationed at makeshift memorials and brought in to schools to help children cope with the killings. School officials wanted the retrievers to maintain a presence at Sandy Hook School, and the group permanently placed the two canines in Newtown.

"They've been at the school every day, working with students," Hetzner said.

The only time Maggie and Addie weren't at Sandy Hook School was when they were called in to Boston last April.

"We only go where we're invited," Hetzner said. "But we've been everywhere."

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