Dogs comfort Boston as Marathon kicks off Monday morning

Ruthie, one of the K-9 Comfort Dogs from Lutheran Christian Charities, offers a furry shoulder to cry on in the wake of last year’s Boston Marathon Bombings. (Photo credit: LA Times)

Just over one year ago, 3 people were killed and more than 250 were injured when two pressure cooker bombs exploded near the crowded finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon.

As the 2014 Boston Marathon kicks off April 21, people around Beantown, across the nation, and around the world are remembering those who lost their lives and those whose lives had to change forever as they cheer on this year’s approximately 36,000 marathoners.

Dogs have played an important part in helping Boston heal in the days, weeks, and months since that tragic day. A team of specially trained Golden Retrievers from the Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs was deployed to Boston area hospitals in the wake of the bombing to comfort victims and their families. The canine comfort crew has returned to Boston three times since to visit with area students and first responders.

As runners and spectators arrived in Boston over the weekend, gearing up for this year’s marathon, they were greeted by those same friendly faces and wagging tails, including Ruthie, Luther, Hannah, Rufus, Addie, and Maggie, according to LCC. They will be available for visits and snuggles at the First Lutheran Church of Boston and the Hynes Convention Center.

Director of the LCC K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, Richard Martin, tells the Los Angeles Timesthat the church’s idea to put together a team of comfort dogs came after another catastrophic event in 2005.

“We started to notice the bond between people and their pets during Katrina,” Martin explains, remembering how some New Orleanians refused to evacuate their homes without their beloved pets even as the hurricane blew through and the floodwaters rose.

“Dogs just bring a wonderful comfort,” LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs President Tim Hetzner tells 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.”

That’s exactly what Mike Hurley, a clinical engineer at the Boston Medical Center, thought on the morning of April 16, 2013, as he walked his dog, 9-year-old Boxer Dexter, through the surgical waiting room, where loved ones were waiting for word on their family members and friends who had been wounded in the bombing. Hurley tells the Boston Globethat at first, when he asked people if they’d like to pet Dexter, they hesitated.

But as soon as the first person gave in and accepted some love from Dexter, more and more people were signing up for some snuggle time with the hospital’s first Healing Hands canine. Hurley and Dexter spent the next few weeks visiting bombing victims and their families.

“Everyone could see what he does, which is he greets you like you’re his new best friend,” Hurley says of Dexter. Visiting hospital patients with Dexter has made the year since the Boston Marathon Bombings the most meaningful and transformational of his life, he adds.

For Jessica Kensky, life since last year’s bombing has been an uphill battle. Kensky and her husband, Patrick Downes were only newlyweds last April when the blast blew off both of their left legs. The couple was among the last bombing victims to leave the hospital in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Kensky’s injuries were catastrophic; her left leg was beyond saving, and it looked likely that she’d also lose her right.

“My whole Achilles tendon was blown off, a good part of my heel pad was blown off. But when I woke up, my left leg was already gone,” Kensky remembers, “and I couldn’t imagine losing my right. And I just—it’s such a permanent decision. So I thought: You can always amputate it down the road, but once it’s gone it’s gone.”

Though doctors were able to reconstruct Kensky’s right leg, the bombing survivor still has trouble with it. Her foot and ankle are misshapen, and sometimes the chronic pain is so bad that she needs a wheelchair to get around.

To help Kensky with her everyday activities, she and her husband reached out to a Massachusetts organization called NEADS, or National Education for Assistance Dog Services, which trains and provides service dogs for the deaf and disabled. NEADS has offered a free service dog to any bombing survivor with permanent mobility issues and disabilities. The group provided Kensky with a black Labrador Retriever named, quite fittingly, Rescue.

Rescue helps Kensky with physical tasks, steadying Kensky as she walks on her prosthetic and crutches, covering her with a blanket when she is cold, retrieving her keys. But Rescue also helps keep Kensky motivated, even on her toughest days, she explains.

“On the day you just don’t want to get off the couch, you don’t want to get in your wheelchair, you don’t want to put your prosthetic on, he looks at you with those eyes and you’ve got to take him out,” Kensky tells NPR.

Rescue has also helps Kensky and her husband cope with the psychological scars from that fateful marathon day.

“That week he came, for the first time, I started sleeping through the night,” Kensky says of her buddy Rescue. “We would be up 3, 4 in the morning, sad, depressed, anxious. Not that I don’t experience those feelings any more, but it was incredible to sleep through the night. And, I mean, I have to attribute that to him. He was the change.”

Sources: NPR, Boston Globe, Yahoo News, Los Angeles Times, LutheranChristianCharities.org