Go Hug a ‘Comfort Dog’ And Make Yourself Feel Better About Everything
When it comes to coping with trauma and anxiety, hugging a dog is the best medicine, experts say.
This week, several canines from the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dogs program will be at the First Lutheran Church of Boston, which is just blocks away from the finish line of the Boston Marathon race, to let residents and those trying to cope with Monday’s tragedy hug and pet them.
The dogs were deployed to Boston on April 15, the same day as the bombs detonated along the marathon route, injuring hundreds of people and killing three others. They will be at the church through Sunday, April 21, for people to spend time with during the healing process. Two of the dogs from the LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs program, Addie and Maggie, who were recently in Newtown, Connecticut and at Sandy Hook Elementary School helping victims and families there, will also be present in Boston.
The arrival of the dogs was organized by Reverend Ingo Dutzmann, pastor of the First Lutheran Church, so they could “be there for those in the community who are shaken up from the bombings.” Dutzmann is a close associate of a pastor in Connecticut, and the two connected immediately after the marathon attack to arrange for the animals to ship up to Boston. At the start of the week there were two dogs, but as of Wednesday, Dutzmann says three more have arrived to meet the high demand to pet the animals. The dogs have also spent time at local hospitals, visiting victims of the marathon tragedy.
Dutzmann says the church has been crowded with people since Monday, all wanting to spend time with the volunteer pets. “A lot of people are showing up. [The dogs] produce their own advertising, really. It’s kind of like a pretty girl in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. I think those girls are great, of course, but I think these dogs are better. These dogs are 100-percent geared toward how they can make someone feel better,” he says. “The animals have that sixth sense—they know what you’re feeling and somehow they know how to respond.”
Those feelings of comfort people experience when petting the dogs come from chemicals being released in the brain, according to Marjorie Jacobs, a training associate at Boston University’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation. “When we are hyper vigilant and alert the body is releasing [many different chemicals]. And when in the company of a calm animal, it elicits a relaxation response. You settle in, you’re not hyper vigilant,” she says. “Also there is that unconditional love and attention and support that the animals give.”
Jacobs says that repeatedly petting the animals and holding them releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone and chemical that is released when babies are being breast fed, which brings people “back into the present moment” and gives them “a break to forget about the past, and from thinking about the anxiety in the future.”
The powerful hormone is said to increase “pair bonding.”
Not to mention, dogs don’t have much to say when someone pours their heart out to them, seeking comfort. “Of course, dogs don’t talk back,” says Jacobs. “It turns off the thinking mind, because you know you can’t [have a conversation] with the animals…you suspend your thinking and then the physical touch and gazing into the eyes calms down the body.”
Because the services are free, the group that owns the dogs has started a fundraiser to help keep the animals in Boston through the weekend.
If you would like to spend time with the dogs, visit the Lutheran Church at 299 Berkeley St. Their services will be available, free, and open to the public at the following times:
Wednesday: 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Thursday: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Friday & Saturday: Call ahead at 617-536-8851
Sunday: Starting at 7 a.m.