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The Healing Power of Puppies

North Shore Animal League America brings puppies and therapy dogs to Boston Medical Center to help healing process in wake of marathon bombing

The bombing at the Boston Marathon last month deeply saddened everyone at North Shore Animal League America, as it did people all around the world. In hopes of bringing some measure of comfort to those affected by this horrific event, our staff and volunteers, along with 11 puppies and two therapy dogs, drove one of our Mobile Units up to Boston and spent two days stationed outside of Boston Medical Center.

“There is something miraculous that happens when people hold an animal in their arms,” says Joanne Yohannan, Senior VP of Operations at Animal League America. “Dogs, especially, are truly empathetic; they can sense when people are emotionally distressed, and they respond with unconditional love and support. It’s a remarkably healing experience.”

Beginning on April 29, 2013, and continuing over the course of several days, Boston Medical Center medical personnel and patients, as well as police and many community residents, lined up outside the Mobile Unit, awaiting the opportunity to snuggle with a Mutt-i-gree puppy or spend some time petting the two therapy dogs who made the journey: Blue, owned by Animal League America longtime volunteers Ben and Marion Savio; and Madison, the dog belonging to Jackie Audette, one of our trainers.

“There’s such a calming effect by being with an animal, and everyone told us that it was just what they needed,” says Marion. “Blue was surrounded by people petting him, and he was in seventh heaven. But most important, it was the best medicine for the patients and the wonderful people who were treating them. I think it reminded them that there is still good in this world.”

Mutt-i-gree Pup Renamed in Honor of Boston

According to Meg Wood, Project Manager of Boston Medical Center’s Pediatrics Division, the visit provided much-needed relief—especially to hospital personnel who had been working tirelessly to serve the injured. “Our staff was deeply affected by the tragedy, and the experience of being with the dogs brought smiles all around the campus,” says Meg. “It was very beneficial to people’s spirits.”

Actor Kevin Spacey had also come to Boston to do whatever he could to lift the spirits of the community, visiting patients, medical staff, police and other responders to the bombing. Kevin told the Boston Herald, “I’m not a doctor or first responder, but if people know me from movies, and walking into their work space or room brings a smile to their face — with the challenges these amazing citizens have in front of them — then that’s worth coming.”

Kevin, a huge animal lover, also visited our Mobile Unit, where he fell in love with Snuggles, one of our Mutt-i-gree puppies. He renamed her Boston in honor of the city’s strength and courage.

Bringing Joy, Soothing Wounds

Jayne Vitale, Animal League America’s Mutt-i-gree Outreach Manager, was on site at the Boston Medical Center throughout our visit, and she recalls an especially touching experience. “At the finish of the last day, the director of the psychiatric ward brought down a group of patients to visit with the animals. It was amazing. They were so connected to the dogs and so gentle and kind.”

One young woman from the group put her fingers through the bars and whispered, “I know how you feel. I know what it is to be different, to be trapped.” The woman turned to Jayne and said, “Because I’m different, the people in my neighborhood don’t include me.”

Jayne asked if she wanted to hold the puppy. “She took him in her arms and didn’t want to let go,” says Jayne. “Both of their needs melded into one.”

Animal League America is grateful to the staff at Boston Medical Center, and to all the people of Boston, for giving us such a warm welcome during our visit. As volunteer Marion Savio puts it, “It was as rewarding for us as it was for the people who visited the Mobile Unit; I will remember it forever.”

“You have no idea how much joy you brought,” Meg says. “We have been a hospital that has dealt with daily trauma from community violence. Having you here soothed the most recent wounds and those old battle scars.”