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Therapy dogs come to Thousand Oaks to comfort mourners

Therapy dogs come to Thousand Oaks to comfort mourners
A therapy dog at the memorial for victims of the shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif. (Soumya Karlamangla / Los Angeles Times)

Outside Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, a dozen wooden crosses adorned with flowers line the sidewalk, one for each of the people gunned down in a massacre in the city last week.

Mourners sit on the curb and gaze at photos of friends they lost, wiping away tears. But some who come to leave flowers or a note may feel a warm brush of fur on their legs, or even a lick.

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Seven therapy dogs from Chicago have been in Thousand Oaks since Thursday to help those who are grieving. Three others arrived from New Jersey.

Richard Martin, director of the Chicago group, K-9 Ministries, said that one of his dogs was recently sent to help with the devastating Camp fire north of Sacramento.

The organization, which started in August 2008, has trained 130 Labrador retrievers to do this work. Eight-month-old puppies get a year and a half of training in “absolutely nothing,” Martin said.

Seven-year-old Ruthie came to Thousand Oaks with nine other dogs to provide comfort to those grieving after the recent shooting and wildfires.
Seven-year-old Ruthie came to Thousand Oaks with nine other dogs to provide comfort to those grieving after the recent shooting and wildfires. (Soumya Karlamangla / Los Angeles Times)

The dogs are taught to be calm and present, but nothing more.

“Nobody likes to pet an anxious dog,” Martin said while gripping 7-year-old Ruthie’s leash. Ruthie, who wore a vest saying “Please Pet Me,” at one point slowly turned her head to look at a rustling leaf, but otherwise stayed perfectly still.

On Monday morning, two girls sat cross-legged in front of the memorial for Justin Meek, a 23-year-old bouncer at Borderline who died in the shooting. Bouquets of flowers lay in front of the cross, including one that had a cowboy boot as its vase.

As the girls began to tear up, a shaggy brown dog poked his head between the two, nuzzling up alongside them.

Later, a woman who was at Borderline the night of the shooting and escaped through a window arrived at the makeshift memorial. She sat and petted one of the dogs for nearly two hours.

Those dogs were from Tri-State K-9, a group that flew to Thousand Oaks from New Jersey to provide comfort to people grieving. While the Chicago dogs are leaving Tuesday, the dogs from New Jersey will be in town through Thursday.

Martin said that Ruthie’s first assignment was the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. The dogs also spent time with people who survived the shootings in Las Vegas and Parkland, Fla.

The dogs work all day in tragic circumstances such as these, but rest in the evening.

“Their paycheck at the end of the day is a good massage,” provided by him, Martin said.

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