Therapy dogs visit site of Toronto van attack to ‘give unconditional love’

Click to play video 'Therapy dogs at Mel Lastman Square providing comfort to those affected by van attack' Therapy dogs at Mel Lastman Square providing comfort to those affected by van attack
WATCH ABOVE: Volunteers with the St. John Ambulance therapy dog program were providing comfort to the people around Mel Lastman Square on Thursday.

As workers return to their offices and residents resume day-to-day activities along Yonge Street following Monday’s horrific van attack, several St. John Ambulance therapy dogs and their handlers converged at Mel Lastman Square on Thursday to provide comfort to those who have been affected.

“Some of us actually saw it. Some of us came out and we saw the aftermath,” Aneri Nanavaty, who works in a nearby office tower, told Global News.

“This is a place that we consider very safe and very public. I think it’s very important that everyone comes together – be it for dogs, be it for the memorial or just the nice weather and I think it’s very important for everyone’s emotional state that we all heal together.”

READ MORE: Victim Services Toronto working to support those impacted by van attack

Nanavaty said the gesture of bringing the dogs in was “really sweet” and described herself as a “big dog person.”

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“I think animals — there’s just so much love in them and it’s lovely. It kind of takes you away from everything else.”

Just before 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Toronto emergency crews were called to Yonge Street with reports a white rental van hit a number of pedestrians while driving south toward Sheppard Avenue from Finch Avenue. Twenty-five-year-old Alek Minassian was arrested by police minutes later and later charged.

READ MORE: Vigil planned for Toronto van attack victims, #TorontoStrong Fund created

After the incident, volunteers from Toronto, Durham and York regions as well as Mississauga wanted to get together and do something to give back to the city. So during the lunch hour on Thursday at least 15 teams of dogs and handlers congregated for a couple of hours.

“(We hope to) put some smiles on some people’s faces, relieve some stress and give them something nice to do on their lunch hour to end this week,” Jason Colterman, community service manager for St. John Ambulance in Toronto, said during the event on Thursday.

“The dogs give unconditional love. They don’t care if you’re male, female, big, small, wearing designer clothes or not … If you’re willing to give them attention, they’ll give you all the love in the world and do everything they can to make you feel better.”

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WATCH: Therapy dogs brought to Mel Lastman Square to help those affected by van attack. Shallima Maharaj reports.

Click to play video 'Therapy dogs brought to Mel Lastman Square to help those affected by van attack' Therapy dogs brought to Mel Lastman Square to help those affected by van attack
Therapy dogs brought to Mel Lastman Square to help those affected by van attack

Colterman said some of the organization’s volunteers were called to an office building on Wednesday to meet with workers.

“The atmosphere when they arrived in that building was kind of sombre and people were a little bit upset – they weren’t really talking,” he said.

“After talking to people following the visit, we’ve heard they started to open up, they’re talking to each other, they’re telling each other how they feel and their spirits have been lifted.”

READ MORE: Toronto van attack fundraisers — everything you need to know about helping those affected

Barbara Ruhr, along with her soon-to-be two-year-old golden retriever Buddy, were one of the teams at Mel Lastman Square. The pair normally visit seniors twice a week and a children’s rehabilitation hospital once a week. But they are also ready to jump in as required.

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“We wanted to make sure that we came out to show our support to our fellow neighbours, which we’re all Torontonians and we’ve all been affected,” she told Global News.

“I’m so proud of Buddy. My heart melts when I see that he can help people destress and help them through a very rough time.”

READ MORE: GTA company selling #TorontoStrong T-shirts to raise funds for victims of van attack

Ruhr said the level of participation varies during their visits. She said some want to watch, some want to give a quick pet and others “just really need to get right in there for a hug.” She said no matter the amount of participation, the visit can be beneficial.

“The dogs through their non-verbal communication help people. They know, they’re intuitive, so they will go in and do for people what they need,” Ruhr said.

Ruhr said many people came up to her and Buddy to tell her they finally felt “safe enough to come” after hearing the dogs were going to visit.

READ MORE: How therapy dogs were silent healers in Humboldt

“A lot of people have told me that this is their first time coming back out to Yonge Street and they just didn’t feel safe,” she said.

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“They’re reclaiming their neighbourhood and our dogs have helped them do that.”

The volunteer therapy dog teams are scheduled to return to Mel Lastman Square between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Friday.