Skip to content
Mental Health + Substance Use

“Because of Koko, every day I got a little better”: How a dog the size of a teacup helped remove this Vancouverite from the grips of depression and substance use

by St. Paul's Foundation


At St. Paul’s Foundation, we often find that the most challenging journeys can lead to the most remarkable transformations. One such example is the story of a patient named Junko, whose experience with our organization is a testament to the incredible strength of the human spirit, the importance of a helping hand, and the remarkable impact that compassion and companionship can have in the darkest of times. Her journey from adversity to compassion could not have been possible without the support of St. Paul’s Hospital and her canine companions.

Discover Junko’s inspirational story and how St. Paul’s Hospital was essential in providing the support and care she needed during a harrowing time in her life.

Junko’s path to recovery and a helpful hand (or paw)

Cupcake who's one of the therapy dogs at St. Paul's Hospital.
One of Junko’s therapy dogs, Cupcake

Today, Junko serves as a peer support worker at Road to Recovery at St. Paul’s Hospital, a ‘first-in-Canada’ model of treatment that could transform addiction care across the country. This model of care will cut weeks of waitlists and support patients to move seamlessly through a full spectrum of treatment services, from the Rapid Access Addiction Clinic through withdrawal management, in-patient recovery-focused beds, transitional housing, outpatient treatment, and more—all in one location. Her journey to this role is a testament to her resilience and determination. 

Born in Japan, Junko moved to Canada after high school excited for the opportunities that awaited her. However, life had other plans, as she encountered significant challenges, including experiences of abuse and trauma that left her feeling lost.

“I thought that nobody loved me. I was hopeless. And at that time, I was so depressed and I was ill. I isolated myself in the house. I didn’t go outside for a few years.”

She was caught in the grip of depression and substance use. It was a dire time, a time when she felt unloved and undeserving of happiness. But it was during these dark days that a little chihuahua named Koko entered her life.

Koko, a small and fearless puppy, became a ray of hope in Junko’s life. Seeing the tiny dog’s unwavering confidence and boundless joy gave Junko a renewed sense of purpose. She began taking Koko for walks, which eventually led to interactions with other people in her community. The connection, warmth, and belonging she felt through this little dog changed her life. Thanks to Koko, she regained the strength and determination to seek treatment and confront the health care challenges that prevented her from enjoying life.

“Because of Koko, every day I got a little better. I used to get a panic attack every time I left the house, so I couldn’t go outside. But because of Koko, I managed to go to the hospital for treatment. I remember when I saw Koko walking, a little puppy walking on the floor across the hospital room. She was really, really small. That’s when I felt such warmth and a purpose like I needed to get better. For myself and for Koko.” 

St. Paul’s Hospital: A haven of compassion

Therapy dogs at St. Paul's Hospital
Muffin, Junko’s therapy dog

Even with Koko by her side, seeking help was not easy for Junko. Unfortunately due to personal experiences in her past, Junko was left with a profound fear of health care settings, and she harboured guilt and shame about her substance use. It was the presence of Koko that enabled her to step into St. Paul’s, where the compassionate nurses at the hospital, along with Koko’s support, transformed her perception of health care.

“I just didn’t know how to love myself anymore. I just felt like nobody loved me. Then when I went to St. Paul’s, the nurses, who I still remember, came to me, sat next to me, and just touched my shoulder and said, ‘Hi, Junko, how are you doing? Thank you for coming today. It’s so nice to see you.’ I was stunned. I don’t remember everything they said to me at the time, but I do remember how I felt.”

As Junko continued to visit St. Paul’s, she experienced the power of compassion and love from the hospital staff. The nurses, doctors, and social workers not only cared for her but were delighted to see her. This marked a turning point in her journey. Over time, the hospital became a place of solace and healing, rather than fear and anxiety. Through the simple presence of Koko, Junko found the strength to face her diagnosis and her past.

Empowering others: Junko, Muffin, and Cupcake

An addiction care support worker proudly showing off her therapy dog's badge.
Junko proudly shows off Muffin’s therapy dog badge

Junko’s story didn’t end with her recovery. It inspired her to work to be on the other side of the healing process, to support others who were struggling as she once did. She recognized the incredible impact that animals, especially dogs like Koko, could have on people’s lives. The joy, connection, warmth, and sense of belonging they bring are immeasurable, especially for individuals dealing with addiction.

“I’ve experienced it myself, the power of animals, the healing power of animals.”

Junko dreamed of a day when, with her lived experiences and the help of her dogs, she could be a support worker, a peer who understands the challenges of addiction and trauma. This dream became her source of strength and hope, enabling her to overcome her past and rebuild her life.

Today, Junko is living her dream as a peer support worker at St. Paul’s, bringing her therapy dogs, Muffin and Cupcake, to visit patients. The impact of these furry companions is astounding. Patients who may be anxious or agitated find comfort and solace in their presence. The dogs break the isolation that patients sometimes feel, bridging the gap between fear and connection. Muffin and Cupcake’s joyful and nonjudgmental companionship transforms the atmosphere in the hospital and brings smiles to patients’ faces.

“When I see a patient’s face, no matter what bad day they’re having or they feel agitated or angry, as soon as they see Muffin, they have a big smile. I experienced it myself with Koko. Now, Cupcake and Muffin bring joy, connection, love, compassion, and then such warmth to patients.”

A message of hope

Junko who owns therapy dogs at St. Paul's Hospital

Junko’s journey is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of compassion. She serves as a guiding light, a symbol of hope for those who may be struggling with adversity, addiction, or trauma. Her message is clear: no one is alone, and there is always hope.

She encourages others to take that first step, no matter how daunting it may seem. St. Paul’s is a place of safety, support, and compassion, a place where patients can find the strength to heal and rediscover their worth. The warmth and love they receive at St. Paul’s can be transformative, just as it was for Junko.

“St. Paul’s is a family. We all have similar values, lots of compassion, love, and it’s a special place.”

Junko has a lasting message for those who now stand in the place she was once in. 

“Everybody’s experience is different. But I know the pain that they have inside them. The biggest message I have for them is that they’re not alone. We are here for them, and they don’t have to go through it alone. I know it’s scary to take that one step, but there is hope out there. I know that for a fact because I’ve done it. No matter where they are in their healing journey, we are here for them. And it’s just one step at a time.”

Junko’s story serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of St. Paul’s in our community. Your gift to Lights of Hope enables St. Paul’s to continue to be a haven of healing, a place where individuals like Junko can find support and hope. With her therapy dogs, Muffin and Cupcake, Junko continues to make a positive impact in the lives of patients, spreading joy, connection, and a sense of belonging.