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Overdose detecting dogs save lives, lift spirits in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

When someone overdoses at VANDU, pups Guess and Joy are quick to alert the nearest human

One $500 purchase has saved the lives of people using drugs on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside numerous times.

When Lorna Bird bought her three-month-old Havanese-schnauzer-Scottish terrier cross in 2018 though, she was mostly thinking about saving her own life. She says she was extremely lonely, losing weight and struggling to eat.

With her new puppy Joy to take care of, she had to take care of herself too.

“It made me start having to cook. I’d cook her a steak and therefore I’d start eating,” Bird says. “So I ended up putting on weight… now I’m exactly the perfect weight I’m supposed to be.”

Bird was in the injection room at the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), where she serves as president, when she realized Joy could save other people’s lives too.

Someone was overdosing in another room, but Bird never would have known it was happening if Joy hadn’t run up to her and started barking and pawing at her.

“She kept jumping at me and putting her paws on me and pulling,” Bird says.

Ever since then, anytime someone overdoses Joy makes sure to notify who ever is around.

READ ALSO: B.C advocates push back as Health Canada mulls lower-than-requested legal drug possession

One time, Bird says it was her overdosing alone in her office. She’s sure if Joy hadn’t been there and gone running for Bird’s boyfriend, she would have died.

“I was meant to get her,” Bird says.

Joy is intelligent in other ways too.

Bird says she has to be careful to spell out certain words like “S-T-O-R-E” and “O-U-T-S-I-D-E” or Joy will get too excited. When they do go to the S-T-O-R-E together, Joy insists of carrying her own food home or she won’t eat it.

One time, Bird says her son dropped a five dollar bill and Joy went and nudged it with her nose repeatedly until someone noticed it. Another time, one of her puppies lost her collar and Joy went and retrieved it and brought it to her.

Her puppies are smart too.

Long-time VANDU goer Alain Camac-Marquis bought one of Joy’s first ones, Choo Choo, when she was just five weeks old.

“She could fit in my hand,” he recalls fondly.

Camac-Marquis’s wife suffers from seizures and soon Choo Choo was predicting them a minute or two ahead of time, Camac-Marquis says.

“She runs to her before it happens and stays with her,” he says.

Some research suggests dogs can detect people’s seizures by a change in their behaviour or scent. Camac-Marquis says he thinks the same may be true for overdoses.

The owner of Choo Choo’s sister, Laura Shaver, agrees.

“They’ve learned to react to stressful situations. When there is somebody that looks bent over in an awkward position or something, they respond to it,” says the VANDU board member and president of the British Columbia Association of People on Methadone.

As with Bird and Camac-Marquis, Shaver’s dog Guess serves a vital purpose for her outside of VANDU too.

Her husband is ill with advanced Crohn’s disease and liver cirrhosis, and Shaver says she believes Guess is a big part of why he is still alive.

“When he’s stuck in bed, she takes care of him,” Shaver says.

None of the three owners are sure what makes their dogs so intuitive, but each agrees the pups are a large part of what gets them and their loved ones through the day.

Close to 10,000 people have died from toxic drug overdoses since B.C. declared a public health emergency in 2016, but not a single one has happened inside VANDU. Bird says until drugs are decriminalized and there is a safe supply, their dogs can play a small part in keeping it that way.

READ ALSO: ‘Death penalty situation’: 6 years ago, B.C. declared toxic drug poisonings a health emergency


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About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

Hi, I'm a provincial reporter with Black Press Media, where I've worked since 2020.
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