Touting a 42% decrease in violence at Providence Sacred Heart since its inception, the hospital system’s K-9 program has seen its first retirements.
When introduced in 2018, the use of security dogs in a hospital setting had not been attempted in Washington. Over five years later, two new dogs are being introduced to the program, and the hospital is touting its K-9 unit as a deterrent to violence in the hospital.
There are three dogs and three handlers in the unit, led by supervisor Pat McKenna. There are 18 hospital security dogs across Washington, and the first was McKenna’s dog Sarge.
The black German shepherd is now joined by two more – 2-year-old German shepherds Duke and Rosie, who are handled by officers Jereme Daw and Rachel Adams, respectively.
Both teams have undergone training and certifications, including to be able to detect illicit drugs and explosive materials.
According to the officers, dogs provide a deterrence toward violence that a human officer does not. McKenna said perpetrators are often “more than willing” to fight an officer and be wrestled to the ground. But these same individuals are not willing to fight a trained security dog.
“When you walk in with a dog, it just got a little more serious,” McKenna said.
Over five years and 3,800 instances of a K-9 pair arriving on the scene of a potentially violent situation, no dog has bitten a perpetrator of violence or anyone else. That step would not be taken unless someone in the hospital was in imminent danger of fatal harm.
“Our dog is there as a visual deterrence to make sure that people understand we have other options to deal with violence,” Daw said.
The nearly halved violence seen since 2018 is measured by the number of calls for service made to the Providence security team. This wide-ranging metric can include anything from a lockout of a vehicle to verbal threats to a physical attack of a health care worker.
According to Providence’s internal metrics, there was an average of 50,000 calls for service per year as of the end of 2022. This metric has been in steady decline since 2018, except an uptick in violence in the early stages of the pandemic.
“People were used to walking into the hospital and visiting their loved one. That came to an end. There was no visitation for a while. People were upset,” McKenna said of 2020. Since then, the metric has “started to go down a little bit,” he added.
Workplace violence continues to be a prevalent issue for health care workers, both at Sacred Heart hospital and at health care settings nationally. As of 2018, approximately 10.4 for every 10,000 workers in the health care and social assistance industry experience an intentional injury by another person while on the job – a metric over five times the number for overall workers in the United States. Health care workers accounted for 73% of all nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses due to violence in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
According to McKenna, Providence security “sees everything a police officer on the street would.”
“When people generally come to the hospital, that’s not a good day for him. And so we have the potential to have violence,” he said.
When McKenna began working at Providence in 2018, it was common for at least one member to be on leave because of a workplace injury. Now, there is “seldom” an officer out because of a workplace injury.
Each of the three canines and its training costs the hospital system approximately $40,000 a year. Cost of the K-9 program is much lower than the weapons, metal detectors and other deterrents Providence had considered before 2018, according to McKenna.
A benefit the security team did not anticipate was the increased connection they would have with the patients and healthcare workers they are protecting.
Sometimes, a K-9 pair’s rounds take four to five hours because everyone wants to stop to pet the dogs.
“The dogs have really brought us closer in our relationships with our caregivers,” Adams said. “They start talking about their animals at home and it brings the whole environment into a more peaceful place.”
Previously with the Spokane Police Department, new security dog Duke was a “little too friendly” for police work, Daw said. But that demeanor is perfect for hospital work, where a dog should never intimidate except when in a potentially violent situation.
While on duty and doing their patrol, patients and visitors should ask permission from their handlers before petting. But outside of work, the dogs are just dogs.
“She wants to work with me. We get up in the morning and she’s a normal dog at home,” Adams said of her dog, Rosie. “She runs around, she chases the ball. She loves the family. And then I put on her uniform, as well as mine, and she stands by the door. She’s ready to go.
“We get in the car together every morning and we come to work, and she loves it.”