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Grand Junction, Colo.,
10:33 AM

Four-legged officers join St. Mary’s security team

SMMC K9 group photo 2

St. Mary’s Medical Center, now part of Intermountain Health, recently welcomed a new team of security officers to the hospital to help maintain a safe and healing environment for patients, visitors, and staff. But this group of officers looks slightly different than what patients and caregivers are used to. They have four legs and enjoy a good belly rub.  

The hospital now employs three full-time and two part-time K-9 teams which include a dog and a handler. The dogs and their handlers undergo formal training for months before starting at the hospital. Unlike traditional police dogs, in addition to security, they also are trained to be approachable and provide comfort to patients and staff.  

“Their main job when they come to work is to patrol and be seen. That visibility is the number one value of the program and the deterrence that it provides. But they are also used to provide comfort to our associates after they’ve worked a difficult case or even to ease a patient who might be experiencing anxiety from being in the hospital,” said Susan Bourgeois, interim director of Public Safety and Security in the Peaks Region of Intermountain Health. 

Patients will most likely see the K-9s roaming the halls of the emergency department. That’s where the hospital has experienced an increase in workplace violence toward caregivers. 

“Having the K-9s available in the ER has reduced the fear for our nurses and our staff. A lot of times when a patient is not cooperating or begins to get physical with our staff, they calm right down when the dog shows up. You can see their demeanor change almost immediately,” said Amanda Popejoy, charge nurse, St. Mary’s Emergency Department.  

Healthcare settings can be a stressful environment, and workers across the country are increasingly seeing patients and visitors act out. As a result, healthcare workers are at an increased risk of experiencing verbal threats or physical attacks. St. May’s K-9 team provides a visual deterrent to these behaviors and can help deescalate potential harmful situations. 

St. Mary’s special operations K-9 supervisor, Geraldine Earthman, says in certain situations a simple command to bark goes a long way. “Generally, that causes the person to stop doing whatever they’re doing,” Earthman said.  

In fact, on some occasions the presence of the K-9 officer has been more effective than a human law enforcement officer.  

 “We had a patient that was physically violent to our staff and very verbally aggressive. 

“Although there were law enforcement officers in the room with the patient, only the K-9 team was able to garner the respect to gain compliance just with their presence alone,” Bourgeois said.  

According to Bourgeois, since implementing the K-9 program St. Mary’s has seen a reduction in workplace violence injuries by 50%.  

“Our hope is to add two additional K-9 teams to our program. Five full-time teams will allow us to have 24/7 coverage.” 

The cost per K-9 team, including the handler, is about $150,000 per team, per year. The costs for 24/7 coverage is  roughly $750,000 per year.  

“It’s well worth it in my opinion. Our caregivers have appreciated having the K-9s for both their safety and their comfort. I’ve heard numerous times from caregivers that they were able to come to work because they knew the dog was going to be there. To me that’s a huge win,” St. Mary’s President Bryan Johnson said.  

The St. Mary’s Foundation is raising funds to support St. Mary’s K-9 program and will  feature the team at the St. Mary’s Ball, A Night for Heros, on September 30. Visit St. Mary’s Ball to learn more.