Colorado hospital hires K9 teams for comfort and safety


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Hospitals are trying to find ways to reduce workplace violence against healthcare workers. One facility is turning to dogs for help.

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — Moose isn’t the typical staff member at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction.

For starters, he’s a dog, not a human. The two-year-old K9 has some important duties inside the Intermountain Health hospital.

“We patrol the halls,” said Moose’s handler, and fellow security officer, Christopher Firm. “Nurses have us as a tool, as well to be able to call us into rooms if they have a difficult patient. And if a patient is having a bad day we ask, ‘Do you like dogs?’ We can go in and visit – it really helps patients either calm down or just have a better day. Because nobody wants to be at the hospital, right?”

Moose and Firm are just one of five K9 teams operating at the hospital. They and two other pairs are full-time, along with two part-time teams. The program was launched during the pandemic to address the rising number of cases of violence toward healthcare workers.

“Violence has always been a risk in healthcare,” explained Susie Bourgeois, director of Public Safety and Security for Intermountain Healthcare’s Peaks Region. “But especially post-pandemic, we’re just seeing a large increase in every type of violence – physical and verbal.”

Violence in healthcare has become a dangerous and challenging problem in hospitals across Colorado. This year, lawmakers introduced a bill that would require hospitals to establish internal committees to document incidents of violence and develop workplace safety plans. But many hospitals have tried their own, unique approach.

The K9 teams are hired and employed by the hospital, working for the internal security team. The pairs train together to earn certification through the National Police Canine Association. Bourgeois and her staff say, these teams are unique from traditional law enforcement K9s because they don’t just serve on patrol as a deterrent and response, but are also trained to be socialized – comforting staff and patients, accepting pets, treats, and playtime when instructed.

“They are primarily in our Emergency Department (ED) because that’s where we see our largest volume of violence and attacks,” Bourgeois said. “But even during their ‘rounding,’ the staff fight over who gives them treats, who loves on them, they have competitions on each floor. They [the dogs] get pet all day.”

Bourgeois says the program has been even more successful than they expected.

“When you compare 2022 to 2023, we saw a 50% reduction in workplace violence injuries, and we saw a 30% reduction in workplace violence events – mainly focused in the ED,” she said. “We’re blown away by the stats, but again, I think we could tell you story after story – of caregivers with a hard case, who sought out the [K9] team, and literally cried into the dog’s fur, wiped their tears, then went back to work.”

Firm says the dogs serve both as a deterrent and a comfort. He’s seen patients and visitors come through in a mental health crisis, in addiction withdrawals, or some other state of agitation and unable to communicate with their healthcare team. Some will see the K9 dog and either out of fear, or curiosity, or maybe both – start to settle down. If the situation is safe, the handler may invite the individual to sit with the dog, pet it, or just let it spend some time in the room if that’s helpful.

“It’s remarkable, It really is,” Firm said. ”We have that ability to act if need be, to apprehend, to help protect another human. But we also have the ability to just go in and be a dog.”

More stories by Jennifer Meckles:

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Colorado hospital hires K9 teams for comfort and safety

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