South Sound News

Tacoma hospital brings in K-9 to help quell assaults. Officer Ben also calms sick kids

(Kate Iida/TheNews Tribune)

TACOMA, Wash. — Meet Officer Ben, a 3-year-old German shepherd now employed at Tacoma General Hospital.

Ben goes on patrol, sniffs for narcotics and can de-escalate situations where visitors or patients might become violent, said Brian Phillips, the dog’s handler. He’ll also come visit you if you’re sick and need some cheering up.

Ben arrived at the hospital three months ago as part of a pilot program to address the increase in violence and abuse in hospitals. As of this week, he’s a full-time staffer.

“There’s a lot of violence in health care. It’s sweeping the nation,” said Radford Garrison, the regional director of security at MultiCare and Ben’s boss.

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A poll taken by the American College of Emergency Physicians found that around 50 percent of emergency physicians who responded said they had dealt with assault on the job. NPR reported that health care workers are four times more likely to deal with violence than those in private industries.

“It reaches sometimes epidemic levels,” Garrison said. “You’re three times more likely to be assaulted in health care than you are in the correctional system.”

Garrison said visitors, patients and people unaffiliated with the hospital or its patients can start potentially dangerous situations.

“It is a high-stress environment,” he said. “People come in, they have bad situations; it just turns fast. Ben’s here to help us combat that.”

Fourteen percent of hospitals across the nation employ security dogs like Ben. Based on Ben’s success, MultiCare plans to bring in another dog sometime this year.

Modeled off a similar program in Alaska, bringing Ben in has cost the hospital about $20,000 so far, funding which came from the Mary Bridge Foundation, among other places.

“You’re worth more than my car,” Garrison joked, ruffling Ben’s fur.

Born in Europe and trained as a police dog in Indiana, Ben completed a month-long training program with Phillips before coming to Tacoma.

Phillips, who has never worked with K-9s before, trained with a master handler. He learned how to issue commands to search for drugs, track and apprehend people and understand Ben’s personality.

“Everything we do with him is a game, so he doesn’t have really any aggression,” Phillips said. “His tail is wagging no matter what we’re doing, even if he’s barking at someone. We train it to be a game so you can go up and pet him when he’s not in those modes.”

Ben adapted quickly to life at the hospital, he said.

“The biggest challenge was trying to get staff members to not come up and pet him while we were on a call,” Phillips laughed. “He slipped right into the role and did great with it.”

Ben's day can begin anywhere from 3 a.m. to 2 p.m. He works 40 hours or more per week, and according to Phillips, he loves his job.

“This guy is really happy and loves coming to work. He trots down the hallway every day,” he said.

No shift is the same for Ben, who spends about 90 percent of his time on patrol. He’ll check restrooms, the bushes outside and near the hospital and walk around on the sidewalks. If an incident happens at a patient room, Ben will be called to the scene.

If needed, he’ll check areas of the hospital for illegal drugs. He often spends the rest of his time socializing with patients and staff.

“It used to be, ‘Hey Brian, how are you doing?’. Now it’s, ‘Good morning Ben, how are you doing?’” Phillips laughed. “I’m not in the picture.”

Ben already boasts an impressive track record at work. In the past 3 months, he’s been to over 300 calls, found illegal drugs 76 times and de-escalated about 80 potentially abusive situations in the hospital, Phillips and Garrison said.

“He also frees up a lot of time too because what may take an officer 20 minutes to search a room for contraband he can do in 5 seconds,” Phillips added.

Ben also spends time helping out with the children in the Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital when they’re feeling scared or upset.

Phillips recounted a time where Ben helped a child return to their room.

“There was a child in Mary Bridge who tried to leave,” Phillips said. “They wouldn’t go back to their room and just sat on the ground crying. It was a very upsetting situation, and you don’t want to pick up a child and physically go back to their room.”

Luckily, Ben came to the rescue, Phillips said.

“I was like, ‘You know what? If you go back to your room, I’ll let you see the dog, and you can pet him and we’ll hang out with you for a bit.’ They jumped right up and went back to their room,” Phillips said.

He and Ben spent some more time helping the child calm down.

“We sat in there for about 20 minutes with them, watched some cartoon network and let them play with the dog,” Phillips said with a smile. “It helps with uplifting their spirits.”