Providence St. Mary Medical Center will add a K-9 to its security team this fall.

The Poplar Street medical center becomes the latest health care campus to add a trained dog to its staff after Providence introduced the first K-9 unit to a Washington state hospital at the start of the year.

The bolstered security is intended to help deter workplace violence on the rise both nationally and locally, hospital officials said.

“An increasing number of hospitals across the nation are now using security dogs to detect contraband, deter violence and help address possible threats,” said Susan Leathers, St. Mary’s Safety, Security and Emergency Preparedness manager, in a prepared statement.

Leathers said this morning the change is also part of a broader shift toward round-the-clock security at the facility. In April, St. Mary completed the build out of its officer staffing with seven people who share the load of 24-hour, full-time security. Two officers overlap shifts during peak hours for the Emergency Department.

“It’s kind of a historic first for the hospital,” Leathers said.

Security officer Michael Smith, who joined the team in March after working in Oregon law enforcement, will serve as the Walla Walla hospital’s K-9 program coordinator.

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Security Officer Michael Smith

He will travel this month to the Alabama Canine Law Enforcement Training Center, where he will be paired with a German shephard. Together, the two will train as partners for eight weeks before returning to Walla Walla.

Smith has previous experience as a canine handler from a background in law enforcement. A certified crisis intervention negotiator and private investigator, he has served as an instructor for law enforcement defensive tools, the announcement said.

Startup for the new program for Walla Walla is funded through the Providence St. Mary Foundation. The nonprofit charitable arm of the operation leads fundraising to invest in the hospital’s programs, technology and equipment as part of the mission of ensuring exceptional health care.

While St. Mary picks up its first K-9, Sacred Heart will be in Alabama for its third. The program there has been so successful that it continues to grow with the presence of multiple dogs, Leathers said.

Intended for the security and contraband detection, the animals have also had a profound affect on health care.

“We’ve been able to see how much the patients and employees love the dog(s),” Leathers said.

With the handler’s permission, guests and staff are able to interact with the animals through what can sometimes be a distressing environment.

“The way the dogs really serve in the mission of the healing environment is something that we’ve learned,” Leathers said.

She said she doesn’t know specific statistics around K-9 interactions and incidents at Sacred Heart.

The expansion of the program to Walla Walla was not precipitated by a specific incident, she said. The change is part of an overall strategy for protection and care in health care, where workers are four times more likely to be involved in serious workplace violence than in private industry on average, according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration information.

“We have a mission and a vision in our security department to think strategically and be proactive in any way that we can so that our caregivers can do what they need to do to carry out our mission in a caring environment,” Leathers said. “You can’t do that if you don’t feel safe.”

Alabama Canine owner Ricky Farley has trained dogs for more than 1,500 police departments and 28 countries. His training includes a specific program for hospitals, targeting the animals’ socialization skills. The dogs selected for the program are friendly and determined by the program to be able to function well in a health care environment.

According to the World Health Organization, between 8 and 38% of health workers suffer physical violence at some point in their careers. Most of that is from patients and visitors, the WHO says. That risk can be greatly exacerbated during disaster or conflict situations.

OSHA data showed between 2002 and 2013, health care accounts for nearly as many serious violent injuries as all other industries combined. Serious workplace violence in that case is characterized as that which requires days off.

At St. Mary, Leathers said violence is not unusual in the Emergency Department. Aggressive behavior is also seen through other arms of the operation. Contributing factors include working with people who may either have a history of violence or may be under the influence or in duress.

The new K-9 staff member will be on duty only with Smith, Leathers said. That means there will not be a 24-hour animal presence.

“It’s a historic program in health care,” Leathers said. “We feel like we are on the leading edge of it.”

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 509-526-8321, or on Twitter at

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.

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