Officer in training: Michigan Medicine Security welcomes furry new team member

March 5, 2020  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,

There’s a new officer in training at Michigan Medicine, and he’s not your ordinary team member.

Just weeks after Michigan Medicine Security welcomed its first on-site police officer, the department is adding another new kind of employee — the furry, four-legged kind.

Born to serve

Leo, a German Shepherd born in the Czech Republic, was flown to the United States in January, at the age of 16 months. Bred specifically for a life of service, Leo was selected by a kennel in Ohio that specializes in importing dogs from Europe for important jobs like the one for which Leo is currently training.

In mid-January, a team from Michigan Medicine Security accompanied the director and master trainer from K9 Academy Training Facility (ATF) in Taylor, Michigan, on a trip to Ohio to meet and evaluate four dogs that had been pre-selected by the kennel, based on desired characteristics and personalities.

Leo with Officer Paul Meyers.

“It was very important for us to get a dog with a calm demeanor and a strong desire to please,” said Brian Uridge, director of Michigan Medicine Security. “Leo is very friendly and smart, with a strong drive to perform — and he bonded almost immediately with the person who would be his handler, Officer Paul Meyers.

“Leo was our first choice,” said Uridge. “His desire to please will carry him through his busy days at the hospital as he meets hundreds of new people.”

The job

Once he is fully trained, Leo will serve two very important roles at Michigan Medicine. His first job will be to provide pet therapy, helping to alleviate fear and apprehension for patients and employees, primarily in the adult Emergency Department.

Uridge noted that his security team has been very impressed by the impact of the Paws4Patients program at Michigan Medicine. They have seen first-hand how a few moments with a dog can alleviate anxiety for both patients and staff.

“When people are dealing with a tough situation, the solid, non-judgmental presence of a dog can bring a feeling of peace and calm,” said Uridge. “It is our hope that having Leo in the hospital will help not only our patients but also our staff.”

Leo’s second job will be to ensure a safe environment for hospital patients, visitors, faculty and staff by detecting a variety of explosives and dangerous materials.

The training

Leo came to the U.S. — and to Michigan Medicine — with zero training as it is imperative that hospital security dogs start their specialized learning with a clean slate.

In preparation for their critical work at the hospital, Leo and Meyers are undergoing 12 weeks of intense training at K9 ATF. During the training, dogs and their handlers develop certifiable skill sets and appropriate manners for their new roles.

“We have to have a dog that wants to play because our training is basically a game to the dog,” said Mark Wilkes, master trainer at K9 ATF. “When a dog indicates on an odor we are shaping him to, we pay him with the ball, the reward. That’s all the dog works for is to be able to play with his ball.”

Although it may sound like fun and games, the training is actually very difficult work and takes a great deal of determination on the part of the handler. Each dog is trained to respond only to the commands of his handler, and there is as much training for the handler — maybe even more — than for the dog.

“Leo’s training doesn’t stop at the school’s doors,” said Meyers. “At-home training is just as important as his academy training. We get homework assignments to work on perfecting different tasks at home, in the hospital and out in public.

“It takes about 18 hours of training a day to make sure the proper obedience skills become ingrained,” he continued. “Everything we do, from going outside for a break to walking to the water dish, requires consistent commands to train him properly. It takes a lot of energy from both of us.”

Getting acclimated

An important part of Leo’s training includes getting acclimated to the sights, sounds and smells of his work environment. He and Officer Meyers have begun making appearances at the hospital, meeting faculty, staff and even a few patients.

Although Leo and Meyers still have several weeks of training before they are certified, faculty and staff may begin to see more of them around the hospital in the coming weeks.

“As the first K9 team at Michigan Medicine, our focus is going to be on providing compassionate service and an exceptional experience so people know they’re welcome and safe when they come to the hospital,” said Meyers. “It has been so rewarding to watch Leo learn and grow in the last few weeks and we’ve already seen the positive impact he has on patients and employees.”