Armed with defense dogs, Providence Alaska Medical Center reports decrease in violence

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Walk into Providence Alaska Medical Center on any given day, and you might come across a somewhat unusual sight to behold: muzzled security dogs and their handlers wandering hospital hallways.

Handler David Gibler pets his narcotics detection dog, Kaske, at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. The pair, along with another K-9 unit, are helping make the hospital a safer place.

"Over the last several years, we've experienced an increase in workplace violence," said Nelson Price, Dir. of Safety and Security at Providence.

"We were looking for any number of tools that we could help our caregivers to improve that and decrease the workplace violence," he said, "specifically for officers engaging with a lot of the folks involved in that, and one of the tools we found and researched was canines."

Alaska's largest hospital is one of the few medical facilities in the United States that currently employs man's best friend as a form of defense against illicit drugs, bombs, weaponry, and other threats, including individuals acting erratic or behaving in a way that is or could become violent. Only about 12 percent of hospitals across the country did so at the time of a 2014 survey provided to International Association of Healthcare Security and Safety.

"We try to deescalate anything before it gets serious," Price said. "We want to prevent injuries to our patients, to our visitors, to our caregivers. That's kind of the purpose of it all."

Providence currently employs two K-9 units at the facility in Anchorage: Kaske, the narcotics-focused dog, and handler David Gibler; and Robi, the bomb detection dog, with handler Tiera Eldred.

"He's with me all day, every day, Gibler said of Kaske, "even off work. But at work, we walk the hallways a couple times a day, make sure we visit all the floors, say 'Hi' to all the staff."

Along with sniffing out those items that don't belong in a hospital, the canines are in large part a matter of overall self-defense, serving as a layer of protection against the 150 or so assaults against workers in public hospitals per year. That's in addition to the violence rates in the healthcare sector that are five to twelve times greater than workplaces overall, according to National Nurses United.

While Price noted a recent bomb threat, Gibler described an incident in which someone needed to get forced injections to calm her down.

"They had gotten control of a syringe and a needle, and were brandishing it to staff members," Gibler said. "I thought that was going to go a whole different direction. We showed up and she was like, 'Oh! Can I pet your dog?!'

"'Well, sure,'" Gibler said, "'if you put the needle down.' And she did, so that worked out pretty well."

Incidents like that are in large part why Price said he wants to add legs to the squad.

"People come in, high stress, high anxiety, get worked up sometimes," he said. "They feel they're waiting for an extended period of time, they may act out aggressively.

"They might not listen to you or I, but they see the presence of the canine, and they think about it," he said.

While helping secure the hospital remains the primary purpose of having the K-9 units on staff, Price said he has occasionally received complaints about the dogs being “too threatening,” especially when muzzled. The latter, however, is for safety: The dogs can still breathe, bark and take snacks just fine, he said, but with so many people going in and out of the hospital each day, it would be easy for one of them to get spooked by someone sneaking up behind them or coming up to pet them without permission.

At the same time, while some are intimated at the mere sight of the pups, the large “positive response” and reported decrease in incidents at the hospital since the enlisting of Kaske and Roby has been a huge benefit, Price said, and expanding the team is something he would like to do.

“Adding a couple more would improve the whole system I think,” Price said.

Video footage shot by photojournalist Michael Nederbrock.