Dogs On A Mission
Dogs On A Mission
by Joan Allen
You may be surprised to find German Shepherds searching the halls and parking garages at Mercy Medical Center for criminals, comforting sick patients or nuzzling their favorite staff members.
But it’s all in a day’s work for the dogs in Mercy’s K-9 unit and their handlers, said Michael Parks, senior director of security services at Mercy.
“These dogs are part of the Mercy system network,” Parks said. “They’ve played a significant role in reducing crime on campus. We’ve had very few incidents in our garages.”
Parks explained that all of their dogs are purebred, male German Shepherds from Eastern Europe. “We want a dog that’s very sociable in a hospital setting as well as highly trained for obedience, handler protection, crowd control and eventually explosive detection.”
This little-known but heroic K-9 unit has been in operation at Mercy since 1994, the first of its kind in a hospital setting in the eastern United States. The need for the K-9 unit started in the early 1990s in response to an increase in violent incidents on campus.
“At that time,” Parks said, “a security officer named Elmer Clark made a request that the hospital should look at the viability of using trained canines instead of issuing firearms to protect officers.”
Clark was given the green light to research it and permission to purchase a dog. He received his training with the Maryland State Police and Baltimore County Police K-9 units.
“On 9-11 and days to follow, there were a number of bomb threats in Baltimore,” Parks said. “The Baltimore sheriff’s department was inundated with calls and knew Mercy had dogs that were certified to detect explosives. Our dogs were called in to sweep the Baltimore City courthouse for explosives.”
Parks cited another need for Mercy’s K-9 team. “Mercy receives a number of prisoner patients. If they need to be admitted, our dogs and their handlers make frequent visits to the emergency room or their inpatient rooms to provide an extra level of security to our campus.”
Over the years, Mercy’s K-9 unit has evolved into a team of five dogs and five handlers under the leadership of Capt. Mark Ross, former Deputy Sheriff of Palm Beach County, Fla. Ross is the highest-ranking member of the K-9 unit and is responsible for testing, purchasing and training the dogs.
“At Mercy, we need a dog with a very friendly demeanor so he can be appropriate with patients, children, visitors, but can also disperse in a crowd control or emergency situation,” Ross said. “The dog could be in a cancer ward helping to comfort a patient and then deal in a hostile situation in the ER.”
Mercy’s policy is that handlers and their dogs work and live together. When Ross talked about his dog, Iko, now 3 1/2 years old and the oldest member of the unit, he sounded proud. He attributed the capture of a perp, who had been arrested more than 100 times and had broken into 1000 vehicles, to Iko’s bravery and the security department’s teamwork.
“I got a call from a staff member monitoring the garage who saw the suspect on camera. I helped establish where I wanted the other units to be on the other floors,” Ross said.
“When the guy came off the elevator, I challenged him with the dog. Iko began barking. I told the man to lie down on floor and not to make any fast movements. The man was taken off the street, so that was a successful mission for me and Iko.
“The burglar said, ‘If you didn’t have the dog, I would have run.’ Iko served as a deterrent for us not to get injured. Anything can happen during those moments of desperation.”
Ross said the dogs are directly in line with the Sisters of Mercy’s vision of being compassionate and providing a healing environment.
“There are many things the dogs do for the campus, not just protect and deter, but provide comfort. People want to interact and pet them (when they’re not working) and employees love the fact that the dogs are there. It gives them a break from their day for a minute,” he said.
“All of our dogs are approachable. They’ll give you kisses if you’re sick. One dog, Blek, knows when somebody is really ill and will try to cuddle and comfort that person.” Ross said.
“Many patients have lengthy stays and when we find out they are animal lovers, we make a daily visit to that room. Patients are really appreciative to spend five minutes with the dogs.”
Patients at Mercy aren’t the only ones who love getting a visit from the K-9 unit. Human Resources Employment Manager Demet Cress, active in local animal rescue work and placement, is also a big fan.
“Every other day we place a call to K-9 to bring a dog over. We just need that break,” she said. “For us, we’re so busy with day-to-day work. Human Resources is a busy department. It’s such a nice release for them to come through, lick us on the face, and do tricks. It just lightens the mood.”
Cress, known affectionately at Mercy as “the adoption lady,” helped place Brando, a beloved member of the K-9 team who retired after seven years’ service at Mercy due to medical issues, with a family in Southern Maryland. It was a match made in heaven, even though short-lived.
Mercy Medical Center K-9 Officer Greg Mahan was a little worried how Brando, whom he described as a serious working dog with purpose and drive, would adjust to living with a family. Mahan, Brando’s second handler, had worked with him for three years.
“When I took Brando to their home, he fell in love with the family,” Mahan said. “He was done being a working K-9; he wanted to be a dog. He even let their 6-year-old daughter dress him up like Cinderella.
“Then we got the call from the family. The mom called crying. Brando had a lesion on the brain and had to be put down. And they’d only had Brando for four months.”
According to Mahan, he has had Idol, Brando’s replacement, since last February, and they have really bonded.
“Idol is totally different from Brando. He’s a big kid. I got him at 18 months and he’s 27 months now. He loves to run around and play. My girlfriend, Erica, buys him stuffed toys. He walks around with a toy in his mouth and goes to sleep with it. In the morning when we let him out, he always has to go out with a toy. He’s hilarious.”
Mahan said Idol’s demeanor suddenly changes at work; he’s more on point. “He watches everything. When we walk in the garage, he scans the whole garage with his head. When he’s in the patrol vehicle, his demeanor is different. He starts barking when someone approaches. When he goes into the hospital, he’s proud and holds his head up high and his chest up like he’s saying, ‘I know I’m bad.’”
Sometimes when Idol is patrolling the floors of the hospital, Mahan said, “He’ll jump up and put his paws on a patient’s bed railing. The patient’s eyes plead with the nurse to allow him to pet Idol. When permission is granted, you can see the pain melt away and a big ole smile on their face. When they’re in pain it brings a little light to their day.”
Joan Allen is passionate about dogs and their welfare, Joan has volunteered as a Dog Deputy for the Baltimore SPCA, has written feature stories for Baltimore Dog Magazine, The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, Baltimore Magazine, and many other publication.
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