with slideshow: Saber, K-9 officer and pet therapy dog, retires from St. Joseph Mercy Hospital after nine years of service
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
For 20 hours prior to that moment, the patient hadn't stirred. When Saber nuzzled up, the man moved his hand to pet the dog’s furry head. Moments later, surrounded by family and comforted by the dog, the patient died.
Paul Adams, Saber’s handler and a security K-9 coordinator for St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor, shared that emotional moment with his dog and the man's family.
The hospital brought on Saber to enhance security at the hospital after 9-11. But he’s done a lot more than that, Adams said.
“He’s is truly a gentle giant,” Adams said.
Friday marked Saber’s last day at work. In dog years, he’s 70, and he’s spent his working dog’s life at the hospital, protecting and comforting the humans there.
Adams started the K-9 program at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor four months after 9-11. The hospital had considered adding metal detectors to enhance security, but the idea didn’t seem reasonable given the wheelchairs, gurneys and other equipment coming in and out, all the time.
A dog made more sense. The hospital got Saber from a breeder in Czechoslovakia, where the rules governing the purebred industry are incredibly strict, Adams said. But when the dog arrived, Saber didn’t understand English commands or know what it meant to be an explosive detection dog, let alone a walking, panting, furry therapy department on paws.
But in the years since, those are the things he has become. Although Saber can bark or bite on command, in nine years since he’s been on the job, the dog has never had to.
Partly, that's because Saber's very presence tends to help keep situations under control.
Things can get tense in the emergency room, particularly after a gunshot victim is brought in. Everyone’s upset. It’s chaotic. And it isn’t always clear who is there to support the patient and who is there to retaliate.
Saber’s 108-pound presence calms the chaos. Upset members of the crowd are either intimidated, or, they want to pet him, Adams said.
And Saber has been the recipient of lots of petting over the years. After finishing a course at the K9 Academy Training Facility in Wayne, he received additional training to become a pet therapy dog. He has helped the most fragile patients feel better, and sometimes allowed stressed staffers to relax.
To work in pet therapy, a dog has to be able to show no aggression, to work without a correction collar, and to be left unattended.
At his retirement party at the hospital Friday, Saber looked relaxed at the center of attention, lounging amid tables full of light snacks and cake. He cautiously took a bite of a dog-bone-shaped cake made just for him and played with those who stopped by to pay tribute to his work at the hospital.
Among Saber’s visitors was Jo Ann Gardner, a staff member at the hospital. Her husband, Laughing Wolf, died at the hospital at 76, following a 10-year battle with Alzheimer’s, in 2009.
In the late stage of the disease, her husband was often agitated and tense and frustrated. Saber calmed him, she said.
“Saber would go and put his snout on his hand on the bed,” she recalled. “At that point, it would bring him back, and Saber would remind him of our dogs,” she said.
The K-9 unit at the hospital has grown since Saber first arrived to include four other members: Miranda, 9; Neeko, 2; Dante, 3; and Cain, 9. Each dog has his or her own handler.
Members of the K-9 team jumped into action in December 2009, after the hospital received a mysterious, threatening phone call referencing terrorist events. Homeland Security and other agencies got involved. It was a false alarm, but the dogs’ on-site presence helped assuage the tense situation.
“It turned out to be nothing, but we were prepared for it,” said Terry Foley, a retired Wayne police officer who now works with hospital security as Cain’s handler.
In addition to his police work and work at the hospital, Foley has trained working dogs for 24 years as at the K-9 Academy in Wayne. He said that lately, more hospitals want a team of dogs like the K-9 unit at St. Joe’s. The academy is training dogs for hospitals in Jackson, Dearborn and Macomb.
As Saber relaxes with his handler’s family, watching daytime TV and enjoying retired life, Jethro, a young Belgian Malinois, will take the pioneering canine's place, Adams said.
“He will have some big shoes to fill,” Foley said.