Crowds gather whenever he arrives. Doting fans reach out to touch him, or pose for a “selfie” with him. They smile as he strolls by.
Meet Rex, one of three resident security police K-9s.
And if you see this handsome long-haired German shepherd strolling the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion, Butterworth Hospital, Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, or any other Spectrum Health locations, wish him a belated “happy birthday.” He turned 2 earlier this month.
For all the loving and cuddling Rex receives on his rounds, it’s easy to forget he’s also a supremely skilled and highly trained police dog, with the ability to sniff out explosives, retrieve articles and protect his handler from harm.
That handler is Officer Christopher Sanchez, who teamed with Rex in December after the Spectrum Health Foundation gifted funds to the Spectrum Health security department to purchase the dog from the Czech Republic. Rex, his training, training for Officer Sanchez, a specialty vehicle and vet bills cost more than $50,000.
The foundation also helped with the purchase of Spectrum Health’s two other security dogs–Fix and Cain–and plans are in the works to add a fourth canine, according to Tara Werkhoven, Spectrum Health Foundation director of gift planning.
Werkhoven said she is thrilled with the response of the donations that have come through for this new program.
“It just changes the dynamics when you get the dog in the room,” Werkhoven said. “Everyone is happy. We’re so thankful to our donors who have brought joy to our patients and our employees because of their support of this incredible program.”
Sanchez, who had a couple of Labrador retrievers growing up, is full-blown enamored with Rex. And considering the way Rex looks at Sanchez with his deep brown eyes, it appears Rex is pretty happy with his handler, too.
Rex lives with Sanchez. Rex is part pet, part professional police dog. He’ll jump on the bed at home, but he’ll parade like a dignified statesman when he’s on the job.
The officer learned German and Czechoslovakian words to command his canine, including “Fuss” (sounds like fooss) for heel, “sitz” (sounds like siitz) for sit, and “gib laut” (sounds like gheblout) for speak.
The team is most often spotted on the Spectrum Health Medical Center campus, but also travels to Spectrum Health campuses across Michigan, including Reed City, Big Rapids and Zeeland.
On a recent weekday, Health Beat tagged along with Rex and Officer Sanchez as they traversed the Spectrum Health Grand Rapids campus.
Rounds with Rex
As Rex enters the Lemmen-Holton lobby, he immediately generates smiles from the people seated there.
“His main role is putting smiles on kids’ and adults’ faces,” Sanchez says.
Rex perks his ears at the sound of car keys jingling on the outside of a woman’s purse as she walks across the lobby. Seeing no threat or danger, he relaxes as Sanchez continues to speak.
“When I took this on I didn’t realize how impactful it would be for adults and staff,” Sanchez says. “The biggest thing is it’s therapeutic. His presence provides that therapy. And the conversations continue on after we leave. People talk about him or go home and share the photos they’ve taken with their children.”
After leaving Lemmon-Holton, Rex walks in step with Sanchez through the tunnel under Michigan Street and resurfaces for a stroll through the children’s hospital food court, where more smiles erupt.
Sanchez directs Rex with voice commands and by pushing an electronic device strapped to his belt that sends out pulses to the dog’s e-collar. Rex is trained to know what each sensation means.
En route to Butterworth, the two pass a coffee kiosk. Judy Scott, RN, asks to pet Rex.
“I love him,” Scott says as she strokes Rex’s head.
While Rex is stopped, a crowd gathers. They ask questions of Sanchez and he explains how Rex was trained overseas then underwent another 200 hours of training locally.
“He’s got more manner than any dog I’ve ever met,” observes Debra DeYoung, the kiosk’s cashier.
After the crowd subsides, everyone’s questions are answered and pets accomplished, Sanchez and Rex continue into Butterworth’s cafeteria.
Rex walks by burgers, hot dogs and chicken, not so much as sticking his nose in the air to sniff. It’s all part of his training. He can sniff out bombs, people and articles, but when he’s working, hot dogs and burgers are not part of the mission.
So far Rex has not had to use his police dog skills while on the job, Sanchez said.
Nearing the Butterworth welcome center, Sanchez runs into his former supervisor. When asked how he likes his new job, the security police K-9 officer gushes.
“Things are amazing,” Sanchez tells his friend. “One day it’s Monday, the next day it’s Friday. I don’t know if it’s more impactful for me or the people on the receiving end of Rex.”
After the reunion, Rex and Sanchez head to the children’s hospital.
Near the elevators, a girl in a wheelchair, Erin Lewis, smiles at Rex and pets him.
Kurtis had just had a shot and wasn’t too happy, according to his mom, Olivia.
“Rex really cheered him up,” she said.
Into the elevator and up to the sixth floor go Rex and Sanchez. As soon as they exit, a woman stops to pet the pup.
“Can you take him over to room 620?” she asks Sanchez. “My son is in there and he would love to see him.”
Sanchez and Rex follow the woman, Candie Lillie, to her son’s room.
Ben, 10, looks up with a smile.
After asking permission, Sanchez coaxes Rex up onto Ben’s bed where the little boy ruffles the fur on the dog’s head and beams. Turns out Ben wants to be a police officer, and he would love to have his own police dog someday.
Rex exhibits strong animal empathy, and rests his head on Ben, as the youngster strokes him.
Moments like this make Sanchez’s day. And his career.
“This is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my career,” the former security police dispatch coordinator says. “I try to visit the children’s hospital floors a lot. He’s an invaluable tool for the kids. They’re not usually here for the best things. I’ve had people tell me their kid hasn’t smiled for three weeks. The dog shows up and they’re aglow. It’s been quite the partnership.”
If you’d like to donate toward the purchase and training of a fourth Spectrum Health dog, email Tara.Werkhoven@SpectrumHealth.org or send a check to the Spectrum Health Foundation, 100 Michigan St. NE MC004, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 and write “K-9 program” in the memo line.