‘I wouldn’t trade it for the world’ | Health Beat

Nicole Bowl always dreamed of working with a dog.

That dream came true a few years back, when she joined Spectrum Health to become an officer on the security services K-9 team.

Her police dog partner is Max, a well-trained animal whose many skills have proven valuable on countless days.

“There is never an off day with this dog,” Bowl said. “It’s a 24/7 commitment. Even on weekends, you get up early and work with him.”

Bowl had shadowed several different officers on the K-9 team before joining Spectrum Health.

“(I) thought this job was the coolest thing ever,” she said. “I always thought it would be interesting to go against gender norms. And here I am, a security K-9 officer at the largest health system in Michigan.”

Every workday, she looks forward to spending time with her best friend and meeting patients and visitors.

“I love going to the children’s hospital the most and seeing the kids’ faces light up when Max and I visit,” she said.

On weekends, she takes time to visit the outdoor patio at the children’s hospital, where kids can toss the ball for Max and have him roll over for belly rubs.

“It’s great to see the kids interact and get down on his level,” she said.

She and Max enjoy visiting older people at the hospital, too, because they love to sit and talk.

“They will tell you their whole life story,” she said. “You can see it in their eyes … they will light up with tears of joy at times. I just love it.”

But it isn’t always ball toss and belly rubs.

The fact is, Max is always working.

“We do sniff and find, or article search at home or at the park,” Bowl said. “My daughter plays this with him, too.”

Bowl will rub her daughter’s scent on items and then instruct Max to find them.

“This dog lives to work and loves to work,” Bowl said. “He loves being pet, but he would much rather be working.”

A day in the life

Max has been with the Spectrum Health security team since 2019.

Some highlights in his bio:

  • He’s 66 pounds
  • He’s a German shepherd mix
  • He was born in 2017 in Hungary
  • His favorite toy is a lacrosse ball

He’s a member of the U.S. Police Canine Association and the International Police Work Dog Association. He also won first place for explosives detection through the USPCA last year.

As one of eight police dogs on the Spectrum Health security team, Max is trained to be gentle in normal interactions with people.

But on command, he can protect the hospital environment. Using his scent detection and tracking skills, he can identify illegal or dangerous materials and find lost people and property.

He’s been involved in several police situations at the hospital in his nearly three years of service. Recently, he helped Grand Rapids police investigate an incident.

“We swept the perimeter while the police and their dog did the first floor,” Bowl said. “And Max finished the top floor. It was a true team effort.”

Make no mistake: Max is serious about his work.

“When he finds something, he will sit and stare at it. He won’t leave,” she said. “He wants to be by what he is supposed to be finding. And he is very good at it.”

Bowl and Max monitor all hospital facilities during their workday.

Recently, they came across a parked car with a puppy inside, near a hospital parking facility. The car windows were up, but luckily the car wasn’t locked.

Bowl went in and took out the puppy to make sure it was safe. She reunited it with the owners later that day.

“The lesson of the day was don’t leave your dog in a hot car,” Bowl said.

Work hard, play hard

After working together for years, Bowl and Max have developed a routine.

At the start of each day, Max spins in a circle and waits at the front door, ever excited at the prospect of another day’s work.

He works three days a week and spends every Wednesday training. He trains at the hospital with the security team and, on occasion, with other law enforcement agencies.

“He’s always learning,” Bowl said.

He and Bowl arrive to work by 6 a.m., ready to patrol a parking area as the day’s first order of business.

They head all the way to the top, then walk down level by level, Bowl looking for anything out of the ordinary, Max sniffing for anything out of the ordinary.

“I get my steps in, that’s for sure,” Bowl jokes.

“We say hi to staff members and remind them to slow down as they rush to work,” she said. “Max gets a lot of pets in the morning from staff heading into the hospital for the day.”

Mid-morning, Max takes a break in the patrol vehicle. It’s important that he gets time to himself, as each day can deliver a bit of sensory overload. He meets hundreds of people and encounters various smells.

Later, the two visit the lobbies inside the downtown hospitals, including Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital and Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.

Then it’s on to a quick water break for Max, accompanied by a potty break and some free time on the grass, where he plays fetch for a few minutes with his favorite lacrosse ball.

Max and Bowl then attend the daily security briefing.

After that, they’re back to patrolling the outlying areas of the hospital.

If you approach the security vehicle, you’ll find that Max will bark. It’s his space and he can be very territorial. But as soon as he hops out, he’s eager to please Bowl and he listens to her every command.

Bedside visits, big smiles

Max visits with patients in their rooms by request. He and Bowl have developed friendships with many patients, visitors and team members.

Recently at the children’s hospital, they met with Damaya Johnson, 9, of Detroit, who’s being treated for sickle cell anemia.

Max saw the visit as his cue for playtime.

“He’s cute,” Damaya said, giggling. “I love dogs. He is so adorable.”

Emma Snider, a nurse on the ninth floor at the children’s hospital, stopped for a minute to play ball with Max.

“Aw, you’re so sweet Max,” Snider said. “Who are you going to go see next?”

Karolina Lester, 12, of Cedar Springs, was next on the list. She’s undergoing gallbladder treatment and she celebrated her birthday at the children’s hospital just a day earlier.

Karolina said she always wanted a dog—a German shepherd just like Max. His visits have kept her spirits high.

Indeed, Max is sort of a celebrity in these parts.

Doctors and nurses often stop to greet him as he and Bowl head out of the hospital at day’s end.

“Thank you for your service, Max,” Spectrum Health hospitalist TaLawnda Bragg, MD, said as she arrived for her shift. “I still have this guy’s baseball card.”

Yes, it’s true: Each Spectrum Health police dog has a special trading card, complete with picture and bio. Many team members, patients and visitors collect the cards.

Max and Bowl work 12-hour shifts, so it’s no surprise they’re both ready to head home and defrag after a long day.

Bowl takes Max home every night.

“He’s truly a member of our family,” she said. “I have a daughter and two other dogs at home, and he gets along great with everyone.”

In their free time, they jog together and visit local parks where Max can run and play.

“At the end of the day, taking care of this dog is a 24/7 job,” Bowl said. “But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

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