The most popular new member of the OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital team is spending his days getting back scratches, destroying pieces of rolled-up fire hose – and keeping illegal drugs out of patients’ rooms.

Rudy, a 2-year-old Belgian Malinois, is part of the security team at the hospital, 3535 Olentangy River Road in northwest Columbus.

Along with his handler, James Kee, Rudy’s job is to spend his day sniffing the air for narcotics – the kind that don’t belong in the hospital.

Anthony Bando, director of protective services at OhioHealth, said the system has been looking into implementing narcotics dogs for more than a year.

Rudy and Kee’s partnership has advanced far enough to allow in-hospital training, with an anticipated full launch in July.

“We’re dedicated to ensuring the safest environment in our hospitals,” Bando said. “A K-9, especially one who is trained in narcotics, is just another tool we can give our officers, who are already highly trained, to help fulfill that mission.”

Bando said the three pillars of Rudy’s service would be to deter “society’s issues from coming into the hospital,” helping “get that out of the environment” when he finds narcotics, and, perhaps most importantly, to “engage patients and visitors.”

“When he walks in, people just light up,” Bando said. “That’s a big part of our goal; it’s a big benefit.”

That effect is obvious to Kee, who knows he won’t be getting as much attention as his partner.

“They see me and say, ‘Oh, there’s the K-9 handler. Where’s the dog?’ ” he said. “It’s not even, ‘How are you doing?’ But he’s the guy. I just walk in there and read him. It’s his nose that’s going to help.”

Ultimately, Bando said, the goal is to provide a better environment for those recovering from narcotics addiction.

“We have patients here who are seeking treatment for addiction – it’s a medical condition,” he said. “We want to make sure this environment is prime for getting over that.”

Kee, who has a background in K-9 and narcotics-related law enforcement, said this new assignment isn’t too big of a change for him.

“It’s kind of the same mission,” he said. “This hospital and the facilities are basically their own cities because there are so many people in them, so you have to take your outside knowledge and use it in here.”

Working with Sunbury-based Storm Dog Tactical, Kee has been helping Rudy get up to speed with training.

The 2-year-old’s favorite reward is his rolled-up fire hose, which he demolishes at nearly a daily rate. Riverside accepted a donation of a long roll of fire hose from the Marion Township Fire Department to keep up with his teeth.

Kee said trained dogs always have a special reward toy they receive when they accomplish their tasks. Most love tennis balls, but Kee uses the hose with Rudy because there’s not always space to bounce a ball around the hospital.

Kee said even with all the smells – medical and otherwise – that come with a hospital, Rudy won’t have a difficult time sniffing out narcotics.

“Not for Rudy,” Kee said with a laugh. “He’s got a good nose. He’s real good at what he does. With the odors he’s trained to sniff, the odors are his reward and his reward comes from the odor.”

With Rudy’s first real assignment comes an adjustment period, one that he’ll continue to work through with Kee as his responsibilities increase.

Rudy lives with Kee and the pair have completed multiple rounds of training together, but Kee said their partnership is still a work in progress – especially in such a nontraditional environment as a hospital.

“That’s the biggest challenge now: getting him used to all the people,” he said. “When you’re outside and you deploy a dog, he’s sniffing a car or a general area. But here, there are all the different pillars and bookcases and tables and chairs and people. That’s what we’re working on now.”

If Rudy – serving as the system’s guinea pig – provides what he’s expected to provide, Bando said other dogs could come to other OhioHealth hospitals.

“Right now, we’re piloting it at Riverside so that it’s kind of homed in on one location,” he said. “Depending on the data we get back from it and the usability, we’ll scale it to the whole system.”