The Vineland Fire Department’s EMS Division welcomed a new member to the team as Wednesday, a 12-week-old AKC Labrador retriever, recently accepted a position as the department’s emotional support and therapy dog. The program is still in the “puppy phase,” however. Once she completes training, Wednesday will be able to assist all of the city’s first responders to deal with stress and anxiety, participate in public education events, and promote overall acts of kindness. It is the first governmental program of its type in the South Jersey region.
According to Wednesday’s handler, EMT Kennedy Santiago, Wednesday was purchased from a family in Milmay. Training assistance is being provided by Joe Nick Canine Training on South Orchard Road in Vineland at no cost to the city. Nick also helps train the Vineland Police Department’s K9 officers.
“Except for ambulance calls, Wednesday will go everywhere I go,” Santiago said. “For the next five months, she needs to see and meet as many people as possible after which she will be evaluated for additional training. I will be coming into the office on my days off so that she can get to know the other platoons. She has a wonderful disposition, and really enjoys interacting with everyone she meets.”
Training will be ongoing for approximately one year, and she is already showing significant improvement with her skills.
“Therapy dogs are not just for those experiencing physical disabilities,” said Director of Fire and EMS Rich Franchetta. “The emotional benefits of therapy dogs has been proven to also aid those who experience behavioral and mental health issues. According to various studies, first responders are at a higher risk than others for stress, PTSD, depression, substance abuse, and suicide. The assistance provided by a therapy dog was a perfect idea and program for the Department to help our responders remain more balanced during and after the acute stressors of our jobs, and to better manage the chronic ones related to work and personal issues.”
EMS Chief Kelly Soracco agrees. “Research has shown that the presence of therapy animals can lower blood pressure, decrease anxiety, improve mood, and foster feelings of support and confidence in humans. Additionally, dogs can act as a jumping off point in therapy, breaking the ice and opening up the conversation by fostering a safe environment. Therapy dogs can help people stay present in the moment while better managing and responding to their emotions with resilience.”
“Wednesday is a great addition to the Fire Department and a valuable resource for the city,” said Fire Chief Luigi Tramontana, Jr. “This resource can be used by all of our emergency personnel, with a vision for many different programs. First responders very seldom have the time, or take the time, to step away from the last call that they were on before the next call comes in. Wednesday will be there for them to bring a smile or a peaceful moment in between their duties where they do not need to say or do anything but enjoy the calm and love that she is providing. She will also be of service as a great tool to assist us at community functions and public education events to grasp the attention of our audiences. Thank you to EMT Kennedy-Santiago for spearheading this, and to Mayor Fanucci and the administration for their support.”
“We have to, as leaders, provide the best resources to make sure our first responders are healthy throughout their careers and into retirement,” said Mayor Anthony Fanucci. “Wednesday will be readily available at the end of her training to respond where needed after any traumatic call/time of need for city first responders. Beyond that, we are restricted only by our imagination as to where and how Wednesday can benefit the entire community. I would like to commend the EMS Division for putting the program together; it will certainly have a positive impact throughout our first responder services.”