The Nantucket Island Safe Harbor For Animals (NiSHA) has graduated its first class of “pet partners,” which are human-dog teams trained in pet-assisted therapy. The pet partners program trains teams to volunteer in various settings such as senior homes, classrooms, and hospitals.
“It brings a lot of comfort to people,” Jillian Lucchini, NiSHA’s community programs manager, said. “People have a really special connection with animals, and in some cases, for example seniors, they can’t bring their animals with them into retirement homes. Their faces pretty much light up every time they have an opportunity to see an animal. It brings a lot of joy.”
Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to reduce stress and improve physiological metrics such as blood pressure. It can also improve general quality of life and happiness.
“We’ve always wanted to offer this program to the community,” Lucchini said.
Human-animal pairs have to pass a certification test before they can volunteer in clinical settings, which is what the pet partners program trains them for. NiSHA pays for the certification of all of its pet partners through a grant from Nantucket Cottage Hospital's Community Health Initiative.
“We are super excited,” Lucchini said. “It’s one of the programs we’ve really wanted to get started. It all happened so quickly, too. We had our first evaluation and we had five successful teams pass the evaluation.”
One of the dogs was even a NiSHA rescue. Adopted two years ago by Richard Phillips, Noelle passed the exam with flying colors, and the pair is ready to go out into the world.
NiSHA’s efforts are part of a larger national program to increase the amount of animal-assisted therapy in the country, which could have a significant impact on the well-being of patients. NiSHA first tried to start the program a few years ago, inspired by the national efforts and a few passionate community members.
“There was a group of people who worked at the shelter, who were part of the community...who wanted to offer this program locally,” Lucchini said. At first, everything was going well. They started recruiting teams and began training them, and everyone was feeling good about the program. But COVID got in the way. Soon after they began, the virus forced them to pause training for two years.
Now they’re back, and although slots for their next evaluation are filling quickly, NiSHA is also looking for more potential pet partners.
“If somebody is interested,” Lucchini said, “we are always looking for more teams.”
NiSHA’s first class of graduating teams consists of Richard Phillips and Noelle, Jeannie Critchley and Rubie, Erica Nahmad and Monty, Amy Seifer and Schooner, and Caitlin Cooke and Wrenley.