Celebrating 20 Years of Service in West Michigan!
Special bonds with canines, a family history of volunteerism, and inspiration came together in 2001, giving birth to organized pet therapy in Grand Rapids.
Our founders, Jeanne Lewis and Terrilyn Lynburner met in 1998 at Kim's Canines, a dog training and daycare facility, where Jeanne worked. At the time, Jeanne, a dog enthusiast, and trainer would bring her dog Indigo to work with her. Terrilynne was a geriatric psychologist and brought her dog, Maxine, to Kim's Canine's for socialization and daycare. Over time they became friends and bonded over their love of dogs. Little did they know that they would eventually start a nonprofit organization aimed at providing pet therapy to some of West Michigan's most needy populations.
In 2001, Terrilyn, who had a degree in Applied Behavior Analysis (Psychology), spent time volunteering with her dog Maxine at Kent Community Hospital and Mary Free Bed through a program run by the Humane Society. There, she learned a lot about the other volunteer programs at recognized that, with an organized effort, more dog and volunteer teams could be trained and mentored in pet therapy.
With this idea in mind, she began to talk with Jeanne about the idea of sharing their love of dogs, and their dogs' affection, with others. Their dogs Indigo and Maxine, had a great temperament for therapy work, so Terrilyn invited Jeanne to join her and Maxine on their therapy visits. "Terrilynne kept telling me what a great dog Indigo was and that I should share my dog with others," said Jeanne.
Together, Terrilynne and Maxine and Jeanne, and Indigo started visiting Kent Community and Mary Free Bed hospitals. Eventually, they added the Grand Rapids Home of Veterans to their list of visits, and after one visit there, they took their dogs to Riverside Park to relax and chat. They talked about the desire to consolidate therapy dog teams and programs under an umbrella of trained and certified therapy dogs. This concept was the seed for what would become an expanding network of pet therapy volunteers across West Michigan.
As many animal lovers will attest, the benefits of having one (or more) dogs in the family include terms like "unconditional love" along with many happy memories. Studies have proven interaction with dogs can decrease stress, lower blood pressure, alter behaviors, and even improve reading skills!
Jeanne, along with her Great Dane, Indigo, joined Terrilynne visiting at Kent Community Hospital. Eventually, a Kendall student, Amy Cook (Zanger), joined the weekly visits with her big Golden Retriever, Baily. The pet therapy concept was growing stronger! About a year later, Jeanne and Terrilynne relaxed at Riverside park while their dogs played in the water. On that sunny day in May, while chatting about dogs and the benefits of pet therapy, what was once just an idea blossomed into our growing organization, West Michigan Therapy Dogs, Inc.
That day, May 19, 2001, WMTD was born.
In April of 2003, they held their first official "Introduction to Therapy Class" at the West Michigan Humane Society. Five original members, including Terrilynne and Jeanne, attended that first series of classes. The students gave such positive feedback and suggestions! "The next class was moved to a more accessible time and evening," said the two women, "and we were off teaching the basics of good manners for our teams when volunteering!" Terrilynne later applied for nonprofit status and procured liability insurance, and the two eventually developed a set of guidelines for our members.
In the past 20 years, our organization has grown to over 150 volunteers who provide pet therapy with their dogs at over 100 programs and facilities across 5 counties. Our teams volunteer at various nursing homes, hospitals, hospices, health organizations, and other facilities. We also help children strengthen their reading skills through our Ruff Readers program in partnership with Kent District Library.
Terrilynne has since retired from volunteering, and Jeanne continues to volunteer with her dogs. She also serves on our Board of Directors as the Director of Training; she educates our new members on the skills and abilities needed to be a successful dog and handler team.
We look forward to growing and providing pet therapy to new communities while educating them on the benefits of pet therapy. We also look forward to expanding our reach in West Michigan by building more community partnerships and increasing our number of volunteers and facility programs.