GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For the last 20 years, through treats, tricks, licks and sits, West Michigan Therapy Dogs has been providing local hospitals, schools, courthouses and more with the love and empathy of a well-trained household dog.

“The dogs bring in a whole sense of energy when they come into the room or the facility; and the more dogs, the more energy there is,” Paula Nelson said. “It’s a lightening of the spirit. When you see a dog come in and their tail’s wagging and you haven’t even done anything yet, they’re just happy to see you.”

Nelson has been volunteering with her cocker spaniel Emma for the last nine years. They’re part of the 135 active members who make routine stops at more than 200 locations across Grand Rapids to bring support and comfort to those in need.

The nonprofit got its start 20 years ago when Jeanne Lewis and Terrilynne Lymburner met at Kim’s Canines. The two each had a dog with a gift for empathy: Indigo and Maxine, respectively. Eventually, the two realized their dogs could bring support to others. In 2001, West Michigan Therapy Dogs was formed.

“They were invited to visit at one of the hospitals and it just kind of grew from the two of them and those two dogs,” Nelson said.

Their model of pet therapy more exploded than grew. Right now, the nonprofit is turning away businesses who want it to bring therapy dogs in because it doesn’t have enough active members to meet the need.

But the group is working on it. Nelson says any dog can join. First, a household pet would go through an initial screening to see if they have the right temperament to become a WMTD. If they pass, they must next pass an eight-week training course followed by three shadow visits. The training prepares the dogs to expect the unexpected, exposes them to strange noises they might encounter at a courthouse or school; teaches them different angles they may approach people; and makes sure they won’t sniff around sensitive areas for food.

“Most of it doesn’t come up in a household,” Nelson said. “We did a reading program one time and we sat by the window of the library at Lowell and a mama duck and her baby ducks walked past the outside of the window while a kid was reading to Emma. You just can’t plan for that kind of thing.”

What the group can plan for is the need across West Michigan for its services. It provides more than just the pets of the average dog: it offers unconditional love, comfort and companionship to a person who may have fallen on lonely times.

“Being a part of a visit at Mary Free Bed and a gentleman had been in an accident and they didn’t think he had any voluntary movement left, but he moved a finger to try and pet a dog. And that told the staff that he could move on his own and that a power wheelchair would work for him,” Nelson remembered.

Nelson also mentions another instance at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital when her dog Emma gave someone a kiss and they started crying. It’s touching moments like those and the memories and love that flood back with those who have helped this organization find a home.

“It’s just seeing somebody’s face light up when they pet your dog or they see a dog come in that reminds them of their childhood dog. And it’s the interaction with the people,” Nelson said. “I mean, there’s just a lot of really positive things about it.”

Nelson stressed that WMTD is a completely volunteer-run organization and doesn’t charge businesses for its services. Also, that any dog could become a therapy dog; big, small, old or young — as long as they love people and they pass the requirements.

“Our real purpose is to go out in the community and bring joy and happiness and a little feeling of love to everybody who needs it, regardless of what type of program we’re at,” Nelson said. “We go into the hospitals but we’re there for the staff as much as the patients.”

Learn more about if you and your dog may be the next pair wearing the blue West Michigan Therapy Dogs vest online here.

*Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of WMTD co-founder Terrilynne Lymburner. We regret the error, which has been corrected.