Dogs can fill a person with unspeakable joy and hope.

Laura Pierce understands the power of dogs and how the sweet, furry creatures offer unconditional love and assistance to those seeking greater independence.

In the past few years, Pierce and her family in Farmington have raised 14 dogs as part of Can Do Canines, a program that trains assistance dogs for people with five disabilities.

"The certified trainers from Can Do Canines go to the prisons weekly and meet with inmates to receive training on how to work with the dogs," Pierce said.

This is a win-win situation because the program allows for the inmates' to receive rehabilitation and for the training of the dogs.

Training goes both ways

Pierce, 53, trained for years to become a runner. She trained even more seriously the past five months to run Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minn. She works as an assistant principal at Farmington High School and likes to run as part of a team of 12 colleagues.

Pierce said when she was 49, she set a goal to run a 5K race and then set another goal to run a 10K race before she turned 50. She was determined to reach each goal and set out to accomplish each milestone by setting short- and long-term goals.

As a young girl, she was the one who brought home stray dogs since she lived near a school. She would nurture the animals and find their owners.

She decided to run Grandma's Marathon and raise money for Can Do Canines, the New Hope-based nonprofit that trains assistance dogs. She set a lofty goal to fundraise $25,000.

"This is something I would have never thought of doing until I realized I could do it for a greater purpose," she said.

Can Do Canines trains dogs that are given free of charge to people who face challenges with hearing, mobility assistance, diabetes, seizures or autism.

"My greater goal was to raise awareness and I have created that with my blog and my Facebook page, and I have sent out mailings to family and friends," she said.

Pierce is so grateful for all the emotional and financial support she received from family and friends.

"I think about the independence I have in my life and everything that I can do on my own, and there are individuals who don't have that ability and security of knowing wherever they are at they are going to be safe or have that peace of mind for family and friends," Pierce said.

When she was working with service dogs prior to working with Can Do Canines, she said a dog trained to be a diabetic alert dog alerted a guest at the event who was diabetic. The trainer told the gentleman that he may want to check his blood sugar. That was unbelievable to Pierce who felt compelled to volunteer for Can Do Canines.

Program grows, results show

This year Can Do Canines celebrated its 35-year anniversary and the goal is to place 60 dogs with individuals in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Pierce has been inspired by a training program that partners with seven prisons in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Dogs are given to inmates which are then with them 24 hours, 7 days a week. The dogs give inmates a chance to bond, feel and give love, and rebuild trust and regain redemption in their lives.

"There was one inmate (that) spoke about the number of foster homes he lived in as a child ... and because of the continued moving he needed to transition from one foster home to another," Pierce said. "He never felt that trust and unconditional love from a human being and being able to participate in the prison training program, he was able to feel that unconditional love from a dog, it has completely transformed him."

After a year with inmates, dogs leave prison and are placed with volunteers, like Pierce. Then when the dogs reach 18 to 24 months of age, they go through final training with certified trainers.

These trainers recognize the dogs' personalities, likes and dislikes, and begin to identify what kind of work they like to do and prefer to do, just like humans, Pierce said.

"At that time, the trainers determine what disability a dog would be best to serve," Pierce said.

"Our first dog we fully trained was Ziggy and he is now a seizure alert dog, and the young lady he lives with, he is able to help her when she experiences a seizure," Pierce said.

More information

What: Can Do Canines out of New Hope, Minn., is dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for people with disabilities by creating mutually beneficial partnerships with specially-trained dogs. The nonprofit trains and places five distinct types of assistance dogs and places them with people who have disabilities free of charge.

Donate: www.facebook.com/donate/1276300729192173/.

Learn more: https://can-do-canines.org. Visit Laura Pierce's personal blog and read about her journey at https://principalspointstoponder.wordpress.com.