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John M. Steiner / The Sun Keith Norman, author and photographer of "A New Leash on Life: Life with a dog from Service Dogs for America," holds a copy of the book he made for Service Dogs of America. Norman and his wife, Jane, adopted a dog that had "flunked out" of SDA's training.

On the first day of class recently, teacher Sarah Dea read from her class syllabus, instructing her students at Fort Berthold Community College.

She isn't sure what all happened next, saying she woke up in her partner's office, and one of her students was so traumatized, she didn't return.

Dea, an epileptic, had suffered a seizure. Because of the attacks, Dea no longer teaches, but she continues her work as a writer and newspaper editor, in part, due to a service dog she acquired through Service Dogs for America.

Service Dogs for America is a 22-year-old nonprofit organization based out of Jud, N.D. Typically adopted from pounds, animal shelters and other organizations, the animals are trained to fetch objects, assist with medications and even call 911 in the case of an emergency.

"Every person has a different disability, but they have special needs," said Joni Brandenburg, director.

Service Dogs for America specializes in caring for owners who have needs like Dea's or who have diabetes. The dogs can tell when a person has high or low blood sugar, Brandenburg said. Ten animals a year are adopted into families, while 20 or so are always in training.

Like Dea, the adoptive families come from across the state as well as across the country. Only four other schools like it exist in the country.

Dea's stories as well as the stories of five others are detailed in a 32-page, full color book called "A New Leash on Life: Life with a dog from Service Dogs for America."

The book is part of an effort to raise awareness of the organization, as well as raise money for the cause.

The five full-time staff members need two years to train a dog and in that time, Service Dogs spends about $27,000 on each animal. The adoptive owner is responsible for $15,000 of that, which may be paid through personal fundraising, scholarships or in monthly payments for the life of the dog. Insurance carriers have yet to assist with covering the cost, although Brandenburg said the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has helped pay for animals for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Although community organizations and individuals give to the organization -- Brandenburg said about 30 percent of her budget comes from charitable donations -- to expand, Service Dogs needs to do more.

Brandenburg dreams of a facility with new lighting, as the current blinking of florescent bulbs can cause seizures, so the dogs and their adoptive families train only during daylight hours. She also hopes for a training arena, a family-sized apartment (as opposed to the current one-bedroom), a park area for families to visit during their three-week stay in Jud and to hire additional staff.

Brandenburg said more people are in need of dogs trained through her program. She hopes to train five more dogs each year.

"The need is out there," she said.

"New Leash" author and photographer, Keith Norman, got involved with the project after he and his wife, Jane, adopted an animal who had "flunked out" of the Service Dogs training program.

As part of the documenting process, Norman witnessed a dog attend to a woman having a seizure. The dog, who likes people and to play fetch, was calm as it laid on the woman's legs, keeping her from moving and hurting herself.

"You couldn't have distracted that dog in any way, shape or form," he said.

In fact, Jamestown area residents may have seen the animals at work. Service Dogs trains them at public places like Buffalo Mall, Wal-Mart and Frontier Village.

Inmates at the James River Correctional Center are vital to the training process as well. There, the inmates fake medical ailments like seizures and train the dogs to help them as part of a 6-week, total- immersion training process. The inmates do the work for about $3 an hour, which keeps costs down for Service Dogs for America.

The inmates, too, are in the book.

Without their help, Service Dogs couldn't afford to train the animals, Brandenburg said.

To donate to the organization, purchase a book for $20 at Babbs Coffee House from 1-3 p.m. on Nov. 5. Donations may also be sent to Service Dogs for America, PO Box 513, Jud, ND, 58454. For more information, visit the website servicedogsforamerica.com.

Sun reporter Katie Ryan-Anderson can be reached at 701-952-8454 or by email at kryan-anderson@ jamestownsun.com

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