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'Zeus saved my life': from beloved pet to determined service dog

Tech. Sgt. Cory Anderson, 319th Medical Operations Squadron aerospace medical service technician, has owned Zeus, a yellow labrador, for four years. Recently, Anderson had Zeus trained to act as a service dog to assist him in dealing with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. David Dobrydney)

Tech. Sgt. Cory Anderson, 319th Medical Operations Squadron aerospace medical service technician, has owned Zeus, a yellow labrador, for four years. Recently, Anderson had Zeus trained to act as a service dog to assist him in dealing with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. David Dobrydney)

Tech. Sgt. Cory Anderson, 319th Medical Operations Squadron aerospace medical service technician, and his dog Zeus, shop in the Exchange on Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., November 18, 2014. Zeus is a service dog and has been trained to help Anderson deal with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. David Dobrydney)

Tech. Sgt. Cory Anderson, 319th Medical Operations Squadron aerospace medical service technician, and his dog Zeus, shop in the Exchange on Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., November 18, 2014. Zeus is a service dog and has been trained to help Anderson deal with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. David Dobrydney)

Zeus, a yellow labrador, has Tech. Sgt. Cory Anderson's back as Anderson shops in the Exchange on Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., November 18, 2014. Zeus is a post-traumatic stress disorder service dog who has been trained to respond to various commands in order to assist Anderson. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. David Dobrydney)

Zeus, a yellow labrador, has Tech. Sgt. Cory Anderson's back as Anderson shops in the Exchange on Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., November 18, 2014. Zeus is a post-traumatic stress disorder service dog who has been trained to respond to various commands in order to assist Anderson. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. David Dobrydney)

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- You might see one in the park or grocery store: a dog on a leash wearing a brightly colored harness.

Its owner isn't wearing a uniform to signify it's a police or military working dog, so you go in to pet it. That's when you see the words on the harness: SERVICE ANIMAL - DO NOT PET.

They don't bite or track, but trained dogs have become invaluable helpers to service members coping with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Tech. Sgt. Cory Anderson, 319th Medical Operations Squadron aerospace medical service technician, is one such Airman. Following a 2012 deployment, Anderson was in the midst of treatment for PTSD when he had an important conversation.

"I was talking to a friend of mine who was heavily involved with Service Dogs of America, and he mentioned that a service dog might be helpful for me," Anderson remembered.

However, Anderson already owns three dogs. One of which, a yellow Labrador named Zeus, has been his pet for the past four years and they had formed a strong bond.

Anderson considered Zeus the perfect candidate to be his service dog. However, Service Dogs of America does not provide certification to pets. Therefore, Anderson's friend suggested another organization, Patriot Assistance Dogs.

"They go through the same certification process [and] the same training," said Anderson.

He contacted Linda Wiedewitsch, head trainer for Patriot Assistance Dogs.

Wiedewitsch said Zeus was a great dog when she first met him, remembering that he already had very good manners and behavior. This stood Zeus in good stead when he had to take a temperament test in order to enter the service dog program.

"It's basically 'if I step on the dog's toes, is it going to turn around and bite me?'" Wiedewitsch explained, adding that Zeus had no problem passing.

Over six months of daily training, Anderson and Wiedewitsch taught the already very intelligent Zeus the extra skills he needed to become a certified service dog.

First, Zeus had to successfully complete a Canine Good Citizen Test in order to be granted access to public places.

The test is a 10-step process designed by the American Kennel Club. Zeus had to demonstrate that he could sit quietly while a stranger spoke to Anderson, navigate through a crowd of people without trying to interact with every person, and even be separated from Anderson for a short period of time without reacting negatively.

Once Zeus had proven he could behave himself in a public setting, there were more commands for him to learn.

Besides the basic sit and stay, Zeus learned commands such as 'get my back,' where Zeus will guard Anderson while his back is turned, or 'block' which prompts Zeus to keep people from frontally approaching Anderson.

"There are different commands for different places," Anderson explained. "When I go to a restaurant, I say 'under' and he goes under the table and lies down."

Anderson even enlisted the help of the Grand Forks AFB Fire Department to help train Zeus to navigate narrow places such as a fire escape. The fire fighters provided access to their training building and even suited up to give the most realistic scenario possible.

"It was quick and impressive how fast he picked up the training," Anderson recalled.

All of these commands are in pursuit of a singular goal for Zeus.

"He keeps my anxiety down," Anderson said. "When he senses my anxiety is going up he will alert me by sitting up, then he'll put his head on my lap. If that doesn't work, he'll literally climb up into my lap and get my attention."

Wiedewitsch described the positive impact service dogs have on veterans.

"It allows vets who find it difficult to talk about themselves to talk about the dog," she said. "They're able to open up and reconnect with the world around them."

Anderson agreed.

"My isolation was to the point where I'd go to work, go home and I would not leave the house," he recalled. "I wouldn't even talk to family members."

Now, with Zeus by his side, Anderson said he's reconnected with his family and is once again comfortable doing activities as seemingly mundane as driving and going to stores.

"A lot of people don't realize the number of things in day-to-day life that you just don't think about, you just do them," he said. "I can't do them anymore, so Zeus helps me with that."

Zeus has now been working for almost three months. When Anderson gives the command 'let's go to work,' Zeus is instantly on alert and ignores any distraction, even the other dogs at home.

"[Labradors] love to have a job," Anderson said. "He absolutely loves going to work."

Of course, even service animals can be overworked. Zeus can only work as a service dog for eight hours a day, so the command 'free dog' means Zeus gets to be just a happy, carefree pet until it's time to go back on the job.

Anderson finds it amazing how much of an effect a service dog can have on a person with PTSD, and for him the bottom line is simple.

"Zeus saved my life."