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Sara & Hannah

Sara Cheney and her service dog Hannah shop at the midtown Anchorage Barnes & Noble bookstore on Friday, February 1, 2013. The bookstore is one of Cheney's favorite places. 130201
Bob Hallinen
Sara Cheney and her service dog Hannah shop at the midtown Anchorage Barnes & Noble bookstore on Friday, February 1, 2013. The bookstore is one of Cheney's favorite places. 130201
Bob Hallinen

Sara Cheney's service dog came along at just the right time. She'd been training every Friday with Alaska Assistance Dogs, working with various dogs but not really connecting. Then one session in bops this 6-month-old golden retriever puppy named Hannah.

"When I first saw her, oh my God," she said.

By the way Hannah got all wiggly, the feeling seemed to be mutual.

"I think somebody wants to work with you," the trainer told her.

It was an otherwise dark time in her life. As Sara tells it, the fallout of rape and a hellish childhood left her with mental-health issues that were sabotaging her life on several fronts.

"It would take everything I had just to make it to work, to make it through the day so people wouldn't know what was going on inside. When you start thinking like that, you spiral and spiral until you start making plans."

Plans as in dying.

"If I can make it to Friday, I'll get to see Hannah," she'd tell herself. "That literally kept me going."

They've been together nearly two years now and passed their public-access test last spring. Fetching copies from the printer is fun but Hannah's job description is to help Sara feel safe, stay present and keep calm as well as ward off panic attacks.

Now Sara is doing something she couldn't have imagined. She's doing a little public speaking here and there, spreading the word to veterans and others with post-traumatic stress that mental-health service dogs can give them back their lives. With the focus on Hannah rather than her, it's easier for Sara to share her story.

"It's not that I'm 100 percent," she said, "but I have better coping skills now.

"Hannah's my anchor."