On the surface, Ryan Bottachiari and Tigger are like any other man and his best friend.
But what lies beneath is a life-saving bond between a Marine and his dog.
"If it's a night where I've been having bad dreams, he goes right to licking my face and on me. It's amazing. He knows," said Bottachiari.
The 31-year-old San Tan Valley man is a U.S. Marine who returned home this spring from multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The horrors of combat resulted in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that Bottachiari said affected his temper, made it tough to sleep and only intensified, especially in crowded situations.
"You can spin it in your head, ‘This is a good thing. I'm a heightened warrior.' You know, it's good that I'm checking every single person's pocket that I go by and looking at everyone and scanning for weapons, eyes."
Bottachiari said his PTSD symptoms included a constant state of stress, trauma and tension.
I was having a tough time even leaving the house without a firearm. Couldn't do it. Couldn't leave the house without a gun," he said.
He knew he needed help, so Bottachiari reached out to Soldier's Best Friend, an Arizona group of veterans, experts and volunteers who train and pair service dogs with veterans.
Bottachiari was matched with Tigger, a nearly 2-year-old Labrador mix, this past summer.
"They steered me toward a strong breed that would make me feel confident and secure," he said.
They have been training together for those situations when Bottachiari's PTSD symptoms start surfacing.
"He pulls my focus onto him when we're in a crowd … I'm thinking about him and I'm looking at him and I know if anything bad did happen, he's there for me," he said.
With Tigger's presence, Bottachiari said he was finally able to sell his guns. It's the first time in 10 years, he says, he hasn't owned one.
"I can realize that's not my place anymore," he said. "There are police officers. I don't have to do that to myself anymore. I can just enjoy my life and he [Tigger] reminds me of that."
But it's more than just one life that's been saved. Tigger, like all the dogs Soldier's Best Friend pairs with a veteran, was rescued from a shelter.
"He saved my life," Bottachiari said about Tigger. "He got rescued. So I guess we saved each other."
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