Zonko trains for life’s mission: Helping a veteran with PTSD

By on December 9, 2016

Zonko keeps Kitty Hawk Elementary School fourth grader Tyler Altamirano company as he works on math. (Traci Potter)

Zonko likes many of the same things most puppies do, especially shoes. And when he doesn’t have his vest and harness on, this 14-month-old golden lab is all play.

But when those two items go on, Zonko knows he’s on the clock. And for the past few months, Traci and Doug Potter of Kitty Hawk have been prepping him for some very important work.

Soon Zonko will leave the Potters’ home for a new owner, a U.S. military veteran who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

As a Lifeline Assistance dog, it will be Zonko’s mission to calm his owner when he needs it, and to provide “reality checks” when he suffers from hallucinations.

For the Potters, their mission is to see that Zonko is ready.

While Zonko’s journey as a service dog is just beginning, his connection to the Potters began earlier this year as they searched for answers after learning that their daughter, Kenzie, had been diagnosed with Postural Orthostaic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTs), a condition that causes increased heart rate, lightheadedness and fainting upon standing up.

Soon after Kenzie entered the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham last fall, she began having symptoms. She was fainting between 10 and 14 times a day. Furniture with sharp corners had to be taken out of her room, and the fiercely independent 16 year old had to have someone by her side nearly all the time.

Intel, a service dog with Lifeline Assistance Dogs, has been Kenzie Potter’s constant companion as she navigates living with POTs.

She couldn’t be left alone, and the syndrome often left Kenzie with a daily migraine.

After much research, Kenzie — who plans to study medicine — was convinced she had POTs before she was even diagnosed. Now more than a year later, doctors have some of Kenzie’s symptoms under control, but she still has days where she faints as many as three times upon standing and continues to suffer from daily migraines, chronic fatigue and difficulty concentrating.

“During those first six months, we knew it was going to be a long journey,” said Traci, who along with Doug teaches in Dare County Schools. “Most people don’t outgrow POTs until their mid-20s, and Kenzie wasn’t about to come home. We recommended that she drop out, but she wasn’t going to let that happen.”

Since then, Kenzie found the one thing that could help her every day with her challenges. That something had four legs and a wagging tail and became an instant friend to her.

It was a service dog and his name was Intel, a Lifeline Assistance dog who came from a litter named after characters and places in the movie “Mission Impossible.”

After launching a Gofundme page that raised the young Kitty Hawk resident and her family $13,000 to help pay for the service, Intel came home to Kenzie and has become her constant companion, accompanying her to class, helping to regulate her heart beat, lying next to her while she sleeps and keeping her out of harm’s way.

As a handler, Kenzie has learned the laws of owning a service dog and has undergone extensive training in operant conditioning. For the first week, the two were tethered together 24 hours a day.

Traci a Doug Potter with Zonko. (Michelle Wagner)

As for Zonko, he came into the Potters’ lives by circumstance. The same trainer who brought Intel into Kenzie’s life was the same one who brought Zonko into the Potters’ — only he was from a litter named from the Harry Potter series. He is affectionately named after a candy store operated by the series’ Beasley twins.

“One thing we have seen since having Zonko is that everywhere he goes with us, everyone is looking,” Traci said. “Eyes turn. And that is something Kenzie has to deal with every day. But she’s chosen to share her story and her disease with people to raise awareness.”

For Traci and Doug, Intel has provided peace of mind, especially when Kenzie is at school in Durham. “He is there for her 100 percent of the time and he helps her to take the focus off of herself. The two of them are a team,” Doug said.

The Potters are well aware Zonko is not here to stay, as much as they, and he, have become attached to each other. They are priming him to help someone in need, much like Intel has helped their own daughter. “We are teaching him to be a good citizen and,” Traci says, “to hug. That is going to be important for him.”

The Potters take him with them to the store, the movies and occasionally Traci will even take him to Kitty Hawk Elementary School, where she teaches fourth grade. Her students love to share their classroom with him and even spend time reading to him on Fridays.

“The goal for Zonko when he leaves us is that nothing will phase him,” Traci said. And when Zonko does leave, Lifeline Assistance Dogs already has another dog waiting for the Potters to take in and train.

Zonko’s future handler recently traveled to the Outer Banks to meet him. And soon, the Potters know it will be time to let him go. While it will difficult to say goodbye to the companion who has become part of their family in a few short months, Doug says that saying goodbye, along with the commitment and training, will have been worth it.

“Someone did it for our daughter.”

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