Tyson King shares some love with his service dog Cully. King

A soldier, a dog, a motorcycle and a dragon

One man's struggle with PTSD, the four-legged friend who helps him and the two-wheeled vehicle that gets them around

Tyson King served for over 20 years in the Canadian military.

To look at him, you might assume that. He’s a large, well-built man who also exudes a pride and confidence that, if you’ve ever seen it in anyone before, you will know as being connected in some way to his patriotism.

In January of 1991, King joined the military as an army reservist and did two tours of the former Yugoslavia.

He joined the full-time army in 1995 and went back for another tour.

He then did another tour of the same region under NATO.

In 1999, he transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy and became a marine engineer.

But about a year ago, he says, “when the combination of my personal and work stress opened up that door and let that dragon out, it rocked me to my core.”

That dragon is post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It had been slumbering within him, dormant, for 21 years and now it waits with him for the letter from Ottawa that will tell him the date of his retirement from the Canadian Armed Forces.

Once the dragon emerged, the fear of reliving the experiences he saw in his over 20 years of military service almost drove him to suicide.

In March of last year, he was close.

But then, as he recalls it, “God painted a very vivid picture in my mind one night of the damage that would do to my wife and my son, and the following morning I made a commitment to not making that choice.”

Instead, King found Cully, the now-two-year-old Australian Shepherd, who has helped bring him peace and given him a glimmer of hope for his future after life in the service.

“When I was at my worst for the recurrences of PTSD, it was about reliving it,” King says. “The sights. The smells. At one point I couldn’t even step on grass,” he says, because of the fear he endured in knowing there could be land mines in the grasslands they were in during deployment. “If it wasn’t marked off or a clear path that was already traveled, you didn’t step there. It wasn’t until I was actually in Winnipeg (at Courageous Companions, who trains and facilitates the pairing of service dogs), training with Cully, that I stepped on grass for the first time (since the PTSD showed itself).”

 

The dragon

 

“PTSD comes out in so many ways, it’s hard to nail down (what it really is),” King says. “I remember in the mid-90s, when there were a bunch of suicides in the guys coming back from Yugoslavia …  before PTSD was recognized.”

These days, however, we not only know about PTSD, but also how to recognize it as well as some ways to mitigate its effects on the day-to-day lives of those who live with it.

Some of the struggles he’s had to fight through aren’t so much emotional ones, but in the tensions his emotional issues form in his relationships.

His family relationships struggled, as would be expected, through his dealing with the disability – especially early on. That struggle was made more difficult, he says, by his initial inability to let them help him cope.

King turned to Facebook support groups and discussion boards before he turned to his wife and son, he says, which was one of his first mistakes. He was looking for peers who could understand (and would help him understand) what he was going through, instead of asking for support from those he loves.

“My wife saw it as me closing myself off and avoiding talking with her about it,” he says. “And in some ways, yes, that’s what it was,” but he says it was more about trying to spare her the pain of seeing what he was dealing with than it was about pushing her away.

“I was trying to find a way to generalize it for her,” he says. “I didn’t want to give her all the details, because I was afraid of what all the details would do to her. Call it male bravado; call it chivalry; call it just plain being a coward. Not taking her for her strengths and not being able to see that she would be able to handle it (was a huge mistake).”

He still struggles with where the line is in terms of what to tell her, because he’s still fearful about causing her pain, but he’s managing to share much more than he used to so she can understand better what he’s going through.

“My specialist has even told me that if she has too many details, she could start to relive my experiences,” he says, and he can’t do that to her.

He has also struggled with his relationship with his son, but it’s coming along, he says.

“One of the things that prompted me to seek help is that he admitted to me that he was afraid of me. When my 11 year-old said he was scared of me …” he trails off. “I’ve always taken pride that I have not been a physically aggressive or physically disciplinary father,” he says, so that admission by his son was particularly penetrating.

He says he was never violent or physical with anyone in his family, though.

“It was my anger issues. When I thought I was raising my voice, it turned out I was yelling. Of course, my size is also something that can be intimidating, I’ve been made aware of,” he says, hanging his head slightly, though not in shame, but in reflection.

“We’re all in the process of healing.”

 

Cully

 

“I’ve been asked numerous times why I have a seeing eye dog,” King says, laughing, because it usually happens when he’s getting off his motorcycle, which has a custom-built trunk for Cully to ride around in with him. “Granted, (seeing eye dogs) have been out there for 75-80 years, so, yeah, they’re more understood, more well known, for that service,” he says. Service dogs can be used for any type of service, though, and they are becoming more and more recognized as one facet of a successful management plan for those who suffer from PTSD.

For King, Cully is a saviour.

There are a few ways to get a service dog, King says. “The way I did it was that I needed a dog right away, and didn’t have the time to train one myself – nor did I have the skills to – so I went to Courageous Companions. They provided me with a dog that was ready to be paired. I got trained up as a handler,” he said, where he learned the expectations he should have for the dog and the dog should have of him, as well as how to continue deepening their bond through positive reinforcement. This handler training happened in Winnipeg at the Courageous Companions facility over a period of two weeks.

“They put a great deal of emphasis on not only making sure that the dog is a good fit for the handler, but that the handler is also a good fit for the dog,” King says, “and (Cully) responded to me immediately.”

So just who is Cully the service dog and companion of Tyson King, and why are they such a good fit for each other?

“He’s an amazing bundle of energy,” King says, chuckling and looking at his friend curled up under the table of the Langford Legion. “When I’ve got the vest off, he’s loveable, he loves to kiss, he loves to sit on you – and Australian Shepherds are very muscular in the back end, because they’re a running dog, from being bred for herding. He still has that muscle mass, so when he throws his butt around and wants to sit on you, you know it.”

He makes sure to clarify that Cully’s personality is one way when he’s “got the vest off,” and another when he’s on the job.

“Once I put on the vest, he knows he’s working,” King says. “Once the vest comes off, that’s a signal that it’s ‘me time,’ for him. Even though he’s still wary of me and assists me, he has more freedoms, and can express himself more,” because he’s off the clock, as it were. As it is with anyone who has a job, Cully is a slightly different animal at work than he is during “me time.”

But when there’s a job to be done, Cully knows what he has to do.

 

The vest goes on

 

Anyone who takes on a role in their life and dedicates themselves to it so fully that it becomes integral to who they are – becomes their identity – and then has to leave that role involuntarily, due to circumstances beyond their control, will struggle with that transition. Now try to imagine that happening while you struggle with a dragon like PTSD.

“It took me a long time to accept that,” King says. Even before the disability showed itself, King was thinking about what he might like to do in retirement from the military, but even those plans went out the proverbial window when the disability showed itself.

He wanted to drive a city transit bus. He’d spent years away from his family, and he wanted to become more supportive in a role at home. He thought that might be a nice change of pace – driving a bus around his community and ending up in his own bed every night.

But he’s not able to deal with the public anymore. He can’t do crowds and he can’t do confrontation.

Even in church, he sits at the back so everyone else in attendance is in front of him, and leaves immediately following the service.

There are other struggles, King says, but doesn’t go into detail, and I’m not about to press him on it.

But with Cully’s help, King says, along with that of various other counselling and support services, he’s been able to cut back on his medication and increase his quality of life. He’s learning to recognize his limitations and tolerances, and assess how various situations affect him emotionally.

Cully helps with that, too.

King cites one veteran he’s aware of who has two service dogs that he uses for different purposes. His emotional condition, King says, is such that “on some days he has so much energy he’s barely able to contain it, so he’s got a dog with a quiet, low key temperament that helps keep him grounded. Other days, he’s got side effects of the condition where he’s got lower energy, lower self-esteem, and he’s got a high-energy dog who helps bring him back up. He can pick and choose each day when he sees how his day is developing, and take whatever dog he needs.”

In King’s case, Cully gives him that extra energy he needs to cope. There’s a youthful exuberance in Cully that forces King to try and keep up, which he says is helpful, but Cully is also adaptable to King’s mood, and will sense his changing emotional states – even before King does – and do what needs to be done to keep him level.

“I’m learning that when he (intervenes in whatever is happening), I should start self-assessing to find out what’s triggering me, and go through my cognitive therapy to ground myself. He’s able to recognize things before I do. It’s a preventative measure rather than a corrective measure, because he’s getting me before I get out of control.”

 

The bike

 

King didn’t realize, when he first got on a motorcycle in 2012, that part of why he loved it was because of how relaxing it is for him. The PTSD hadn’t surfaced yet, but it was on its way, and being on the bike was something he already needed.

“But when my PTSD came out,” King says, “and I decided to get a service dog, I didn’t want to give up one for the other,” realizing the benefit being on a bike brings to his life. “I don’t get the same relaxation driving in a car. There’s something about experiencing the environment – the road, what’s around you, the sights, smells, even your own feelings – it’s not the same when you’re in a car.”

So he looked into getting a sidecar when he found out he’d be getting a service dog. He didn’t know what size of dog he was going to get, after all.

It turns out, sidecars are expensive and he wouldn’t have any help paying for it.

“It would have been between $12,000 and $18,000. That’s basically like buying another bike,” King says. “I just couldn’t afford it.” Because it would have been a benefit to the dog to help the dog bring benefit to King, he says, “it was too indirect a benefit to get any of the grants that are out there.”

He thought about setting Cully up on the tank of the bike somehow, but when he got him home, he realized he was much too big for that. And he’s never believed in having pets in trailers, with exhaust blowing in their faces, either.

Then a friend suggested having a trunk custom built for the bike, and it just worked out in every way.

“It never dawned on me how much interest it would be to anyone else out there,” he says. “I just thought practically. I need to bring the dog with me. I need the bike to take my son to school and back. It just made sense to do it. But when I’m on the highway, and people slow down to take a video, or at intersections I see the smiles around me, and the people snapping pictures whenever they can … that little bit of extra positivity is an unpredicted blessing.”

 

The future

 

One of the questions King is asked frequently is whether Cully will be his dog forever, or if it’s just a temporary thing.

“In a perfect world, yes,” King says. “I’ll have him until he’s retired – which for him will be anywhere from eight to 12 years – at which point he’ll revert to being a pet. He’ll have to give up his certification, and he’s not expected to work.”

At that point, King would either be paired with another dog or train one himself.

He’s hoping, however, that it will be the latter – because he has decided that’s what he wants to do in his military retirement. He wants to train service dogs.

“Another struggle in PTSD,” King says, particularly coming from an environment like the military or other career where your identity has been tied to the service to others, “is that you need to find that glimmer of hope – that positive route or direction for your life to take that’s beneficial. Too many times – and I’ve even felt it – people think that their life has come to an end because their life in uniform has come to an end.”

He thinks he can help with that for people, because he’s been there.

“It took me a long time to accept that my time in uniform was going to be at an end. But I’ve accepted it now, and I’m ready to move on.”

mdavies@goldstreamgazette.com

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