Service dog trainer and veteran Tyson King is training Groot to help him with his own PTSD. Groot is replacing his longtime service dog Cully, who he recently retired to a fellow veteran as a pet. (Hugo Wong/News Staff)

Central Saanich veteran finds calling as a service dog trainer

Service dog helped Tyson King deal with post-traumatic stress disorder

When Retired Master Seaman Tyson King could no longer walk on grass for fear of mines and suffered serious night terrors he knew to reach for help.

King expected to spend the rest of his career working in the military. Originally an Army reservist, he was deployed as part of Operation Harmony for two peacekeeping tours in the former Yugoslavia before transferring to the Navy. However, 20 years after his time in the Battle of Medak Pocket, his PTSD symptoms became severe.

“A lot of things piled up at the same time, and when it came out, it was like the whole deck of cards blew right over. I completely fell apart,” said King.

At his lowest, he reached out to other veterans, who told him about Courageous Companions, a charity that provides service dogs to veterans and first responders. He was paired with Cully, an Australian shepherd, and found his new calling as a service dog trainer. His business, VI K9, now trains service dogs to aid people with PTSD, seizures and other medical issues.

Memory of Medak Pocket

About 500 peacekeepers, King among them, advanced down a single road to a negotiated ceasefire line. As they approached, they faced a military roadblock. In the distance, King heard gunshots and saw houses go up in smoke. They suspected ethnic cleansing was happening in the town.

The peacekeepers were also outgunned, with Croatian anti-tank guns pointed at their lightly armoured personnel carriers.

“If things went messy, we knew we didn’t have too much of a chance,” said King.

As they waited and tensions rose, Lt.-Col. James Calvin called for the embedded journalists to join him at the front of the line. Calvin held an impromptu press conference with a Croatian general in the background, as a pressure tactic to allow the Canadians through. The gambit worked.

Over the next several days, King helped clean up charred homes, recovering bodies so hot they would melt the body bags they were placed in. He saw another body with a gunshot wound in the back of his head, slippers on his feet, and a locket with a family photo in his hand. He was likely executed in the night.

“That was two months worth of hell,” said King, adding other soldiers experienced far worse.

Return home and a new calling

When he returned home to Saskatoon, King said soldiers had an informal peer counselling group over coffee, but in later professional counselling, he learned that was not enough. Decades later, symptoms emerged and became unbearable until he paired with Cully. If the stress was severe, Cully would jump onto his chest and raise his paw, making it impossible for King not to notice.

“It took four months to clue in to exactly what was going on,” said King.

After months of training to understand each other’s needs, King and Cully went thorough six days of certification testing instead of three – since King was the first Navy sailor on the West Coast with a service dog. They performed so well that trainer George Leonard suggested King become a trainer himself. King was medically released from the military, and found his new calling.

So far, he’s fully trained three dogs, with another five in various stages of training to aid PTSD, autism, physical assistance, seizures, or a combination. He said the work was a source of pride for him, and a new start.

He hopes the B.C. government will up the standards when granting licences to service dogs, and for a federal standard of testing that allow a dog’s credentials to be recognized across provincial borders. He also wants to see increased funding for service dogs, as the training process takes years and can be quite costly.

EPIC (Empowering People, Inspiring Canines) is a new charity aiming to help with the cost of service dogs (that features Cully on their Facebook page), and King hopes more groups like that will raise the funds until the government will step up.

“The more we can get the word out about this new society, the better.”


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