Local service dogs give hope and purpose to veterans

There wasn’t any doubt that Jack was the one.

Wes Mangus of Trieven-Sungold Kennels, had a selection of four retrievers to introduce to Brandon Tennery, a 28-year-old veteran from San Antonio, Texas, who served as an army sergeant in eastern Afghanistan. Brandon was waiting in the staff room of the fire hall. Wes would release one dog in the room at a time. 

Brandon Tennery (left) and Chris Ferguson pose with their service dogs in front of the Veteran’s Memorial Mural. Trieven-Sungold Kennels hopes to attain the means to provide ten service dogs to people who need them every year.
Ryan Fitzmaurice photo

The first three dogs practically ignored Tennery. They sniffed the exterior of the room instead, preoccupied with other things. 

That wasn’t the case with Jack. 

“Immediately (he) came up to me and sat down and started loving on me. I knew it was supposed to happen,” Tennery said. “We connected instantly. I knew it was right. It was a great feeling. When you know, you know.”

The bond between a dog and any owner is as deep as they come, but Jack already means much more to Tennery than a dog would mean to most.

Earlier this summer, Brandon took part in a weekend in Colorado Spring, Colo. with many other veterans sponsored by the Beyond the Battlefield Foundation. Its owner, John “Tig” Tiegan, has earned fame for surviving the attack on Benghazi. For veterans who have a hard time reintegrating with society, the foundation allows them to form relationships with other veterans and participate in events such as skydiving, zip lining and river rafting. 

For Tennery, though, the most memorable moment was one he’s become far too familiar with a blackout seizure that caused him to instantly spasm on the ground.

“I was on him and taking care of him, and I was getting into it with the dispatcher because she was driving me nuts and asking me stupid questions of things I’ve already told her,” Chris Ferguson, a fellow vet present at the time said. 

It’s a common occurrence now for Tennery. 

On, April 11, 2012, while serving in Afghanistan, Tennery’s unit started taking small arms fire from all directions. Tennery ran up a hill to return fire. When the unit found him he was unconscious and having multiple seizures. He had been thrown and slightly burned from two RPG blasts and a 107 rocket. He also would suffer from a severe traumatic brain injury, slight loss of vision and hearing, balance problems, broken ribs, close to 20 internal injuries and a seizure disorder from the attack.

Now, three to four times a month, at home, in the supermarket, anywhere, at random times, Tennery will seizure just as he did after he fell injured. It’s left him afraid to go much of anywhere, Tennery said.

But this summer was the first time it happened in front of Tiegan, and Tiegan jumped into action afterwards to get Tennery some help. 

“He heard about Wes’s kennel, so two days after the event, he said, I’m flying Brandon out, let’s do this,” Ferguson said. 

There’s little doubt to Tennery that having Jack as his service dog will change his life

“(Having a seizure disorder) sucks. I was very independent; I don’t like to be supported by other people… I don’t regret the thing that happened or what I did. I’m just glad that I’m here and able to do even the small things,” Tennery said. “This will open up a lot of doors for me, and do a lot of things I couldn’t do before. To be able to have a dog whose going to know when (a seizure) is coming so I don’t just fall while I’m walking and hit my head anymore. I will know I will need help.”

“It will give him confidence to do everything he’s used to do,” Mangus said. “Jack is a security system.”

Jack will be trained to recognize when Tennery is having a seizure and guide him to a soft place so Tennery will not sustain any injuries. The dog will also be trained to go find assistance for Tennery if it’s needed. Some service dogs even will crawl underneath their owners, offering their bodies as padding while their owners ride out the seizure. 

The relationship between an owner and a security dog is always a work in progress. An understanding and trust between them takes time to develop, Mangus said. 

“Brandon is going to wake up in the morning, and if he wants to go somewhere, he can go,” Mangus said. “But it’s going to take a few years for Brandon to be able to trust Jack to know when a seizure is coming.”

Trieven-Sungold Kennels has been producing hunting dogs for the past six decades, currently training a total of 150 dogs a year, but the kennel has recently expanded what it offers. Within the past three years, the kennel has begun training drug dogs for law enforcement agencies around the state, and just this past year, it’s taken on its most ambitious but rewarding project yet, the training of service dogs.

A service dog takes 18 months to train, according to Mangus, and can cost up to $30,000 due to that length of time. 

“A lot goes into a service dog. A service dog has to be 100 percent obedient. You have to go into airports and schools. You have to do your daily activities, walking on leashes, communicating in the community while the dog is 100 percent focused on you,” Mangus said. 

The kennel has found owners for five service dogs so far, although they are all still being trained. Mangus plans to expand the program. 

“I’d like to be able to train 10 dogs a year, and help these veterans out,” he said. “We’re hoping to continue to expand and grow.”

For that to happen, significant fundraising will have to occur, which Mangus is hoping to raise in conjunction with veteran foundations and community support.

 Like Tennery, Ferguson is an example of why
Mangus said that effort is worth it. 

Ferguson, a Wyoming resident, was also injured during military service, and ended up having five surgeries on his legs. For Ferguson, elk hunting and bird hunting is like therapy for him, but with limited mobility, before he received a service dog, hunting was a task beyond his means. 

“He’s my companion dog that helps me hunt. He’s able to help extend my capabilities of what I’m able to do,” Ferguson said. “I just can’t climb Mount Suribachi anymore and raise the flag on top of the Black Tooth. I can’t do things as much as I could.”

But even more than getting Ferguson back out to doing what he loves; his service dog just helps him get out of the house. Veterans, Ferguson said, tend to withdraw themselves from others and society as a whole after they get out of service. For him, that changed when he received his dog. 

“When I first got out, I didn’t go out, I’d stay in my house, I’d disappear into the mountains,” Ferguson said. “I’ll be sitting and watching TV, I’ll be doing nothing, and (my dog will) come up and nudge my arm. He says ‘let’s go’. He’ll take four steps to the door, he’ll come back and bump me in the leg, and take two steps out of the door.”
   His dog’s role isn’t over when Ferguson gets out into public either. Still shaking off the remnants of trauma, his service dog gives Ferguson the sense of comfort and safety he needs out in a crowd. 

“I don’t do well with people, but he spaces himself between me and the people I meet, he’s also my safety net,” Ferguson said. “If there’s a crowd, he’ll do a circle around me. He gives me that buffer and my security.”

It’s another example of how strong the bond is between a service dog and his owner.

“You can’t train that dog to create this buffer or to sense what Chris or Brandon is feeling,” Mangus said. “There are so many items between a dog and a handler that you can’t physically train but you can create that bond during the selection process. It’s just neat.”

When Jack walked into the fire hall and ran right up to Tennery, that was the start of a bond just like the one Ferguson has with his dog. In his career, Mangus said, he’s never experienced a moment like it. Soon, he hopes, he can experience it 10 times a year. 

“Brandon told me ‘I ain’t felt this good in a long time, I’m excited, I have a reason to get up in the morning because I got to take care of him,’” 

Mangus said. “Once people experience this, you can’t beat it. What Jack is going to do for Brandon (will last) the rest of his life. It’s going to let Brandon enjoy his life.”

By Ryan Fitzmaurice