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Staying the course: An adaptive athlete’s journey in dog training

Staying the course: An adaptive athlete’s journey in dog training

. 5 min read

Tyler McKenzie exudes a quiet but sturdy confidence, not unlike the rugged mountain landscape that rises up behind him as he chats with the Ollie team. His pup, Nyx, sits obediently at his feet, scanning her surroundings constantly. On the surface, the duo look just like any other Park City locals, up early and looking for a good trail to hike, bike, or ski. Both are highly trained athletes in their own right; Tyler, a USSA alpine ski racer and coach, and Nyx, an elite service dog with backcountry chops. But what bubbles under the surface is a story of dogged determination and adaptability unleashed in the face of adversity.

Nyx’s story begins where a chapter of Tyler’s ends. In May of 2017, Tyler was in a near-fatal skiing accident, after which he was diagnosed with a complex Brachial Plexus injury that left him with severe nerve damage and aggressive pain along his left side. Tyler described this trauma as he had basically ripped the nerves of [his] left shoulder and arm right out of the roots. It’s this painful image that makes Tyler’s calm, casual manner all the more impressive.

As a competitive skier, this diagnosis could’ve been a kiss of death to Tyler’s career. Aside from the limited use of his left side, the pain alone was enough to make most people throw in the towel, and maybe had he not met Nyx, Tyler would’ve too.

Soon after his accident, Tyler began looking for solutions, ways to return to his active lifestyle and career, but more so ways to better navigate the day-to-day. For many living with chronic pain, even the simplest tasks can feel like a monumental undertaking.

In the beginning, Tyler looked into getting a service dog but was quickly deterred by the two to three-year (minimum) waiting period required by most organizations. The cost was also an issue, as an individual can expect to pay upwards of $10-20k for the raising and training of a service dog. All of this made complete sense to Tyler, but his determination, mixed with some understandable impatience, led him to discover an alternative route: owner training. Owner training isn’t as frequently advertised because of the risk and liability associated with it, but it allowed Tyler to act quickly and save time spent on waiting lists.

While the costs of training Nyx may have netted out to be the same as going through the process of obtaining a service dog, he was able to tailor her training to his unique needs. Still incredibly mobile, Tyler needed a pup that could keep up with his active lifestyle and take on physically demanding days on the slopes or trails. It was going to be a long road ahead, and he needed a companion who could stay the course with him.

Enter the Malinois Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization created to provide individuals suffering with PTSD, physical disabilities, and other special needs with a dog that can comfort and assist them. Along with the Salt Lake City-based Dog Elite Training, Tyler was able to adopt Nyx from puppyhood and begin individualized training.

When Nyx and Tyler first met, Nyx was only 4 months old but had already adopted some good training habits from her previous owners. Tyler was able to pick up where they had left off and welcome her into his world. Even the most basic, day-to-day motions of caring for a dog proved to be beneficial to Tyler’s recovery process — he had undergone major surgery to have his shoulder fused together as well as multiple nerve transfers to restore some mobility to his left arm, so the training offered a welcome distraction and return to some sense of normal.

Much like Tyler’s cool exterior, Nyx’s looks can be easily underestimated. Nyx is a Belgian shepherd-black lab mix with loads of energy. Despite her small stature, Nyx is incredibly strong, carrying heavy packs up and down trails regularly and providing emotional and physical support to Tyler.

“She’s my anchor in reality. If I’m having a bad nerve pain episode, she’s there with positive pressure stabilizing me.”

Nyx has played a major role in getting Tyler back to sports in record time. As a self-labeled “Type A,” Tyler’s biggest fear was becoming stagnant, and working with Nyx helped them to keep moving and pushing forward, little by little, day by day.

“She’s my training partner, cheerleader, helping me up off the ground — it’s been wild, and it’s hard to put it in exact naming terms what it is.“I kind of get this existential joy out of providing her with all that intensity that I still want in my life, but at times I can’t have it directed towards me. Being able to have that - wildly positive impact on my life and lifestyle.”  

Tyler reflects on his relationship with Nyx. Though she originally served as a means to get Tyler back on his feet and back on skis, her influence over him turned out to be much greater. Spending almost every waking moment with his dog and “having that external focus, providing a “distraction” from my hardcore stuff” is what has allowed him to make such major strides.

“I’m back to being in the environments that I love, doing the sport that I love, and I’ve got this cheerleader with me all the time. And when I have bad sad days, she’s there. I have the confidence where I feel I can actually compete again.”

Not only did Nyx provide the stability and confidence to allow Tyler to return to racing by way of the winter Paralympics, but the duo’s work together helped completely shape Tyler’s career trajectory. Over five years since his accident, Tyler now works as an Alpine Race Coach for young athletes in the Brighton/Salt Lake City area. He juggles his new role as coach with his own athletic career, working with a handful of organizations centered around adaptive athletes, including the National Ability Center, High Fives Foundation, and Adaptive Training Foundation, as both an athlete and mentor.

For more incredible stories about dogs and the humans who love them, follow @ollie on Instagram.