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NEWS | Dec. 9, 2021

Getting back to good: resiliency, grappling and dogs

By Jason Wilkinson 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Stopping someone from choking you in a grappling match and teaching a large working dog to follow directions may not seem to have a connection, but James Turner says there are some similarities.

Turner, a Military Working Dog Trainer for the 341st Training Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, credits the sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and his career training MWD, with helping him find a sense of purpose and happiness. It was not always a smooth journey.

The Warm-Up

Early on, Turner decided he wanted to join the Navy and become a SEAL. He worked for two years getting himself in shape in preparation for the program, training consistently to get his numbers to what he considered good. He would need more than good, however.

“The military had just assassinated Osama Bin Laden and everybody wanted to be a SEAL,” Turner said. “So now I had to get my numbers really great.”

Turner took this in stride, however, and worked to improve his numbers further. Eventually, Turner got his physical performance where he felt it needed to be and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Shortly after, he injured his knee and was removed from the SEAL pipeline.

It was a difficult turn of events. He remained in the Navy, but not in the capacity he had always imagined. The bright side was he discovered dog training as a career and his own passion for it.

“I saw a dog get a bite, and I knew that I wanted to do that,” Turner said.

He was able to attend the dog training program at JBSA-Lackland and discovered how challenging the job can be. Dog training presents problems where there is not always a clear-cut solution to a dog’s behavior.

“It was a unique opportunity for me, and it forced me to do a lot of compulsory training,” Turner said. “There’s a lot of experimentation with training and trying to perfect what we can do.”

After four years, Turner had a wife, a son, and the experience of being a new dad. He enjoyed his job, but the pressures of having a family, his physical injuries, and some struggles with mental health would ultimately cause him to separate from the Navy.

The Choke Hold

“It was a really, really bad time for me,” Turner said. “I got this really sour painting of myself.”

Financial struggles followed, which exacerbated the mental issues. Turner worried about providing for his family.

A friend contacted him, and he began working for a construction company. The work was hard, and the hours long, but he was doing something, and was relieved to be able to help his family.

The Escape

It was at this time that one of the other construction workers talked him into trying a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a sport that focuses on grappling and submissions. He loved the class but was not in a position financially to pay. The instructor worked out a situation where Turner would help with repairs, and in turn, he could train.

“I fell in love with jiu-jitsu,” Turner said. “It was like playing chess with another person physically, but you instantly know when you made a bad move.”

Turner credits it with helping him calm down and encouraging him to think more deliberately about what he was doing.

Though his training would ebb and flow, jiu-jitsu would become a key part of his life. It was an outlet for his competitive nature, and it helped him deal with the stresses of taking care of family and work. It also helped him lose weight and promoted a healthy lifestyle. It was not the sole solution for him, though.

The Dog Days

At this point, Turner was working construction and practicing jiu-jitsu, and he was finally able to make ends meet. But it was a close thing.

“I remember thinking I had to do something else,” Turner said. “And then I realized that I hadn’t touched any of my education benefits.”

So, he went back to school. The money from his GI Bill helped him provide for his family while he attended classes. He began to see hope. After finishing school, he contacted his old boss at the 341st Training Squadron and started watching for job openings.

Return to the Kong

For several years he had assumed that he would not have the chance to work with dogs again. However, he applied when a job opening was announced and was called in for an interview. Six months later, he was working with the U.S. Air Force and the 341st TRS working dog program.

It was fortunate. Turner underestimated what working with the dogs had meant to him.

“I had forgotten how passionate I am about this,” Turner said. “I remember going, ‘yeah, I’m having fun again.”

As for the connections between jiu-jitsu and dog training, Turner says they both present a puzzle. Both present a problem for which there may be multiple solutions. Turner says they both consistently provide new challenges and push him to think creatively.

“Puzzles are interesting, and they can keep us from getting bored,” Turner said. “And boredom is not my friend.”