How a Running Guide Dog Helped His Blind Handler Find His Stride

Running out in front, Labrador retriever Gus set the pace for his blind handler, Thomas Panek. The pair were participating in the 2017 Poland Spring Marathon Kickoff through Central Park, and it was the first time that a blind runner with a running guide dog participated in a New York Road Runners event.

Panek and Gus completed the five-mile race in 50 minutes, stopping along the way for water, a vet check and a potty break for Gus. In April, they ran in the Boston Athletic Association’s 5K race with ultra-runner Scott Jurek serving as a spotter, in case the pair ran into any problems.

Panek is President and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a school located in Yorktown Heights, NY, that trains service dogs for people with vision loss. Gus is a graduate of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind Running Guides program, the first of its kind in the world.

Gus was already working as Panek’s guide dog, and the program taught him how to guide while running. The work is the same. Gus is trained to avoid obstacles, slow down for congestion and, most importantly, keep Panek safe.

Twenty-three teams have graduated from the Running Guides program since it launched in 2015. Currently, 12 teams are working towards graduation with 48 applications in the pipeline, according to the Director of Admissions Ben Cawley.

Running guide dogs are extensively tested and trained. After graduation, they work as regular guide dogs, assisting their handlers as they go through everyday activities, and, in addition, guiding them on recreational runs and occasionally in races.

“Having a running guide dog is incredibly liberating and enabling,” Panek told the hosts of Eyes on Success, a podcast show that presents information to help people with vision loss live independently and productively. “Just going out the door in the morning for a jog whenever I feel like it was never possible before I started running with Gus. I would always have to rely on a human guide, and it would depend on their schedule and if they felt up to it.”

Running Guide Dogs Provide Visually Impaired Runners with Greater Independence

Thomas Panek taking time out with running guide dog Gus at the Boston Athletic’s Association 5K Race.  Photo courtesy of Guiding Eyes for the Blind

The first graduate of the Running Guides program was a German shepherd named Klinger. He was partnered with handler Richard Hunter, a retired Lieutenant in the United States Marines. The second graduate—and first working guide dog to be trained as a running guide—was Gus.

Inspired by Gus’ success, the school will evaluate other guide dog graduates as running guides, if their handlers express an interest in the program.

Cawley said that the running guide dog program is a natural extension of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind mission to help those who are visually impaired to lead active, independent lives.

“It’s easier to stay fit when you have more options and running guide dogs provide additional options to blind and visually impaired athletes,” Cawley said.

Training Running Guide Dogs

More than 7,000 guide dogs have graduated from Guiding Eyes for the Blind since its founding in 1954. The school has its own breeding program—most of the dogs are Labrador retrievers with some German shepherds. According to Cawley, these breeds work best as guide dogs, because their size makes them compact enough to travel and strong enough to work in the guide dog harness. They also have the perfect temperament.

“They don’t become agitated or anxious—it’s very important for guide dogs to be comfortable and calm in all types of environments,” Cawley said.

Running guide dogs must love running and enjoy being out in front. Matches are made by pairing the right dog with the right running pace with the right handler. Cawley refers to it as “pace matching.”

Running Guide Dog teams spend three weeks training at Guiding Eyes for the Blind. After that, they return to the handlers’ homes where they spend six months to a year working together at a walking pace. When the team is working well together, trainers from the school travel to the handler’s community to complete the running guide dog training.

It’s important, Cawley said, that handlers are familiar with their running routes before they step out with only the assistance of their guide dogs. This means doing the routes a number of times with volunteer guides to become familiar with the terrain and any obstacles. Panek and Gus run on rail-to-trail routes as well as on horse trails in a local forest. Other graduates run with their dogs along local dirt roads or on running tracks.

“Because the dogs are being asked to work at a faster pace the environment should be less complex,” Cawley said. “For example, it wouldn’t be a good idea to jog with a running guide dog in Manhattan during rush hour. That would require the dog to slow down and think a lot more to move around people and obstacles.”

Racing with a Running Guide Dog

Panek said he was comfortable running the Central Park race with Gus, because they were both familiar with the route. The pair often jogs in the park and Gus is used to guiding Panek safely through the hustle and bustle of horse carriages, baby carriages, walkers and other runners.

“In a way participating in the Central Park race was easier for Gus because everybody was going in the same direction,” Panek told Eyes on Success. “Gus wore a race bib with his own number, and he didn’t make a single mistake during the event. It was an incredible experience for me because it was the first time I ran a race without being tethered to someone.”

It costs approximately $50,000 to prepare students and dogs to become a Guiding Eyes team and support them throughout the lifetime of their partnership.

The Guiding Eyes for the Blind School never charges people who need a guide dog. The school depends on the support of corporations, foundations, civic organizations and individuals to cover the cost. There are many ways to help the school in its mission.

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Photo credit: Courtesy of Guiding Eyes for the Blind

61 comments

Leo Custer
Leo Custeryesterday

Thank you for sharing!

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Roslyn McBride
Roslyn M2 days ago

Pretty good!

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RICKY SLOAN
RICKY S2 days ago

WOW

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Danuta W
Danuta W2 days ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Winn A
Winn Adams3 days ago

Noted

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Winn A
Winn Adams3 days ago

Wow

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Lesa DiIorio
Lesa D3 days ago

what a good puppy!!!

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Lesa DiIorio
Lesa D3 days ago

thank you Vera...

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Elaine W
Elaine W3 days ago

I believe this is a happy dog who knows he is loved and needed.

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Janis K
Janis K3 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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