Guide dogs are taught to keep the blind safe. Now they’re being trained to help guide
visually impaired runners in road races — and maybe, someday, in a marathon.
Thomas Panek had been a runner from a young age, so even when he lost his sight in his early 20s, he continued to compete in road races. And like any blind runner, he has relied on volunteers to guide him. Whether he was running the New York City Marathon (with Rabbi Michael Friedman of Running Rabbis) or the Boston Marathon (with the famed ultramarathoner Scott Jurek), human guides, connected by a tether, have led his way. He has enjoyed this method, despite the lack of independence.
And yet Mr. Panek, now 47, has wondered what it would be like to run with one of his guide dogs. Every trainer he posed this question to gave the same answer: guide dogs were not appropriate for long-distance running, let alone a race. “The presumption was that it wasn’t safe,” he said. “And no school had ever trained a guide dog to run.”
He had gotten wind of several blind racers who bucked the conventional wisdom, like a Denver runner named Kerry Kuck, but Mr. Panek never seriously considered doing that himself.
Then one morning in April 2014, as he was eating breakfast just before running the Boston Marathon, a friend who was guiding him brought up running with a guide dog: “Why don’t you see if it’s possible?”
That was the right moment if there ever was one. Mr. Panek had just become C.E.O. and president of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit school in Westchester County, N.Y., that trains guide dogs for people with vision loss. He began dwelling on the challenges — “real and perceived,” he said — and after consulting with his training team, held a focus group for the blind community to weigh in. “The response was overwhelming,” he said, and in early 2015, the school introduced what may well be the world’s first program for training guide dogs to run with their handlers. For the pilot, Mr. Panek used his guide dog, Gus, a yellow Lab, who was one of the first to be trained for this. “I said, ‘If other blind people are going to do this, I’ll have to prove it’s safe,” he recalled.
Two dozen running guide dogs have graduated so far, with a long waiting list for more. None of these certified running guide dogs has yet to take part in a race, but on Oct. 29 Mr. Panek and Gus hope to reach this milestone when they run the Poland Spring Marathon Kickoff, a five-mile race in Central Park, without human assistance. This will also be a first for the race’s organizer, New York Road Runners, which after much discussion agreed to officially allow Gus to run.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Mr. Panek was sitting in Tavern on the Green with Gus napping by his feet, cooling off after a six-mile jog around the Central Park loop.
“Gus sets the pace,” he said, “and I follow him.” Trotting at a nine-minute-mile clip, Gus, 5, is trained to avoid obstacles, slow down for congestion and, above all, keep Mr. Panek safe. Gus runs only when he feels confident there’s no danger, and he is trained to ignore commands that seem risky.
Moving with abundant caution and focus, he is unfazed by the steady flow of bicycles, horses, pedestrians and other dogs streaming past in both directions. As they run, Mr. Panek, who is tall with a graceful stride, often says “yes,” a keyword command that assures Gus everything is going well. And he praises him, saying, “Good job!” and “Good boy, Gus!” as the dog navigates the route while dressed in his own running gear — a specially designed harness that offers greater mobility than his usual one.
Guiding Eyes estimates that it costs about $50,000 to raise and train each dog (as well as provide lifetime care), with all funding coming from donations. Just one-third of the Labrador retrievers and German shepherds it breeds end up graduating from the guide dog program. Some that don’t make it enter other lines of work, such as bomb detection.
Guide dogs are the elite of working dogs, and at the school they receive intensive daily training that lasts from six months to a year. Guide dogs need to know a lot about the world, from managing escalators to navigating crowded city streets.
But as with people, not all of them enjoy jogging long distances. Only the ones who have shown a liking for it, like Gus, receive the extra training that includes building endurance and learning techniques like “shore lining,” following the left side of a path. Mr. Panek explained that the dogs are never pushed, don’t run in high temperatures and are closely monitored by staff veterinarians during training. Six miles is the maximum distance Guiding Eyes allows its dogs to run.
“We want to make sure that the dog is happy and healthy while running,” Mr. Panek said.
As for the five-miler this weekend, Mr. Panek said he is feeling more butterflies for that than for the New York City Marathon, which he will run for the second time the following Sunday. “But I’m also confident that Gus is going to get me through it,” he added. The race environment, he explained, will be straightforward for Gus: everyone is going in the same direction without pedestrians or traffic, and Gus is very familiar with the Central Park loop.
“This will be a good first step to show that it’s possible for me to run a race without a human guide,” he said.
A New York Road Runners spokesman, Chris Weiller, said in a recent phone interview that the events team has thought through this and is comfortable with Mr. Panek’s plan, which includes having a vet present and water breaks.
“We want Thomas to have a good run and be safe,” he said, “and we want the dog to have a good run and be safe.” To ensure that, a spotter on a bicycle will follow along in case any problems arise (but not to assist with the run); Mr. Panek will start off in the rear; and Gus will wear a bib so all can see he is an official participant. The main concern, he explained, was making sure that the solution works for everybody.
And if all goes well with the race, the next step for Mr. Panek will be to develop best practices for other blind runners, “to set the standard for running a race with a guide dog,” Panek said. Beyond that, Mr. Panek, ever the boundary pusher, said that even a marathon might be on the horizon someday, but since it would most likely have to be done as a five-dog relay, it isn’t feasible at the moment. Nevertheless, Gus does play a key role in his preparation for marathons.
“Gus contributes,” he said. “He’s my training partner.”/nytimes.com