Our ongoing series “A More Perfect Union” aims to show that what unites us as Americans is far greater than what divides us. In this installment we learn about the growing effort to train dogs not just to be guides, but also to be athletes.
One stride at a time, Tom Panek and his guide dog, Gus, inch closer to their goal. The two have been training in local parks for more than three years with the hopes of competing in an officially-sanctioned long-distance race. It’s never been done before, reports CBS News’ Don Dahler.
“I’ve been running my whole life. I ran on my cross-country team in high school, and I ran as a young adult,” Panek said.
Panek is the CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a non-profit program that provides guide dogs and services at no cost to the blind community. He lost his sight 25 years ago and with it, his independence.
“When I lost my sight I was too scared to run,” Panek said.
As he adjusted to his blindness, he began running with a human guide, but it wasn’t the same. Panek still missed the independence he once had.
“Although many people run with running clubs, at the end of the day you’re running your own race. And when you’re tied to another person, it’s no longer your own race. The independence isn’t quite there,” Panek said.
We first caught up with Panek two years ago, when he became the CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind. The idea of a running guide program was first suggested by former marine Richard Hunter, who was blind and looking to get back in to running. The two met at the Boston Marathon in 2015.
“Richard shouted out, ‘I’m really curious, have you ever trained a guide dog to run?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. It hasn’t been done,'” Panek said.
A few months and intense training sessions later, the running guide program was born. Panek and a small team helped train Klinger, a German shepherd, to aid Hunter with running.
“Baseline skill set for a guide dog and running dog are the same. They’re looking for overhead obstacles and making sure that the person who’s blind like me remains safe as we’re mobile,” Panek said.
He formed a team of experts to train a small group of dogs, mostly Labrador retrievers and German shepherds, to run long distances. The dogs begin their training at 18 months old. It’s an exclusive club. Out of 165 graduate dogs, only about 12 are considered race ready.