Social distancing rules can make exercising a challenge for a blind runner who needs a volunteer tethered as a guide. But Thomas Panek has no problem because his running guide, Blaze, is a Labrador retriever.
"I’m doing all the things a person would normally do, except I’m doing it with the help of a best friend who happens to be 77 pounds of love wrapped in soft yellow fur," Panek said.
Panek, a blind runner with a wall full of ribbons from marathons he ran with a human guide, developed a canine running guide training program five years ago after he became president and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind in suburban New York. Last year, he became the first blind finisher of the New York City Half Marathon to be guided entirely by dogs.
Now, he said his dog Blaze plays an essential role in maintaining a healthy lifestyle amid gym shutdowns and other pandemic restrictions.
"The running guide program is incredibly important right now not only for physical health but emotional well being," Panek said in a recent Zoom interview. "For people who ran in the past and had to stop running because of the pandemic, this enables them to continue to exercise."
Panek has always been a runner and continued to compete in road races after he lost his sight to a genetic condition in his early 20s. Like other blind runners, he relied on volunteers holding a short tether to lead the way.
"I’ve had several guide dogs and I’ve always wanted to run with them, but I followed the rules," Panek said. Conventional wisdom said dogs would be unable to navigate safely while running, and that their health might suffer.
"No guide dog program in the world would allow you to run with your guide dog," he said.
He set out to change that when he took the helm at Guiding Eyes and visually impaired runners asked him to consider a running guide dog program.
"I talked to my trainers and most of them said it’s not possible, but I said let’s try it and see what happens," Panek said.
The first step was redesigning the dog’s harness.
"The traditional guiding harness is leather and metal, more like a saddle from horse and buggy days," Panek said. "You hold on and get pulled along. It’s not ideal for really moving. And it restricts the dog’s shoulders."
Trainers worked with the canine equipment maker Ruff Wear to develop a lightweight padded nylon vest that allows the dog a full range of motion. A modified Nordic ski binding on the vest connects an adjustable aluminum pole with an ergonomic hand grip. The setup is comfortable for the dog, allows the runner's arms to swing naturally and provides better feedback than the traditional harness, Panek said.
"The second thing was to prove it was safe," Panek said. The training team worked on building endurance, avoiding obstacles and learning techniques like "shore lining," following the left side of a path.
"What we learned was really amazing, inspiring, almost magical," Panek said. "The dogs were perfectly capable at guiding at a faster pace. In fact, some of the dogs enjoyed it more, and their other guide work became more accurate."
Panek has given presentations on the program to guide dog organizations around the world, encouraging others to adopt the training techniques and use the gear.
Guiding Eyes has about 300-400 applicants a year for a guide dog and is able to serve about 150, Panek said. About 10-15% of applicants want a dog trained as a running guide as well as for basic navigation. The organization currently has 44 active running guide dogs in 18 states and about 40 people waiting for one.
The organization has a residential program at its campus in Yorktown Heights, just north of New York City, where clients learn to work with their guide dogs. Guiding Eyes estimates that it costs about $50,000 to raise and train each dog and provide a lifetime of care, with all funding from donations.
"There are a lot of challenges to be able to provide people with a guide dog right now," Panek said. "We have many dogs that are fully trained and ready to go but we have not been able to match them because of travel restrictions and quarantines."
When a handler graduates from Guiding Eyes, trainers continue to provide support.
"They go home, learn the route they want to run, and we go and certify it," said Mike Racioppo, a running guides specialist from Guiding Eyes who was at the home of handler Megan Hale in the Albany suburb of West Sand Lake recently. "We want to make sure the dog can do it safely."
Hale, a 19-year-old college student planning a career in adaptive physical education, has a congenital visual impairment that made her reliant on running partners for track team practice in high school. She has been running with a guide dog for two years.
"It’s nice having Hero because I can just grab the harness and run," Hale said as the pale yellow Lab stood placidly beside her. "I don’t have to wait for someone and trust that they’re staying safe and following the virus protocols."