We're revisiting this 2019 story in celebration of these extraordinary running partners and the impact they have on their human's lives.
A life long runner, when he lost his eyesight in his mid-twenties, Tom Panek was afraid to run alone. Running with a guide dog was presumed not to be safe, so Tom ran with human guides – yet he felt a loss of independence.
Richard Hunter began losing his eyesight at age 22. Richard competed in the Boston Marathon and Iron Man triathlons with the assistance of human guides. He never considered using a guide dog because running with guide dogs was prohibited.
At the 2014 Boston Marathon, Tom, the new CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, and Richard discussed the possibility of a running program for guide dogs. It was something that had never been done.
The Running Guide Program Gets Its Start
Guiding Eyes for the Blind creates life-changing connections between people and dogs. The New York-based non-profit trains and provides guide dogs to people who are blind or visually impaired.
Each year, more than 160 guide dog teams graduate from Guiding Eyes for the Blind. The services Guiding Eyes provides include breeding and raising guide dogs, matching and training guide dog teams, and providing lifelong support. These services are provided at no cost to the people and families who need them.
Back in New York, after Tom and Richard started imagining the potential of this new type of training, Guiding Eyes for the Blind began getting its Running Guide program off the ground. The team was training a German Shepherd named Klinger with Ruffwear's Front Range® Harness, which they had modified by adding a handle.
Guiding Eyes asked Ruffwear about developing a harness for its Running Guides program.
Ruffwear had been creating gear for working dogs for years. The team had been talking with guide dog schools about developing a guide dog harness, but the ideas had yet to take shape. So, the design team thought, “If we are going to create a guide dog harness, let’s develop one that works for all guide dog users and any activity.”
The team went to work developing a harness and handle that would meet the everyday needs of guide dogs and guide dog users: the UniFly™ Harness. It's lightweight, breathable, and like all Ruffwear gear, designed with a dog’s freedom of movement and comfort in mind. Add in a unique connection that acts as the line of communication between dog and handler, and you've got a key piece of gear for opening up a new way for exploring together.
Richard and Klinger went on to be the first team to graduate from The Guiding Eyes for the Blind Running Guides program in 2015. This program graduates specially trained dogs to enable people who are blind and visually impaired to run with only their guide’s support.
For the first time, runners with vision loss don’t have to rely on human guides. Having a Running Guide enhances independence, autonomy and physical fitness — whether the team is going for a casual run in the park or training for a marathon.
Tom’s guide dog Gus gave him the independence that he lost 25 years ago. In 2017, they ran a 5-mile race together – something that had not been done before. Tom has gone on to become the first visually impaired runner to complete a half marathon guided completely by dogs: a trio made up of Westley, Waffle, and Gus.
Pam McGonigle won her first running race in 6th grade and was hooked. Born with visual impairment, she won gold in the 3,000 meters in the 1992 Barcelona Paralympic Games. Yet, Pam struggled to find human guides to train with, and in 2005, she called it quits.
12 years after quitting running, Pam joined the Running Guides program. The first time she and guide dog Maida ran together, she knew she'd met someone who loves running as much she does.
The Guiding Eyes for the Blind Running Guide Dog Program is a testament to the incredible potential of partnerships between humans and dogs. By enabling individuals who are blind or visually impaired to run independently, this program fosters empowerment and transforms lives, and Ruffwear is proud to be a part of the journey with these incredible dogs and humans.