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January 21, 2020
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Thomas Panek runs with his son and his guide dog Blaze.
Thomas Panek runs with his son and his guide dog Blaze. Photo Credit: Guiding Eyes for the Blind

Run A Marathon Blind? Guiding Eyes Running Guide Dogs Make It Possible

Thomas Panek, president and CEO of Yorktown Heights-based non-profit Guiding Eyes for the Blind, has been a runner his whole life.

“I ran on my cross-country team in high school; it was around that time that I began losing more and more of my vision,” recalled Panek. “I would always follow the runner in front of me, afraid to get out in front, but I kept getting hurt.”

Running became harder, but Panek never stopped. In his 30s, guided by human volunteers, he completed 20 marathons—including New York and Boston. Nevertheless, he still wondered what it would be like to be more independent, to train his guide dog to run with him.

“Having that guide dog gave me confidence to finish college, fall in love, get a job, and have the courage to take on any adventure, no matter how big or small.”

“At the 2014 Boston Marathon," recalled Panek, "my fellow visually impaired runners told me they, too, dreamed of the possibility of a running program for guide dogs. I began running with my pet dog Onyx to prove the concept, and then Guiding Eyes led the way to begin a formal training program for guide dogs.”

In 2015, the Guiding Eyes Running Guides Program graduated its first team; a year after Panek joined the organization as CEO and president. In 2018, the program graduated 19 teams and, to date,  more than 50 dogs with running guides program training have been placed.

“Guiding Eyes for the Blind’s Running Guides Program is the only formal program of its kind in the world,” said Ben Cawley, Director of Admissions at the organization.

While you’ll find reference of dogs guiding visually impaired people going back centuries, it was in the 1920s when schools first opened to train dogs specifically for that purpose. Roughly 2 percent of the visually impaired use guide dogs, with there being about 10,000 dog-people teams in the United States.

“I lost my vision in my 20s, so I know firsthand how having a guide dog can truly change a life,” said Panek, now a South Salem resident and father of four who got his first guide dog at 26. 

“Having that guide dog gave me confidence to finish college, fall in love, get a job, and have the courage to take on any adventure, no matter how big or small.”

A dog partner from Guiding Eyes for the Blind comes without cost to the visually impaired person, but roughly $50,000 has already been put into raising and training the canine, according to the group which was founded in 1954 and is 1 of 11 accredited schools in the United States. And that $50,000 per dog? Funded solely through donations.

The general guide dog training includes learning the basics: clearing obstacles and stopping for curbs, stairs and other changes in elevation. Guiding Eyes trains both Labradors and German Shepherds, and both these breeds do well as running guide dogs. Typically, humans learn to partner with their dogs during a three-week residential program at the organization’s Yorktown Heights campus.

“When evaluating dogs for the Running Guides Program,” explained Cawley, “we look for dogs with flexible walking speeds who enjoy exercising with their handler and love to stay in the lead!”

One of these pups just might grow up to be a running guide dog.

Facebook: Guiding Eyes for the Blind

“Running Guide Dogs are guide dogs first,” stressed Panek, “with running while guiding added on as an additional skill. They enhance their handlers’ independence, autonomy and overall physical fitness—whether the team is going for a casual run in the park or training for a race.”

“Once selected, the dogs are brought on training runs and taught to continue to guide, but at a faster pace," added Cawley. "The key is to keep it fun and easy by making sure to only ask the dogs to run in areas that offer low complexity work such as quiet paved pathways.”

When a match is made and the pair graduates, returns home, and is ready to start running, a Guiding Eyes’ Running Guides team works with them in their home area to help evaluate safe running routes and make sure the pair is off to a great running start.

Panek was the first runner in the 2019 NYC Half Marathon to be guided by a relay of three running guide dogs instead of human guides. Training included months of running near the Yorktown Heights headquarters as well as at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and Manhattan’s Central Park.

“We wanted the dogs to acclimate to the city and learn how to resist the tempting smells of the hot dog carts!” added Panek.

Gus, Panek’s personal running guide dog, Waffle, the fastest member of the team and the only female, and Waffle’s brother, Westley, were the trio used.

“I ran the 13.1-mile event to raise awareness and funds for Guiding Eyes and our Running Guide Program," said Panek. "Each dog set its own pace, and veterinarians and volunteers stationed along the course ensured the team’s hydration, health and safety.

“All the dogs did great and seemed to enjoy the experience as much as I did. We finished in a little over 2 hours and 20 minutes.”

“We wanted the dogs to acclimate to the city and learn how to resist the tempting smells of the hot dog carts!”

Gus, now 7, officially retired at the finish line and lives with friends of Panek’s nearby, where, according to Panek, he now plays fetch instead of going to work.

This, however, doesn’t mean Panek is done running.

“I am looking forward to continuing my journey inspiring health and wellness for other people who are blind with my new guide dog Blaze,” said Panek.

Blaze joins Panek on the high school track every weekend as he works toward his personal running goals. One of these? The “Dad Mile."

“It’s a sub-five-minute mile with my four children, each guiding me 400 yards at a time,” explained Panek. “For that, Blaze will get the day off to play with Onyx, in the backyard.

“I’m grateful for the independence that our Running Guide Dogs bring to people like me—people with vision loss who love to run. They help us see our world in a very different way. This program is changing perceptions of both how guide dogs change lives and the capabilities of blind athletes.”