Running Guides

 In News & Events

Guiding Eyes President Tom Panek holds the harness of a German shepherd as they go for a run in FDR Park `by Guiding Eyes President and CEO Thomas A. Panek

When I lost my eyesight, I had to give up my driver’s license, but not my love of going fast.  For people with vision loss, a working guide dog weaves safely through traffic, slows around tight corners, steers clear of obstacles and accelerates smoothly when the road ahead is clear.  Instead of a steering wheel, my hand holds a leather harness as I move with the confidence and ease of driving.

Now, I compare my yellow Lab Gus to a little sports car, shifting into high gear, able to take me to new places at speeds I could never imagine – and with confidence and ease a stick could never touch.

Walking at a comfortable speed with a guide dog is important for safety.  Our dogs are trained to stop at curbs, identify overhead objects and are carefully matched for pace with people from all walks of life.

But what if I want to speed?

Enter Kathy Zubrycki, the world class leader of guide dog training at Guiding Eyes.   I introduced Kathy to a focus group of athletic visually impaired runners who sat on the edge of their seat eagerly sharing a common hope for the day special guide dogs could be trained to become running guides.

Turns out that Kathy has broken down barriers before.  Guiding Eyes is known for its expertise in providing guide dogs to people with special needs and for seniors 88 years young.  I had confidence that Kathy and her team would take on the challenge to find a canine that loved to run and that her team could teach that dog to become a guide dog.

For accomplished visually impaired athletes like my friend, Richard Hunter, the experience of running with a guide dog will provide a sense of freedom.  For us, running with a guide is like the dream of driving a real race car.

Support instructor Jolene runs alongside Tom Panek and a German shepherd guide dog in trainingBut first, we needed a new harness design to allow for the biomechanics of connecting human to dog.  Instructor and supervisor, Ben Cawley, guided my hand over prototype harnesses that would need further engineering for a running guide dog to go faster and be safe.   After a few fun laughs with jigs involving copper pipes, zip ties and duct-tape, we made a few phone calls and put MIT’s engineering lab to work to develop a prototype.

While they hatched a plan, Guiding Eyes Maintenance Manager, Frank Bravo, stepped into his workshop and made fast progress on developing an aftermarket solution for a hinged harness with amazing results.

Meanwhile, resident shepherd whisperer, Jolene Hollister, put on her sweat pants and running shoes and began working with a beautiful dog – one who loves to run and chase tennis balls.

Then the day came.  Assistant Director of Training Graham Buck joined Ben, Jolene and me at our test track, a 1.9 mile circuit near our school here in Yorktown Heights, New York.  It was here I had the opportunity to experience an early stage “test drive” of  running with a guide dog.  It was the first time in almost 20 years that I ran without help from a human friend; the feeling  of freedom was exhilarating as we moved through the test track, running faster and faster.

Did you know that it takes approximately $50,000 of generous donations to help a playful puppy become a professionally trained guide dog?   Now you know why I call Gus my little sports car.

In addition to piloting this innovative program, Guiding Eyes will hand over a harness to 150 new guide dogs this year.  We will also provide ongoing services to fine tune the skills of 1,000 active guide dog users throughout the United States, all made possible through the generous support of our donors at all levels.  You can give at any level to help us achieve our mission to train running guides for people seeking greater independence, like Richard Hunter.