Meet Klinger, a 2-year-old German shepherd and the first ever certified running guide dog. This past Saturday marked Klinger’s official graduation from the new Running Guides Program at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, an international nonprofit based in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., that provides guide dogs to those with vision loss.
Still in its developmental phase, the Running Guides Program’s mission aims to increase independence for visually impaired athletes.
“This pilot program is focusing on the feasibility of selecting and specially training dogs for their partners on approved exercise routes prior to being issued in class,” says Benjamin Cawley, class supervisor for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. “We will continue to build our techniques and hope to one day shift from an experimental pilot to a fully-implemented program.”
So far, the experiment has been a success. After passing six months of running guide-specific training—including three weeks of training with his new owner, Richard Hunter, a 48-year-old three-time Boston marathoner and the second visually impaired triathlete to complete Ironman in less than 12 hours (11 hours and 55 minutes)—Klinger is on to the next phase of the program: becoming an integral part of Hunter’s life.
In 1989, shortly after being commissioned as a second Lieutenant in the US Marine Corps, Hunter was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that leads to eventual vision loss. Since then he’s not only become an avid endurance sport athlete, but also an active figure for visually impaired runners and triathletes across the nation. He’s a coordinator for the USABA National Marathon Championships held each December in conjunction with the California International Marathon in Sacramento, and more recently he founded United in Stride, a North American online database resource that matches volunteer sighted guides with blind runners within their zip code.
He’s also the first person to suggest starting a canine Running Guides Program.
A couple years ago, Hunter was struck by a car while training for Ironman Lake Tahoe with his triathlon guide. He flew off the back of the tandem bicycle headfirst through the windshield of the car, splitting his helmet in half. The damages: A couple facial fractures, a broken neck, several lacerations and a severe concussion.
“This was like an exclamation mark on my safety for myself and for my family,” says Hunter, recalling the three months he spent in a neck brace after leaving the hospital and requiring a hospital bed in his living room for a month.
Luckily, the accident didn’t result in any spinal cord injuries and Hunter was able to return to outdoor running while he recovered. He finished the California International Marathon five months after the accident.
“At the time I had some limited vision, and even though I have a lot of running guides I still have to run six days a week. Some of my slower and shorter runs, I’d run myself,” Hunter says. “I’ve ran into poles, tripped over steel cables, ran off the sidewalks, had some near misses and not always saw everything coming at me despite going slow.” Something needed to change.
Thus, about nine months following the accident Hunter found himself waiting at the start line of the Boston Marathon with a group of visually impaired runners, including the chief executive officer of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Thomas Panek, and asked him a question.
“I asked Thomas, ‘You’re a CEO of a guide dog school, you have my eye condition, you’re a marathoner and you also have a guide dog, what do you think about jogging with a guide dog?”
Fast-forward to Klinger’s graduation ceremony this past weekend and it’s clear Hunter’s mere suggestion became a reality.
In addition to Klinger’s regular guide work training, his running guide curriculum consisted of running three days per week, starting with 1-mile runs then slowly building his stamina up to 5K and 10K distances. He’s logged more than 200 miles.
“Klinger learned how to responsibly guide his handler in various environments, anywhere from a small town back road with no sidewalks, all the way to the big city environment of Manhattan, ” says Jolene Hollister, Klinger’s primary trainer at Guiding Eyes for the Blind. “He even guided me on two blindfolded runs to demonstrate his ability to safely guide at a running pace.”
Having passed all the initial tests and attended graduation, Klinger now joins Hunter in his home city of Sacramento, Calif. The next step is to ease Klinger into the new 10K and half-mile loops Hunter runs regularly within his neighborhood. A trainer from Guiding Eyes for the Blind will also be arriving on Wednesday, Aug. 26, to assist with the transition and to ensure the process is executed safely for both Klinger and Hunter.
Klinger will not be guiding Hunter in races due to the mass crowds of people running in the same direction, a distraction that can pose a risk to both guide dog and visually impaired runner. However, Klinger is undoubtedly Hunter’s most loyal running guide and companion on and off the road, changing his life for the better.
“Klinger loves to run and he’s an outstanding guide dog. I have full confidence in him,” Hunter says. “And the best thing about having Klinger as a running buddy is that he can’t cancel on me last minute.”
The two are beginning their training for this year’s California International Marathon.