Meet Klinger, the First Certified Running Guide Dog | Runner’s World

I received this from a list that I am on and those of you who run may be interested in this.

for those of you with guidedogs

Meet Klinger, the First Certified Running Guide Dog | Runner’s World

A pilot program is exploring how running guide dogs can be a safe option for visually impaired athletes.

By Ali Nolan Friday, August 21, 2015, 1:30 pm

Richard Hunter, a former United States Marine and avid runner, started losing his sight in 1989. Klinger, a German Shepherd, will be his first running guide dog. Photo by Yanush Sanmugaraja

On Saturday, the Guiding Eyes for the Blind school in Yorktown Heights, New York, will hold a graduation ceremony and welcome a new fleet of guide dogs to their homes outside the academy. Among the pack is a special German Shepherd named Klinger, who will graduate as the first-ever certified running guide dog.

Klinger, at 2 years old, is the only dog to have been raised and trained through the school’s Running Guides pilot program. After six months of specialized training and more than 200 miles logged, Klinger will finally get to start living with his new handler, Richard Hunter.

Hunter, 48, was a second lieutenant in the United States Marines when he was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa in 1989. The condition causes a gradual decline in vision and left Hunter legally blind. As Hunter’s sight diminished, he found his life changing in dramatic ways, but it didn’t prevent him from setting goals and continuing to race in endurance events.

“There were a lot of things I couldn’t do anymore,” Hunter told Runner’s World Newswire. “But I knew I had to focus on what I could do, especially as an example to my three daughters. The Marines taught me to love running, and one thing I could do was run.”

Hunter built up a solid record racing. He qualified for his first Boston Marathon in 2008 by running a 3:18 at the 2007 California International Marathon. He’s run four more Bostons, and now does triathlons, finishing the 2011 Florida Ironman in 11 hours and 55 minutes, making him the second visually impaired athlete with a guide to complete an Ironman in less than 12 hours.

But in 2013, two hours into a five-hour bike ride while training for Ironman Lake Tahoe, Hunter and his guide were struck nearly head-on by a vehicle.

“I went all the way through the windshield headfirst and woke up inside the car,” he said. “I had my helmet broken in two. I was helicoptered to the hospital and later sent home in a neck brace with a hospital bed that I had to use for three months.”

Despite suffering two facial fractures and a broken neck, Hunter trained for and ran the 2014 Boston Marathon nine months after the accident. Still, Hunter knew something needed to change.

“My middle daughter, Lindsay, had grown increasingly concerned about my safety after the accident and started asking when I was going to get a guide dog,” Hunter said. “I told her if a guide program would ever allow me to jog with a dog, I would do it right away because I would be able to train more freely.”

* * *

It was at that Boston Marathon where Hunter met Thomas Panek, the CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit that provides services for individuals who are visually impaired and have special needs. Panek was also a marathoner who used a human sighted guide for racing, but for day-to-day activities he had his guide dog. The two discussed Hunter’s idea of a more dedicated guide dog running program.

From there, Panek brought the idea to his board and staff members at Guiding Eyes. His team decided to explore the best way to make running with a guide dog safe for both the handler and animal.

“What we realized was that people were running with their guide dogs anyway,” said Ben Cawley, a trainer at Guiding Eyes. “A lot of handlers were taking their dogs running, and we wanted to make this a formal program to increase safety. So we took a really conservative approach as we developed the program.”

Knowing that an increased pace would magnify the challenges the dog faced when navigating busy streets, Cawley and the other trainers decided on a walking pace in areas of high traffic. They also limited the number of routes the dog would learn to two, and they started with a 5K as the goal distance.

The handle was modified in consideration for the ergonomics of the dog and human, and the handle allows the dog’s front legs full range of motion. The school also knew it had to choose the right dog.

Besides his love of running, there were other things that made Klinger an obvious choice. “Klinger has a nice drive to work,” said Jolene Hollister, another trainer who worked closely with the dog. “He wants to have a job and purpose and wants to please his handler. He also has an undying amount of stamina. He loves to play ball, and that was our first step in building up his endurance.”

After lots of games of fetch and retrieve, Hollister started taking Klinger on mile-long runs, gradually getting him going. The team would introduce distractions and things like intersections and street crossings for Klinger to clear. Once he was able to navigate those obstacles, they increased pace. To ensure total safety for when Hunter would become Klinger’s owner, the trainers ran 25 percent of the runs blindfolded.

Hunter has been running with Klinger for three weeks on the routes near the Guiding Eyes school. After graduation, Cawley will travel with Hunter back to his home outside of Sacramento to help Klinger adjust to two set routes. In addition to normal guide dog duties, Klinger will guide his new handler through three to four slow runs per week.

<img class="media-element file-default" typeof="foaf:Image" src="http://www.runnersworld.com/sites/runnersworld.com/files/styles/article_main_image_2200px/public/richard-and-klinger-fdr-sunrise.jpg?itok=w2nGZstK" alt="" />

Klinger will run with Hunter three to four days a week and, just like human runners, have designated rest days. Photo by Yanush Sanmugaraja

“On a busy sidewalk, we go at about a nine-minute pace,” Hunter said. “But on a clear trail, we can get down to eight-minute miles.”

All of Klinger and Hunter’s runs are primarily for training. Because guide dogs do their best work away from large crowds, Klinger will not be Hunter’s eyes in races.

The Guiding Eyes team will be monitoring the new running duo’s progress and looking to see how many years the pair can run together. But even if the exploration phase takes time before they bring more dogs into the running program, Hunter is hopeful that this will change running for the visually impaired.

“One of my greatest passions is helping my fellow visually impaired and blind peers,” he said. “I know blind runners who have trained for races exclusively on treadmills. This could get them outside or get some to lace up sneakers for the first time.”

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