Spike loves to run. Just about all Labs and Goldens do, but not all of them have the discipline and training to jog for three or more miles alongside a human without stopping to sniff everything in sight.
I tried running with Spike for the first time earlier this week, for any serious distance, and he loved it. There were lots of distractions too. Central Park has civilian dogs (who don’t have to follow any rules), small children running around, and the biggest distraction of all: the horse-drawn carriages. We clocked 1.5 miles and Spike remained focused through it all. It was great training for both of us.
This Sunday, March 17, three dogs with a lot more miles under their belt will do something that hasn’t been done before. They will run the NYC Half Marathon alongside Tom Panek, the CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Tom, who is blind, is an accomplished runner and will be running with this team of guide dogs specially trained by Guiding Eyes to support visually impaired runners.
In 2015, Guiding Eyes started a program where they train some of their dogs to be able to perform all their guiding tasks while running. During advanced training, the trainers assess which of the dogs might be a good fit for their Running Guides training. (These are the ones that are always running a little out front in their training, plus have the right mix of personality and activity level.) Such dogs can provide a unique experience for their partner, being able to run outside, independently, without having to coordinate with a sighted running companion or only run on treadmills. As you can imagine, running outside presents additional risks, particularly elevation changes – think sidewalks, curbs, and stairs – and these Running Guides are trained to think quickly while running to avoid such obstacles.
Gus is Tom’s current guide dog, and they have logged many miles running together. But dogs (again, like many people) can’t jog for more than a few miles. So guide-dogs-in-training Waffle and Westley will accompany Tom for the first two legs of this 14-legged team, and eventually hand off the baton to anchor dog Gus, who will bring it home with Tom. (Westley and Waffle are brother and sister, and almost ready to graduate and become someone’s guide dog. Waffle is the fastest member of the team — and the only girl. Woof!)
As you’ll see in many of the photos, the dogs are wearing booties. That’s because they’ve been training in the winter, and the salt that is used on the streets and sidewalks can be very irritating to the dogs paws. They also have special ‘athletic’ harnesses, custom made by Ruffwear. These nylon harness allow for freer movement of their legs than the regular harnesses worn by guide dogs.
One frequent question people often ask is, "How safe is running for dogs?" The answer varies, but often it's very safe, and can prevent canine obesity and other health issues. But dogs are known to stoically run through minor injuries, which can make things worse. To combat this, Guiding Eyes trains their human partners how to identify changes in pace or hesitation that might indicate subtle injury.
Guiding Eyes has a total of 24 dogs that have completed the program. Another 12 are halfway through, having completed their advanced training and waiting to finish home training with their partners. Guiding Eyes, like Spike’s organization Canine Companions, is a non-profit that provides service dogs – free of charge – to their graduates. And right now, there are countless people on their waiting list who would like a Running Guides dog.
Please help Spike and I cheer on Waffle, Westley, Gus and Tom at the NYC half marathon this weekend. Because, baby, they were born to run.
Tips for Running With Your Dog
The program used by Guiding Eyes Running Guides follows the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Guidelines for Safe Running. To keep you and your pet safe when running, follow these simple rules:
- Consult your veterinarian before starting your dog on any exercise program. Make sure your pet is healthy enough and ready to run.
- If your dog is overweight, running isn’t the best way to start. Talk to your veterinarian about a diet and gradual exercise program that begins with walks and gradually works up to running.
- Do not begin running with your dog until you are confident that your dog has good leash manners.
- Plan your route. Know where you’re going, as well as places to take a break if you or your dog needs to cool off.
- Start with shorter distances and gradually build up.
- Take enough water for you and your dog.
- Do not run during the warm hours of the day during the warm seasons, and avoid the coldest times of day during winter unless your dog tolerates the weather extremes. During extreme weather, you should probably leave your pet at home (and also consider your own safety when deciding whether or not to run outdoors in extreme weather conditions).
- If your dog must wear a jacket/coat while running in cool/cold weather, make sure the jacket fits well, doesn’t have hanging straps that could tangle in your dog’s legs, and doesn’t interfere with your dog’s leg movements, breathing, sight, hearing or ability to open his/her mouth.
- Watch for signs of a problem while running, such as: lameness, sudden stopping, change in attitude, reddened gums, labored breathing or excessive panting. If you notice any of these signs, stop running immediately and seek veterinary help.
- Check your dog’s paw pads and legs after each running session for skin damage, swelling or pain.
- If you run in ice or snow, rinse your dog’s feet (including the spaces between the toes and paw pads) thoroughly after each running session to make sure you’ve washed off the salt (and ice melter), and consider using paw protectors.
- Do you stretch before and/or after a run? Your dog might also benefit from his. Consider learning how to appropriately stretch your dog’s legs.