Our ongoing series "A More Perfect Union" aims to show that what unites us as Americans is far greater than what divides us. In this installment we learn about the growing effort to train dogs not just to be guides, but also to be athletes.
One stride at a time, Tom Panek and his guide dog, Gus, inch closer to their goal. The two have been training in local parks for more than three years with the hopes of competing in an officially-sanctioned long-distance race. It's never been done before, reports CBS News' Don Dahler.
"I've been running my whole life. I ran on my cross-country team in high school, and I ran as a young adult," Panek said.
Panek is the CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a non-profit program that provides guide dogs and services at no cost to the blind community. He lost his sight 25 years ago and with it, his independence.
"When I lost my sight I was too scared to run," Panek said.
As he adjusted to his blindness, he began running with a human guide, but it wasn't the same. Panek still missed the independence he once had.
"Although many people run with running clubs, at the end of the day you're running your own race. And when you're tied to another person, it's no longer your own race. The independence isn't quite there," Panek said.
We first caught up with Panek two years ago, when he became the CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind. The idea of a running guide program was first suggested by former marine Richard Hunter, who was blind and looking to get back in to running. The two met at the Boston Marathon in 2015.
"Richard shouted out, 'I'm really curious, have you ever trained a guide dog to run?' And I said, 'I don't know. It hasn't been done,'" Panek said.
A few months and intense training sessions later, the running guide program was born. Panek and a small team helped train Klinger, a German shepherd, to aid Hunter with running.
"Baseline skill set for a guide dog and running dog are the same. They're looking for overhead obstacles and making sure that the person who's blind like me remains safe as we're mobile," Panek said.
He formed a team of experts to train a small group of dogs, mostly Labrador retrievers and German shepherds, to run long distances. The dogs begin their training at 18 months old. It's an exclusive club. Out of 165 graduate dogs, only about 12 are considered race ready.
Ben Cawley manages the Guiding Eyes running program, just 40 miles north of New York City. He works with a small team of trainers every day on over 300 distinct skills that include endurance, agility and awareness.
"So we do an initial evaluation run, and it's usually pretty obvious at that point on that run. They're willing to go faster and they enjoy the running," Cawley said.
But the team's ultimate test would be a five-mile race through New York's Central Park just one week before the New York City Marathon. It was Panek's and Gus's first competitive race. Before the race, Panek was overcome with emotion, wiping away his tears of appreciation to the dog who gave him his independence back.
Once the race began, it was like a walk in the park, complete with their own cheering section. The duo made regular, precautionary pit stops, giving Gus a needed water break and getting his pulse and paws checked by a vet.
Despite the unforgiving weather and hordes of runners, the team finished strong.
"And crossing that finish line, you know it was a momentous occasion for me," Panek said.
The bond between runner and man's best friend grows, one stride at a time.
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