Runner Thomas Panek recently became the first blind man to finish the United Airlines Half Marathon in New York City along with the help of a few furry pals.
Waffle, Westley and Gus are three highly-trained running guide dogs who aided Panke as he ran the 13-mile race through New York City.
All the dogs are Labrador Retrievers and Gus in particular (the pup who paced Panek for the final 5K of the race) was the first running guide dog to complete a New York Road Runners event.
“It’s a long race, but dogs are running creatures and they love to move and run,” Panek shared with ABC station WABC.
“A lot of times, when we’re walking our dogs, we are holding them back. They want to get out and have fun, and they love it.”
Panek ran the half marathon to raise money for blind athletes to get service dogs that could guide as well as run with them.
“There’s a big demand from people who have vision loss that want to be active, want to be, well, like the rest of us, want to get out there with their dog,” Panek shared with WABC.
Panek added how the dogs help him to navigate curbs, other runners, and potholes.
“The biggest obstacle is getting it done at a faster pace, moving with the dog and keeping our footwork together,” he said. “Like everybody else, one step at a time.”
So how exactly are dogs trained to become guide dogs?
Training is not an easy feat for either the instructors or the dogs, according to How Stuff Works.
To be sure the dogs are ready to begin, most schools test them extensively prior to training.
“The tests are designed to assess the dogs’ self-confidence level, since only extremely confident dogs will be able to deal with the pressure of guiding instruction. If a dog passes the tests, it begins the training program right away.”
While different schools have different programs, training usually lasts four to five months.
To ensure that the dogs master each and every complex guide skills, instructors introduce them to each idea gradually.
“Once they have introduced what is expected of the dog, training is essentially a matter of rewarding correct performance and punishing incorrect performance. This works with dogs because they are pack animals and have a natural need to please an authority figure.”
The instructor takes on this alpha dog role, aka the leader of the pack.
But guide dog training is not quite like normal obedience training as food is not used as a reward for good performance.
This is due guide dogs needing to be around food without having it as a distraction.
Instructors instead use praise or other reward systems to encourage correct performance.
“The standard means of correction is pulling on the dog’s leash, so that it pulls a training collar, giving the dog a slight pinch. Using this basic reward/punishment system, instructors work through the necessary skills for guiding.”
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