athletics, guide dogs, independence, running, sports, training
OK, I’m going to say something completely obvious: Guide dogs are bred and trained to be guides. Well, DUH! But in addition to being guides, they are dogs, with all the needs, desires and interests of other living beings. In honour of National Dog Day earlier this week, let me introduce you to several dogs – including mine – who have some pretty cool hobbies .
Jenny is a runner. She has a runner’s body with sleek lines and long legs. If it were up to her, we would run everywhere. Since six months of the year our sidewalks and streets are covered in ice, that’s a pretty scary proposition. But about six months ago, when the snow melted and we had both experienced a severely prolonged case of cabin fever, I decided to channel some of that running energy, get myself back in to running, and take her out for a short jog around the neighborhood. I had a harness made for her that we use exclusively for running, and as time went by we increased distance, ramped up the pace, and threw in street crossings and other distractions and complications. As of this writing, we have done two runs longer than 3 km, each a little bit faster than the one before, and I’m hoping to get up to 5 km before the snow sets in. I listen to myself and my dog, and we decide together what the pace is, when we’re done, and afterward Jenny gets rewarded with a whole bowl of water and – depending on her mood – a seriously good game of tug or an extended nap sprawled in the middle of the floor.
But I am by no means alone in running with my guide. Last week, Guiding Eyes dog Klinger became one of the first guide dogs to be trained as a running guide dog. This article made the rounds of social media, and while I believe it does have some representation errors (no guide dog is “certified”, they are trained; and this guide dog team was also trained as a running guide years before Klinger), I think it’s great that guide dog programs are putting in the work for athletes who wish to bond with their dogs in this way. As stated in one of the articles, many of us have trained our guides ourselves to run moderate distances, but if someone doesn’t feel safe, or doesn’t have the knowledge, skills or willingness to train their dog to do this safely, if trainers and schools recognize all the wonderful things that have and can come of safely running with a guide dog, the more independent a blind person can be.
But running isn’t the only “guide” sport that a guide dog can enjoy. My friend Rox has owner-trained several guide dogs, and has run with many of them. She has done agility courses with some and herding with others as a form of training, sport and recreation for the dogs’ “down-time”, and is currently laying the ground work to be able to go bikejoring and skijoring with her current guide, Soleil. The ground work for some of these activities builds on the skills that the dog already possesses, but changes some of the feedback that a guide dog team gives and receives.
My friend Brooke has several dogs, and has done tracking, field work, confirmation, and other activities with them. Due to a recent timing conflict, she found herself bringing her guide dog, Rogue, to a field lesson with Arizona (the “real” student), and decided to try fostering some healthy competition between the dogs. It went well enough that she decided to work with Rogue on this skill, alongside the tracking and confirmation shows (and I’m sure a million other activities) she already has on her resume.
Some of these activities are enjoyed with the support of traditional guide dog schools; some can only be enjoyed by owner-trainers or under the radar, as a traditional guide dog school may deem them against a guide’s training, or unsafe for the team. But at the end of the day, if activities can be enjoyed by a dog and its partner alike, can be performed safely with training either by a school or by the handler, and it improves the dog’s confidence and doesn’t affect the dog’s work, then let’s have at it! I have found for myself – and Rox, Brooke, and many others have expressed to me – that giving our working dogs these physical and mental outlets, the stronger our bond, the more focused and confident the dog’s work, the more training tools we have as handlers, and the happier everyone is. Now, if anyone can tell me how to keep every single neighborhood dog from barking at Jenny and I while we go running past…