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S2: Hello and welcome to working the show about what people do all day. I’m your host, Shannon Polys. I’m a writer at Slate, where I cover health and wellness. This season, we’re talking about the world of running with athletes, coaches and people who do all manner of things to help others go for rides.
S3: This week, we’re talking to Thomas Panic, the CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind. An organization that gives people the visual impairments, highly trained dogs that can help them navigate the world or run through it. Thomas created a running guides program to train dogs to take people on runs. He’s also the first person to complete a half marathon with the help of a relay team of dogs. I really enjoy talking to him and his own guide dog players sat in on the interview.
S4: What is your name and what do you do? My name is Thomas Panic and I am president and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind. We’re a guide dogs school that provides guide dogs to people with vision loss. And you also help dogs learn how to run. We do, actually. The dogs know how to run. They’re running creatures. They love to run.
S5: They’re made to run and they run for fun. We just hang on and train them to guide at a faster working pace. So something comes very naturally to them. You know, we humans try to run. They’re built to run.
S1: And so you recently ran a half marathon with a relay team of guide dogs. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
S5: Oh, my goodness. Yeah, it was amazing. I had an opportunity to run with three wonderful dogs, Wesley, who was a big black lab. And you woke me up in the morning snoring like a bullfrog and sort of said, we’re gonna do this. We started in Prospect Park and we made our way to the really point was about five miles in, picked up another dog named Waffle Sweet little yellow. A lot of energy. And over that Manhattan Bridge and all the way into Central Park with my own guide dog, Gus, who retired at the finish line. So happy to say we made it.
S1: And so that race, that’s a pretty crowded race. You’re running through the streets of New York. There are tons of people. You can hear cars. How does a dog stay calm during that ride?
S6: Well, you know, getting us for the blind has guide dogs that are first and foremost bred for health in temperament and in order to be a guide dog. They really do choose their job. You know, like people, they are selected based on what they enjoy doing. So we wouldn’t have selected a dog if it didn’t like running down the middle of Forty Second Street with the wagging tail and sort of a smile on their face and the dogs that do make it to that level of training. Only about a third of them make it. The other two thirds either go to other service dog careers detection work or even a family pet. So we’re really talking about the dogs that enjoy that kind of work and that work pressure and the ability to navigate around all of that chaos in crowds. So that’s essentially how they got to be. But it’s still a high bar. So, you know, a lot of pressure for a dog to guide a blind person, you know, through that kind of environment. But we do that every day with more than a thousand graduates out there that are working with their guide dogs and when class comes on the campus. And our Yorktown Heights training center, people who are blind come from all over the United States and Canada. Their last day is to be able to travel through Manhattan. So every dog has to have that ability.
S1: Right. So that sounds like the skill between being a regular service dog who can take you for a walk. John, 40 seconds rate is kind of that same scale of focus and, you know, not running after a burger stand.
S7: Yeah. No, I think it is the same baseline skill set. Very well said. And it’s for running guide. It’s really choosing a dog out of all those dogs that say, you know, I want to work at a faster pace. Your dog’s natural working pace is a human’s jogging pace. So I think about the physiology of a dog. They are 100 more bones and we humans do. Obviously, they’ve got four paws and they’ve got powerful hind legs and you know, they’re really low center of gravity. Compare that to us. Humans were tall. You know, we’ve got these big toes. We keep on falling forward and our arms flailing in the air wildly. I mean, you know, to them we look like, I don’t know, clowns basically running down the street. But, you know, for them, running is a very natural thing. It’s what they enjoy doing. I mean, if you, you know, watch a dog and you let them free, they’re gonna run and run into the neighbor’s yard and chase around and find other dog to run with. I mean, if you ran into your neighbor’s yard and started chasing your neighbor around in a circle, some would say call the police or hide. So it’s what they love to do. And it’s just capturing that energy and that willingness and that desire to run and putting them with the person who’s behind and setting that blind person free. And that’s what that race was all about, is saying it could be done. And very proud to say that getting lights for the blind team stood behind the effort and got those dogs on location, trained, ready and willing, able to guide me. I had the easy part. I just had to hold the harness and follow the dog. Does the dog pick the pace? The dog does set the pace. And Wesley, the black lab I talked about earlier, you know, he was pacing from Prospect Park, not so far away from the studio here. He was running, you know, in the eight to eight thirty range. And that was his comfort zone. And waffle picked up the pace. By large margins, she was in the 7s high 6s, which is fast, high. She’s fat. And that’s not even her maximum, so she’s well sportscar, and when she emerged on to the Manhattan Bridge, it was like, you know, she was merging onto Lomong or something. Yes. And, you know, as a matter of fact, we got so much momentum going down the Manhattan Bridge on the other side, this pain to realize until you walk these New York bridges, how steep they are on both sides. But you do get some momentum in the downhill. We were probably in the 630 range minute per mile pace, maybe pull off faster than that. And then we had to take a very sharp turn to the right. And I felt the harness go around and we were going so quickly that we spun around. I was like spun out. And then she sat down.
S6: She said that I do good, that I do good. So I give her a treat. OK, I’ll get back on the course now. So it has. And so she was faster and Gus was slower. You know, Gus was my seven year old guide dog and he was guiding through Central Park, which was actually the most complex part of the route. Once you get into lower Manhattan, expecting the dogs to be able to know where to go, nowhere to turn and sort of navigate through the chaos of the crowds cheering. The funny thing is, I didn’t know when I would cross the finish line. You don’t teach a dog the finish line, right. So. So you’re just gonna keep going. Is either eventually stop. But. But I could hear people shouting his name. He was wearing a very specially designed vest. New York roadrunners were fantastic in his race. Bib was printed on his vest and had his name Gus on instead of the number. So I heard people yelling, you go, Gus, you’re almost there. You’re almost there. And so that’s how I knew the finish line was coming.
S1: What does a fast for racing look like and how is that different from a normal dog?
S7: Well, traditionally, if people have seen service dogs or guide dogs, a guide dog traditionally has a leather vest. It almost looks like a horse and buggy days. It has a steel handle that goes to the back and it has a belt buckle that buckles onto the dog’s belly and it sort of sits on top of the shoulders. And the person who’s blind holds onto that and gets all of the tactile feedback about where the dog is going through that other vest or a harness. Let’s say the running vest is very different. Great, wonderful organization out in Portland, Oregon. RUFF Wh-Where helped design this thing together with Guiding Eyes for the Blind called the unit fly. And essentially what it is, is it’s like running clothes for the dog goes around. The dog doesn’t restrict the shoulders, looks like a life vest for a dog or avalanche rescue vest on top of it as a ski binding booting. But who skis? No side there clicks into the ski binding that’s on top of the back. And on top of that is a ski pole. And the pole is about the length of and Barela, let’s say. And on the end is a handle that I hold on to. In this case, it was 3D printed in my hand because it’s a lot of miles to do holding onto something. And that’s the only feedback I get for the running course. You know, imagine like closing our eyes and try to find a refrigerator in your apartment or running down 13 miles through New York City, America’s biggest city. You’ve got so many obstacles and I don’t know what they are. And that’s a pedestrian or if that’s a light poster, you know, another runner slowing down. All I feel is this pull in my hand attached to this vest. And the dog essentially very smoothly moves left to right. And it’s almost like flying. You feel the UI and the and the handle and you sort of feel it go left and right. And the role in the pitch, just like you would sort of like an airplane, but you’re moving along at a steady clip and sort of like dancing. You’re really following the footwork of the dog and you know that a running dog is dialed in when you’re footfall is perfectly in sync.
S1: That’s on. So. So I had a lot of fun. So you worked with this brand to design those specially for for this purpose?
S6: Yes. So the running vest is designed specifically for the purpose of running. But we’ve seen graduates adopt that vest for regular guide work. And it’s it’s lightweight. It’s it’s really incredible. Design took a lot of really fly. And I have to give credit to a gentleman named Timothy Kobold, who is out in Portland. He was an aerospace engineer, joined rough weather dog company and said, you know, we want to help you guys. And they do a lot of avalanche work where dogs are going and, you know, have a load bearing harness. And we said, you know, we want to make something that really is comfortable for the dog, doesn’t restrict the shoulders can be washed because, you know, you want to wash this things after a while and also really gives the feedback. And this is what took a lot of effort, the blind person’s feedback through the harness handle is all we get. So it had to be sort of durable enough to give us feedback and yet flexible enough to mesh with the biomechanics of the dog. So we actually went up to M.I.T and asked some students to take this up as a project in the open style lab up at M.I.T. helped design kind of how the biomechanics of the dog meet. Human, so we. We move arms back and forth. I was joking about earlier. But what we what the dog does, it’s a parallel plane. So the dog is essentially moving on a horizontal plane and were, you know, moving arms back and forth. So you’re trying to put those two things together. So there’s a very nice hinge on the harness handle that allows for that movement. And yet I can still feel where the dog is. So it’s really an ingenious design. And again, it’s like running close for the dog and the boots. Of course, when you have a lot of salt in the city or you’ve got heat on the concrete during the summertime, just like our feet is protecting their paws and making sure that it’s still comfortable enough for the dog. I notice something really incredible about the boots. You know, if you put booties on your dog for the first time, put a boot on your dog. They’ll probably do a little bit of Scooby Doo and not really want to walk or try to chew them off. Our dogs have been massage from the time that they were born. So they’re really accustomed to being touched and having things on their body in preparation of being guide dogs or puppy raisers. Do a great job. They’re volunteers who volunteer to raise these dogs in their home and then they give them away to somebody like me who can’t see and those boots when the dog wears them. I thought they would go slower. I thought, no, you’re going to wear these shoes are going to go. So they actually went faster with the shoes because they were more comfortable and less conscious about what they might step on during the race. So it really did help keep them on pace.
S1: That’s so interesting. Yeah, a lot of dogs actually like they’re stuck in concrete. I’ve seen that. Yeah, it’s very funny. Yeah, it doesn’t seem very effective. What does a dog running as you look like?
S6: Well, the half marathon was St. Patrick’s Day, so there were green and the running shoe again was a looks like a boot. It goes just over on the front paws. Labradors have these do claws or thumbs that they have and they hit the ground when they’re running at running pace. And it just sort of goes right over there. And the best way I can describe is if you thought about like a doggie wearing boots their size two. So two and a half to three. Three was Wesley. So he was the big foetid, you know, had the big feet and the crew. And they’re just adorable. I mean, if you’ve ever had a toddler, they look a lot like toddler shoes.
S1: When was the first time you went for a run with a guide dog?
S7: So the first time I ever went for a run with a guide dog formally trained God, it was Gus. And I did that back in 2015 and it was a local park and we didn’t have a harness designed. So I took a cane and I taped it to the back. The dog’s harness and I probably look pretty silly, but we were just wondering if this could be done in a couple of my teammates over right. Guiding us for the blind. Worked with me to say, is this even practical or possible? And that was a very first time and it was pretty incredible feeling. First of all, you got to trust that dog. There has to be that bond of loyalty and trust. It’s one thing to attach yourself a dog, but you’re not going to go very quickly unless you really trust. That being is looking out for your well-being.
S1: What does that experience feel like compared to running with a human guide?
S7: Well, look, human guides are great. When I decide that I’m not in the mood to run or I’m in the mood to run or I feel great that morning or in the evening, I want to go for her run. I’ve got to call up a friend who also wants to run is in the same mood to run as near nearby enough to run and is, you know, is able, willing and ready. And so I’ve run more than 20 marathons that way. But, you know, running with a human guide is kind of a contact sport. You get your lesson rights mixed up. And, you know, when you’re doing a long distance race, it’s like having a back seat driver telling you what to do every step of the way. Three to one left or three to one right or stop. No, I meant right. No, I meant left. And before you know it, you’re either bumping into something or tripping. And it’s wonderful. Human guides volunteering to help a blind runner and to help a blind runner. And a long distance race has been sort of tried and true. And it’s a great partnership. But I’ve always had guide dogs for more than 25 years. I’ve always felt that these guide dogs are so capable and so able to guide us safely. Never a bumper, a scrape with a guide dog. You know, this is what they do. And they love to run and I love to run. And so why not let them run free and do it safely? So that’s something that Guiding Eyes for the Blind embarked on with the Running Guides program and got a great team of people. We’ve got two full time runners that go into the kennel and find the dogs that are willing and able to run and pace them and see, you know, what they’re like. And so during the training process, it’s just a matter of sort of finding out which dogs love to run. Pairing that with people who either aspire to run or are runners are ready. So have everything from Paralympic athletes to people who say, hey, you know what, I want to run one day. Never been allowed to run independently with my guide dog. Let’s make this happen.
S1: So when you’re going for it, just a training jog with guys or another guide dog, do you follow a prescribed route that the dog is familiar with? Or is the dog able to just take you out into the world?
S6: Well, a guide is able to take you up in the world anywhere you want to go. And so it’s looking for a kerbs, elevator, buttons, escalators. They’re taught to target things in a running guide. We really emphasize the safety of it. So if you have a favorite running path or something with less traffic or it’s a, you know, a track at your local school. Those are the type environments that the running guides really enjoy because they can just focus on the running. We don’t recommend picking up the harness and running down 40 Second Street. That’s a very unusual occasion. And we’ve had graduates from there running guys program running and 5K races and 10K races and really enjoying being with the dog. But it should be a familiar route or a route that’s well marked for runners. And that way we can keep it safe and everybody happy.
S1: How do you find out what a dog’s pace is going to be so you don’t, you know, stick someone with a dog who’s gonna do a six, 30 minute mile not expecting.
S6: We spent a lot of time. We have field reps look at it throughout the United States who meet with the person who’s blind and they say, I think I want to guide dog. And they’ll they will call this thing called juno.. Essentially, they walk with the harness in their hand without the dogs, it’s the invisible dog. And we will take the humans walking pace. We all have a preferred walking pace. Some of us are casual strollers. Some of us are, you know, always needing to get to that place. And so we generally walk as humans between, you know, somewhere between two and four and a half miles an hour and you get to five miles an hour, you start that jog. And so we do match dogs every day with people based on their walking pace. The Running Guides program, we have two people I mentioned earlier, actually, two retired New York Police Department detectives who decided to up their second careers running. And they take the dogs on the kennel and they can, Mike, and they pace them. They say, OK, this dog’s name is Wish. This one’s dream. I mentioned those two because they recently did evaluate those two. And let’s see how quickly they’ll want to go. And once they determine this is a 10 minute mile dog or this is a 12 minute mile dog or this is a seven minute mile dog, well, then look at who’s coming into class and what their pace set is and what their preferences and we’ll match the two. So it’s really about finding people just like if you’re in a running club or if you are a distance runner, you always have your sort of pace, set your goal. You want to make sure the dog is well-matched and enjoys the running. We never push the dog to go faster than it would otherwise run. That’s something that the dog sets the pace. And they they’ve also got a lot of fun. We have booties for them, essentially running shoes that they wear when they’re out and about to protect their feet. And hydration is a big part of it, making sure that just like humans, they’re able to get their water and little extra food if they’re running more miles and a vet check. So we have veterinarians on staff that make sure that the dogs are ready to go and, you know, sort of doing it safely. I’ll tell you one thing, during the half marathon, we did a vet check and the heart rate of the dog barely increased. It was my heart rate that was racing for them. You know, they’re trying along fairly evenly. That’s really us humans that have to put in that full effort. How does a dog train for a race so dogs condition just like we humans do based on distance. So I have Bleys with me. He’s at my feet. He’s a yellow lab. He’s just a happy fellow. And he’s been running with me, graduated in June with him after after Gus got retired at the finish line. And you know, Bleys and I’ve been working our way up in the mile. So we started with, you know, a mile run and that we did a couple more miles. And, you know, now we’re able to pretty much run together at whatever mile distance that we’re in the mood to do. But I always let him set the mileage. The other day we went on. So let’s do six miles. And, you know, we took a little bit of a break and he did another another five miles on top of that. So it really just depends on, you know, the mood. And when your dog starts to slow down, you say, OK, we’re gonna stop now. You never want to push him past their ability. But believe it or not, dogs, as I mentioned, they really love to run, you know, if we humans were born to run. You’ve heard that expression. Humans are born to run. Chris McDougall and a few other people have claimed that. I think he’s wonderful, Chris. But to be honest with you. Dogs were born to run and they were born to run free. So a lot of this program is just giving them the ability to get out there and do that and sort of giving them that exercise. The least healthy thing you can do with a pet dog is not to exercise them just like humans. That’s when they start to see joint problems and other arthritic problems. It really has to do with making sure that they get that outlet, whether it’s going to a dog park or taking them on a walk at a walking leisurely pace. You know, they’re usually pulling because they’re trying. To get ahead of you, because, again, their natural pace is a jogging pace. So we teach them how to heel state our heels. But it really is healthy for a dog to get out there and move and run and be active.
S1: Yeah, I was thinking when I was preparing for this interview, I have a little beagle next. She’s 15 pounds and I’ve tried to take her. I’m like jogging runs, which she doesn’t like, but she will spread.
S6: And so if we go to the park and like sprint for a minute, walk, sprint for the sporting breeds like the retrievers and the Spaniels, you know, those are the ones that are sort of Olympic swimmers from the time they’re born. And of course, as we look at the different breeds of dogs, no one very interesting thing about dogs that people know humans. We have 23 chromosomes, dogs up 39. So they’re more flexible, they’re more diverse. And you get all kinds of dogs and all kinds of sizes and shapes and, you know, like your beagle. They might enjoy a quick dash as opposed to, you know, more of like the track star do the 100 yard dash as opposed to the sporting breed, which might be more capable of running a long distance race like a marathon. So I wouldn’t recommend taking any dog out there for this kind of activity. I mean, when I say all dogs, you know, love to run. It is true. But but of course, there are exceptions by breeds and by dog. But it is something that sort of universally dogs enjoy doing. And I’m glad to hear that she gets out there and he let her free.
S1: Yeah. I do not think she would appreciate it. Probably not. What kinds of support do the dogs need during the race? Like humans stop for Gatorade aid. Charles, what is like the dog equivalent of stopping for a job?
S4: Well, it. So they have treats that they get.
S6: And my dogs love quotes called Charlie Bears and they’re essentially almost like a cracker that I feed them throughout the race. And it’s it’s really a positive reinforcement. You’re getting eyes for the blind, which is a lot of positive reinforcement or training. So when they do something, correct, they’re right. We have a keyword, which is. Yes. And so we’ll say yes and we’ll treat them with a Charlie bear. So we’re essentially giving them that positive reinforcement. They’re also calories in those treats. So as as we were going through the race when Waffle, for example, got back and got that treat got our treat back on the course, she’s getting some food. And the other thing we do is water is incredibly important, just like with humans, depending on the temperature of the race day, you want to make sure that your dog is cool and has plenty of water available to them. So our dogs would stop at the water stops. And so, for example, in that case, Waffle stopped at seven mile mark right off the FDR and pulled out a bowl and a collapsible ball with me and took the cups, dumped it in there and should drink as much as she wanted to. And then once she was ready to say, OK, I’ve had enough, we move on. So just like humans, hydration and a little bit of food, if anybody has a great business idea, come up with a dog.
S1: Jill, how did you get into running marathons in the first place? Well, that’s a good question.
S6: I ran cross-country in high school and I was losing my vision in my 20s. You know, your eyes have these two components to them, have rods and cones and rods, help you see things in the dim light and and the cones help you see, you know, your TV in full, vivid detail or your phone. And I noticed that the rods were starting to go and they couldn’t see at night at first. And then my cones started to deteriorate. And essentially running was only sport it could do. I couldn’t play football or baseball. I get whacked in the nose or, you know, tackled. And so I thought, OK, I can run, but I just have to follow the runner in front of me. And so that was my trick. And nobody could understand. This guy never comes in first place. You know, he’s pretty fast. And my coach would say, why didn’t you come in first? And I’d say, you know what? I never told anybody. So. So I started running more and more. And in a marathon environment, there’s a lot of people I’ve just to somebody with a bright colored shirt and I follow them. And eventually it didn’t really work too well, as in Chicago Marathon.
S8: And I was going into this dark area under McCormick Place and been to Chicago. And I ran right into a steak which was in the middle of the road. And so shouldn’t be doing this anymore. So I stopped running for a long, long time. And then I was hearing about human guides and how effective a human guide can be. And so I started like anybody start with a short race like a 5K than it did a 10K. Then I said, I think I can do a half, but I’m not quite sure that I did a half with human guides. And eventually I said I’ve got to qualify for, you know, for Boston because that’s the pinnacle of being able to run. I ran five Boston marathons in a row. And, you know, in the visually impaired division did incredibly well. And so really relying on human guides has been my my thing. And I I think I would call it running through blindness. You know, blindness is very hard. It’s a darkening world. It’s a narrow tunnel for people with visual impairment like me who lose her sight and a peripheral vision and, you know, trying to stay positive, trying to get out there every day, trying to do something with other people. All these things are incredibly important, but there’s even more. Important reason, and that is that if we look at us from a population perspective and vision help from a population perspective, blindness has a lot of issues that go along with it in terms of co-morbidities. So if you’re blind, you unfortunately will have other chronic ailments that go along with that because you’re not moving as much, not as active. So my passion is to help other people who lose their vision, stay active and stay fit. It’s incredibly important. And I just happened to find marathons to be that outlet, whether it’s swimming or biking or just engaging in some physical activity. And now with these running guide dogs, with getting eyes, it’s possible to do at any time walk out my front door. And we have more than 75 people that have these running guides now that that are able to be free.
S1: What did it feel like after that Chicago marathon when you had to say, OK, I need to stop doing this for now?
S8: Well, you know, I think one of the things is sort of accepting your fate and saying, OK, I’m not committed to this anymore. And, you know, you sort of give up and you reach that low point where you say there’s some I love to do, but I can’t do it anymore. And, you know, always takes a very special catalyst, whether it’s a person or something in your life to say, hey, you can do this. And so you just give up what you love. And I think that’s really, really hard to say, OK, I’m not going to be running anymore and not able to do it. I’m just stopping. And that’s a place where you shouldn’t stay very long no matter what your situation is. You know, the idea would be, OK, that may be your fate, but let’s figure out how you can continue to be active and get through it. And it’s like anybody’s story who overcomes adversity. You know, it shouldn’t stop in that place and just say I’m done, which I did. I did for 10 years or so and I could run any marathons I could run anymore. But the nice thing is that once you have that opportunity to get back into it, I think you do it with even more passion because you realize what you’ve lost. So, you know, now with more than 20 marathons under my belt and looking forward to New York this year, I think it’s wonderful to be able to stay active. I’m 50. This year is the 50th running of the New York Marathon and you’ll see me there.
S1: Oh, nice. What did it feel like to run that first race with a guy human again?
S8: Well, with the guide human, I think running that first race was very special, you know, giving me the direction and the feedback and the verbal cues of where things are. It was very meaningful. You know, I would say that running a marathon is not an easy thing. And so to have a human guy do and take care of you and tell you where things are. It was for a blind guy, I must say. It was eye opening.
S1: And what’s your plan for running the New York City marathon this fall?
S8: Well, I think this fall we’re really looking at getting us for the blind, having a team and going into being able to or charity, we hope said funded by donations. So people give selflessly to somebody they don’t even know. And so we’ll run a team into New York to help raise money so that someone who’s blind can have a dog. And I hope to be able to raise enough money to give somebody a running guide dog and hopefully have them meet that dog at the end of the race.
S1: Oh, nice. Are you planning on running with a human guide or are you going to bring guide dogs out for the marathon?
S9: Well, that’s a good question. And I’ve been asked that question a lot. I think it’s not about me anymore. I think it’s about getting other people after the half marathon to really be fit and active. But stay tuned. We shall see. I think, you know, it’s never been done before. The 5K was never done before. The half marathon was never done before. And one of the things we’re very careful about is the health and well-being of the dogs. And a marathon is too long of a race for any dog. So you’d have to put multiple dogs on the course guiding you through that length of a distance. And, you know, fortunately, I have an incredible partnership with the New York Road Runners, great organization that really stepped up to the plate.
S8: And, you know, there was a there was a time in my lifetime that women were not allowed to run marathons. There was a time that wheelchairs were not allowed to participate. There was a time that ambulatory athletes were not allowed to participate in marathons all in my lifetime. If you can believe that. So I think this is another point of inclusion. And including people who are blind being able to run with their dog. And New York is the only place that has accepted that today. And I hope other other road runners around the country and world, in fact, will recognize that a dog, a guide dog is an extension of my being just like a wheelchair or any other prosthetic. And so I can’t even walk from here to the door without him. And so I think that it’s just a matter of pushing the boundaries safely and making sure that the dog is safe and that I’m safe and continue to show people that this is possible. And so, you know, my dream has been, you know, to be able to do a marathon with the dogs. But we’re gonna do it the right way.
S1: Was it hard to get New York Road Runners on board for the half marathon?
S6: It was it was very difficult to. Explain to them that, you know, history is wrong, that conventional wisdom that you should run with a guide dog period was OK, and so it was hard to convince. You know, my own trainers say you’ve been doing this since 1965 and some of our trainers are the most professional guide dog trainers in the world. But just to say, you know, let’s try this. And so I think it’s bucking conventional wisdom and saying, you know, this can be done safely. Let’s prove that it can be done safely. So, you know, you get you get the obvious silly questions like what do you have to do if the dog has to go to the bathroom on course? Well, what do you have to do if a human has to go to the bathroom, find cockroaches? You know what happens if we have to cancel the race? For some reason we need to get the subway. Well, our dogs work the subways every day. Really. You know, it’s just like explaining how capable these dogs are and proving the concept.
S8: And so I think, you know, being able to do it and to it started with a five mile race through Central Park that the New York kickoff race a couple of years back. And then working your way up to saying a half marathon is possible. And since then, it’s been a great partnership. But, you know, when you’re trying to convince hearts and minds that this is something that’s safe for the dog and human, the first thing you do is, OK, this guy’s blind. He’s going to do what? So. And you have to sort of explain, okay, here’s how it’s going to work. And I’m sure that’s been the case since the beginning of time. In terms of participation, inclusion, you’re going to do what, with a wheelchair or push your arm or, you know, why do you want to run? Well, because this is who I am. And it’s just a matter of saying, you know, let me free and I’ll show you what I can do. And we did in two hours, 21 minutes.
S1: So it sounds like one major thing that raises all over can do is start allowing guide dogs and working with guide dogs to run races. Are there any other major things that you would like to see happen in running so it could be more inclusive?
S8: I think that, you know, first of all, running as such an individual sport. And I would like to see I had a young man come to me who is blind with his parents, and they told me that, you know, this sort of inspired the coach of the school to say, OK, you can run. And we do a lot of work with the New York Armory on Washington Street and just kind of getting out there and bringing awareness to kids running. And the coach said, well, you can run the streets, but you can’t run the turns because you’re blind. So that child was running, you know, 40 yards at a time. And so after they saw the race in a half marathon, they said, you know, go around the turn, it’s OK. So I think it’s a matter of just telling people that, you know, no matter what your disability is, it’s that age old story of kind of pushing the boundaries and saying it’s OK. Well, you look, we understand safety. We understand that. But don’t set someone on the bench just because they’re different than you are. You know, give me a chance, see what they can do. And I smile every time somebody in the race said, oh, wait a second, a dog just beat me. Like, how does that happen? So definitely a dog. But there’s somebody blind who’s beating me. They try to keep up. But, you know, it’s like it’s about ability. It’s not about disability. And in this case, what I’d hope is that people would see that people who are blind are just as capable and maybe sometimes a little faster.
S1: Cool. Yeah. And I think it’s awesome that you able to develop the right gear for this, that it’s sometimes it’s just a matter of having the right tool.
S8: I think it’s a matter of having the right tools, the right gear. Again, this unified harness is fantastic. People with the right attitude standing by your side. It takes teamwork. It’s not just me, as I mentioned, it’s somebody waiting at the five mile mark. I had Nick banjoist. And Mike, you know, our guiding ICE team members ready to go and head the dogs ready to go. The boots on high and just doing teamwork, having the right gear and really having the right partnership when you’re Crowder’s. Everything came to go, the stars aligned. I’d like to say and in this case, the dog star aligned.
S1: So we’ve been talking about dogs and running specifically, but you do more than just that. What is an average day at the office look like?
S6: Oh, there is no average day, you know. So as president of Guiding US for the Blind, my work is geared towards making sure that we have the financial resources to provide guide dogs to people at no cost. It takes a lot of donations and donors and supporters and volunteers coming together. We have more than 50 hundred volunteers that raise the dogs. That’s a very special thing to do. We have a genetics program, a canine development program, a specialized training program which helps people with multiple disabilities who might have a balanced challenge or a deaf blind individuals that are getting our guide dog. So it’s working with the community at large to all come together, do something good.
S9: So a typical day may be meeting with someone who potentially wants to support the organization, or it could mean taking a dog out for a run just to see if that dog is going to be capable for somebody and working with the team on that. So a typical day could mean meeting with a donor support of the organization or. A potential volunteer or a puppy raiser who wants to get involved with the organization, that could mean meeting with a corporate partner.
S10: You know, looking at the financials and it could also mean getting on a track and, you know, individually running with dogs to see if they’re all set. So that’s a whole lot of different things, but it’s really just getting the team in place and seeing what the vision is moving forward. For example, you know what’s next. This time we did running guides and we have a specialized training program. What else can we do with these wonderful creatures? These guide dogs? And how can we work together to make that happen so that we meet and help somebody that otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity, whether they’re blind, deaf, blind or have an additional disability? These dogs are so capable. And so we’re always looking, you know, how can we how can we help the dog reach its maximum potential to assist somebody not only as a guide dog, but potentially a guide dog plus.
S1: What is your dream?
S9: Plus, I think the dream that I would have is right now we have a waiting list of about 400 people that are waiting for these dogs. And we’re able to serve about one hundred and sixty five hundred seventy five people. And so imagine if, you know, you wanted to get a bicycle or buy a car or order Nuba or whatever, and you had to wait two years. You know, it’s five minutes away or you can’t buy a car, wait two years. That’s a long time away. And I’d really like to be in a position where if you are visually impaired or have a parent, family member or loved one friend coworker who has a visual impairment that you could say you can go get a guide dog, go to guiding us for the blind, you’ll get one.
S10: You don’t have to wait that long a time. And our waiting list could be anywhere from six months to two years. And a lot of it has to do with resources. You know, people donate, as I mentioned, you know, five dollars, five hundred dollars, five thousand dollars at a time so that someone they don’t even know can get this guide dog. And so my dream would be to have more resources, more volunteers, so that we can provide these wonderful dogs to people and train them to do what the person needs, specifically whether it’s walking, balancing, running or helping them find, you know, their slippers in the morning. So whatever that might be, to keep them safe and active and mobile and to try to address what I called earlier, that public health crisis of people with visual impairments who are blind, which is leading healthy, active lives just like everybody else.
S1: How long have you been CEO of Guiding Lights for the.
S10: So this is my sixth year at getting ice for the blind. And it’s been a whole lot of fun. And what made you want to take the job? I’ve had a career in the Foreign Commercial Service. I’ve done a lot of travel with a guide dog. I’ve travelled the world with a guide dog many times over. And I understand what a difference it would make. I don’t think I would have been able to have a career as an international trade specialist if I did not have a guide dog, got my side. My keen skills were not phenomenal, but I would land in a city where there was Tokyo or Warsaw or Abu Dhabi. And, you know, without a dog, I really wouldn’t know what to do. It’s just I could go anywhere at anytime I needed for my job to be able to get around. And so I raised four kids, have a daughter and three boys with a guide dog. And, you know, it just really was able to have a full life with a guide dog. And so when it sort of came time to be able to give back and say, you know, what is the number one defining thing in my life that’s made a difference? It’s really been the dog. And so I wanted to say, how can I learn from that at 25 years of experience of handling a dog as well as my business experience and say, how can we develop this wonderful organization that’s been around here for a long time to continue to evolve, to meet the changing needs of the blind community? And like any community of people, it is changing, as you can see, with blind people wanting to run.
S1: What is the hardest thing about getting used to running a nonprofit?
S9: I think the hardest thing about running a not for profit is realizing that your resources are limited by kind of three factors. The first is your donor base. The second is your volunteer base and the third is your staff. And so those three things have to work in concert to get built. Similarly, your mission goal in this case, you know, providing guide dogs and I think it’s very different than a business motive. People are really coming at it because they love what they do or they want to give toward something they love. So it’s a very feeling organization. A lot of passionate people coming together trying to do something.
S1: What’s the most challenging part of running a passion project?
S10: I think the most challenging part of running a passion project is that everybody is passionate about the project. But people are passionate differently. And I think that’s what also makes it makes it wonderful. So we have a lot of lively debates about, you know, directional issues where the focus should be. And I think that happens enough for profit world. It’s not. That profit that’s motivating you at all costs. It’s saying, look, we all want to help more people. How do we do that? How do we accomplish that? I think it’s definitely democracy. When you come to running a not for profit, it’s not so much, oh, you’re the CEO, you make the decisions. Not at all. It’s quite the opposite. It’s really leading a group of people who are pretty passionate about something and they know what they’re doing into a direction that’s ultimately going to serve your mission.
S1: Was it challenging to get their running program off the ground to say there’s so much we could do, but we’re going to add this capability for the dog?
S7: I think it was challenging. I think, first of all, you know, conventional wisdom being that dogs who are guide dogs are not supposed to run. You have to change that conventional wisdom and say, we’re gonna go the moon here. This is a moon shot. And then having some people say, OK, maybe he is out there, but let’s see if this is real. I think the benefit of being a blind CEO and having a guide dog is that I said, OK, put me in that spot.
S10: And if I truly believe in it, I’m going to do it. I’m going to be the one who is going to put my own, you know, self and time and passion into showing that this is possible. So I think that helps a lot. When you lead by example. I think it always does in any case. But, you know, there were people out there who said this is not possible. It’s not safe. It’s not something that that we believe that the dog can do safely. And so at that point, it’s changing hearts and minds and ultimately listening to who you’re serving. And when you’re listening to people and they’re saying, I want to run my guide dog, but I’ve been told that I shouldn’t and I can’t. So I do it anyway. I say, well, how are you possibly doing that and being safe because nobody’s ever trained that dog to run. So it was listening. And we held a focus group on California. Visually impaired runners that run the California International Marathon every year. It is the visually impaired championship. And I went out there and I met with a group of visually impaired runners and I said, OK, I hear some of you’re doing this kind of under the radar on the CEO of a guide dog school. How can I help you do this safely? And in the room, the majority that people said that if my guide dog was trained to run, I would train with my guide dog. And that was all I needed to hear was ultimately there’s a need. There’s a need that’s not met. Can we help meet that need as enough for profit to get people doing this safely, to keep them healthy and well. And I couldn’t imagine a single reason why we wouldn’t try.
S1: Was there a moment where you realized you had a piece of proof that you could bring back to maybe skeptical, folksy or organization to really, like, move the needle on that?
S7: Yeah. Metal at the finish line shook the dog. So when the New York Road Runners put, you know, a race battle on a dog. Had finished the half marathon and he was sitting there so proudly.
S9: That’s a moment where, you know, you not only show people that are so dedicated and passionate about guide dogs, but really at that point, the world that this is possible.
S1: Thank you so much. All right. Good luck with that beagle. What’s her name? Her name is ADA. ADA. ADA Beagle. And I just learned a little bit of to–well. A little too. A beagle, too. I you to love it.
S2: That’s it for this episode of Working Again. I’m Shannon Palis. If you like this episode, please remember to rate review and subscribe on Apple podcast. And if you have any comments or questions, please feel free to email us at working at Slate.com. Working is produced by Justin and Molly. Special thanks to Justin D right for our ad music. Thanks for listening. Catch us next week for another episode on running.