Klinger, a German shepherd with a playful demeanor, is the first guide dog in the country to be officially trained as a running partner for a blind person

By Cathy Free
Updated October 19, 2015 07:42 PM
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At nine o’clock sharp every morning, Richard Hunter heads out for a jog through his neighborhood in Folsom, California, racing side-by-side with his partner: a long-haired, lively type with a tongue that hangs out of his mouth from the start of the run to the finish.

Klinger, a German shepherd with a playful demeanor, is the first guide dog in the country to be officially trained as a running partner for a blind person. In this case, that would be Hunter, 48, a former school psychologist who has lost most of his vision since he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at age 22.

The pair have been running together every day since Aug. 23, when Hunter brought Klinger home from the nonprofit Guiding Eyes for the Blind center in Yorktown Heights, New York, after they both graduated from a three-week training program.

“Klinger has made such a huge difference — I’m no longer running off the path and don’t have to worry about distracted drivers,” Hunter, who was hit by a car while riding his bicycle alongside a sighted guide in 2013, tells PEOPLE. “And he’s such a delight to have in our family. We’ve all became very attached.”

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Mark Liflander

Hunter, a married father of three daughters who developed United in Stride, an online database that connects blind runners and sighted guides, has been an avid runner since age 18, when he joined the Marines. When he was discharged as a second lieutenant after developing his eye disease, then later lost his psychologist job, he decided to continue running as a way to show his children he could persevere in spite of his worsening eyesight.

“I did 11 marathons, the Boston Marathon, a 50-mile endurance run and completed the Ironman run with sighted guides,” says Hunter, “but after the accident, my family was concerned. My daughter, Lindsey, kept asking, ‘Daddy, when are you going to get a guide dog?’ “

Hunter consulted with Thomas Panek, Guiding Eyes’ president and CEO, and Panek, who is also a visually-impaired runner, agreed that his agency would develop a program to officially train a dog to be a blind person’s running partner.

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Mark Liflander

Treadmills and human guides were fine for most, he told Hunter, but blind people needed more options to enable them to exercise outdoors.

“Having a running guide (like Klinger) enables a person who is visually impaired to transcend the obstacle of mobility by fostering a potentially very active lifestyle,” Panek tells PEOPLE. “It also sends an important message to others with vision loss that anything is possible, and limitations are merely perceptions.”

Because the pilot program with Klinger was successful (the dog was trained for six months by blindfolded runners to navigate street corners, curbs and obstacles at a quicker pace), Guiding Eyes now hopes to train companions for other visually-impaired runners.

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Mark Liflander

“Once the dog is trained to know your route, you’re set,” says Hunter, who runs three to six miles, six days a week with Klinger. “I started out at home by walking the route with Klinger and he picked it up pretty fast.”

“He loves to run and he’s so well-focused on it,” he adds, noting that the 65-pound German shepherd likes to snuggle in his lap every evening. “He sets the pace, then after we’re done running, his favorite thing is to play fetch with a tennis ball at the park. It’s been a real life-changer. I just love getting out every day with Klinger.”