Let’s be blunt: the coronavirus pandemic has made life hard, really hard. For everyone.
For blind and visually-impaired runners who depend on a sighted person to run with them, often with some kind of tether, the pandemic has largely brought that uplifting and health-supporting activity to a screeching halt. Social distancing rules, and a desire to decrease interactions with others has meant many sighted running-mates have put the guiding routine on hold.
Thankfully, dogs are filling the gap.
Traditionally, dogs that guide the blind while walking were not considered appropriate to assist runners who are visually-impaired. But that all started to change about five years ago when Thomas Panek, an avid runner and marathon-winner who happens to be blind, developed a program with Guiding Eyes for the Blind to train dogs to do just that. With a re-designed harness and a new training regimen, the dogs showed “they were perfectly capable at guiding at a faster pace. In fact, some dogs enjoyed it more,” Panek noted during a recent interview with The Associated Press.
So, it’s a win-win: the dogs are happy, and the humans are too. And, because the two-footed runners can get out and hit the road again, they are healthier—physically, of course, but also mentally and emotionally—which is particularly important these days.
We didn’t need doctors to point out that the loss of socializing, work, school, and all the other mundane and sublime elements of life that are now off-limits because of the pandemic, is causing stress. What’s good to know is that exercise reduces stress, supports the immune system, and boosts brain health. According to the ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Assoc. of America), the endorphins your body produces during exercise reduce your feelings of being “stressed-out” and also improve the quality of your sleep; better sleep improves your ability to manage stressful situations. When that exercise takes place outdoors, as in running, studies from the NIH (National Institutes of Health) show that the brain gets more oxygen, which improves concentration and efficient functioning. Other studies show that getting outside for exercise strengthens the immune system even more than a gym work-out.
All of which gives visually-impaired runners—and the rest of us—another reason to say, thank goodness for dogs.