Every morning, Richard Hunter leaves his home at nine o’clock to go jogging in his neighborhood, but he doesn’t do so alone. He has a running partner named Klinger who has long hair and a long tongue that flops out of his mouth during the whole run.
Klinger is a German Shepherd, and the very first guide dog to have been officially trained to be a running partner to a blind person. That person would be Hunter, who was formerly a school psychologist. When he was 22, doctors diagnosed him with retinitis pigmentosa, which caused him to progressively lose his vision.
Now aged 48, Hunter is able to go running every day with Klinger who was trained by the Guiding Eyes for the Blind nonprofit organization which is based in Yorktown Heights, New York. After a 3-week training program, both the dog and the new owner were able to begin a life together that involves plenty of wide open spaces.
“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.”
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.