Four Legs of Freedom
by Kyle Scholzen
Paralympian Kyle Coon was in the water. Pushing off from the pool wall, Coon started warming up for a swim workout. His work was just beginning.
Hugh, a three-year-old, 55-pound black lab, laid down at the side of the pool. He looked bored, like he wanted to be anywhere else. He wouldn’t need to work for a while.
“I don’t think lifeguarding is in his future,” Coon laughed about his pup.
Hugh may not be a good lifeguard, but he is a life-changer. He’s one of roughly 10,000 guide dogs in the United States that allow people with visual impairments — such as Coon and fellow U.S. Paratriathlon Resident Team athlete McClain Hermes — to have more independence.
“[Having a guide dog] makes traveling independently a lot smoother,” Coon said. “The dog gets you around objects you could potentially trip over or run into. When you’re coming to a set of stairs, the dog will stop and let you know that there’s something in front of us that I need to check out.”
Hermes also enjoys more freedom with her guide dog, a four-year-old black Barbet named Uzo.
“I’m independent with a cane, but not as independent as having a guide dog,” she said.
Guide dogs have helped Hermes better explore both the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center and her college campus. Uzo knows the way to a pharmacy near the Training Center and safely guides Hermes there whenever she needs to walk over and pick up something. At school, Hermes’ first guide dog, Blake, excelled at finding people.
“I could say, ‘Find [a friend’s name]’ and Blake would walk around campus until he found that friend, kind of like hide and seek,” Hermes said. “It was fun, but it was very helpful.”
For Hermes, guide dogs provide more than just a sense of independence. She feels safer at night with a dog – “a dog’s more intimidating than a fiberglass cane,” she says. The 22-year-old also loves the companionship she receives from her dogs. She had a great relationship with Blake, who unexpectedly passed in the summer of 2021, and she has another close bond with Uzo, who she’s had since April 2022.
Like people, guide dogs have their own personalities, quirks and strengths. Uzo loves water, according to Hermes, but hates being at the pool during Hermes’ workouts. He is uncomfortable with bikes, but loves to go on training runs with Hermes and her sighted human guide, Jocelyn Bonney.
Coon also has a great partner in Hugh. The two were paired together by The Seeing Eye, a guide dog school and provider. Hugh’s temperament proved a good fit with Coon’s lifestyle as a professional athlete.
“For me, one of the biggest things, and Hugh is great at this, is that when it’s time to work, he’s excited and eager to work,” Coon said. “But when it’s time to chill out, he settles right down.”
This is particularly important for those long pool workouts or physiotherapy sessions Coon has. While Hugh is Coon’s companion to these events, Hugh isn’t participating, but waiting for Coon to finish.
Don’t worry, Hugh gets his own exercises.
Each day after breakfast, Hugh goes through what Coon calls “Doggie calisthenics,” which are basic commands like sit, down, rest, come, etc., that all guide dogs will have learned as a puppy. This focus on fundamentals is one of the many similarities Coon notices between being an elite athlete and utilizing a guide dog.
“Being a dog handler, you have to really zero in on the basics,” Coon said. “We’re working every day on sit, down, stay, rest, come; all these basic obedience things to reinforce good habits.
“Little things we do when he's not in harness can affect what happens when he is in harness. Same with me. What I do outside of swimming, biking and running still affects my swimming, biking and running.”
Hermes applies the same dedication to dog handling as she does to triathlon.
“To be an athlete, you have to be dedicated and rigorous and stick to a schedule,” she said. “That’s the same thing with a guide dog. You have to stick to a schedule. You have to be consistent and firm.”
Consistent and firm while working, light and goofy while not. There’s a dichotomy to the life of a guide dog – they are dogs, of course, and require play and rest and treats like other dogs. But, for Coon, Hermes, and hundreds of other visually impaired athletes, guide dogs are also independence, structure and training.
Dogs like Uzo and Hugh help navigate their humans through the sighted world. It turns out they help navigate the athletic world, too.
Before they started their guide dog duties, guide dogs like Uzo and Hugh, spend the first two months of their life with their mother before living with a puppy raiser for 12-14 months.
If they’ve mastered the commands and have the right temperament, they then go to guide dog school and learn guiding skills: stopping at curbs and stairs, avoiding obstacles, ignoring unsafe commands, etc. If they pass two guidance tests, they’re then placed with their permanent handler.