Audi knows he’s special. A yellow Lab, nearly white, with a ropy build and a devilish grin, he lives in the rarefied air of Lakewood, Colo., a Denver suburb. If he were a pet, he still would receive plenty of adoration, but Audi doesn’t mind being rewarded the same way as these other dogs, despite his higher calling. Audi’s a guide dog, and a pleaser. Virtue, he might sniff, is its own reward. Races are too.
Memorial Day 2008 is cool and overcast in Boulder, and Audi is running the “Bolder Boulder” 10K with his 50-yearold handler, Kerry Kuck (pronounced “Cook”). The race, with more than 50,000 entrants, is a legend in the running community, more festival than competition. Rock bands, belly dancers and guys with hoses line the course to watch the runners, many of whom are in costume. “Running ‘Bolder Boulder’ is the most amount of sensory experience I can have,” Kuck says. “It’s the best I can see.”
He is what’s known as a “total”— someone with no light perception. Kuck and Audi have run the race twice before, but 2008 is different. In 2006 and 2007, Kuck tapped a team of volunteers to accompany him. This year, Kuck and Audi run solo, something they’ve never done in a race of this size, and a supreme test of Audi’s abilities.
As they expect, space is tight in the early going as runners burn off nervous energy and find their paces. Audi has an uncanny knack for shooting gaps, gauging correctly how quickly his partner can react and whether there’s enough clearance. They run staggered, with Kuck usually just behind Audi and to the right. Kuck makes it a point to give him steady praise, both to reward him for correct behavior and to keep him focused.
All is going well. Then, near the halfway point, an off-leash dog spots Audi and gives chase. These situations can frighten any dog owner, but Kuck is on high alert. Audi is trained to guide, not guard, and an attack could be catastrophic.
Audi hears the dog approach and, following protocol, stops and turns to face his pursuer as other runners stream around them. A few tense sniffs follow before the owner notices the encounter and calls his dog back. Disaster averted. A half hour later, Audi and Kuck finish safely in 1:10:56, or 1:10:57, depending on whose time you use. They have passed the test.
It’s not certain how aware guide dogs are of the exact nature of their handler’s limitations, but they do sense that their obligations differ from those of nonworking dogs. By law, guide dogs are permitted anywhere private citizens can typically go, including restaurants, stores, airplanes and movie theaters. Audi’s daily guide work, walking and running, keeps him sharp. The duo’s participation in Bolder Boulder was the culmination of seven years of near-daily running, usually three to four miles a day.
When they’re on-leash, all guide dogs constantly make snap decisions: whether to go through the puddle or around it, how sharply to turn, whether a low hanging branch offers enough clearance. The handler is in charge and gives directions, such as deciding when it’s safe to cross the street by listening to traffic, but the dog has to decide whether it’s safe to obey. If it isn’t, he ignores the command, a concept known as intelligent disobedience. It’s unique to guiding, where dogs must be disciplined and confident enough in their role to do what they think is right, no matter what.
When the two run together, Audi has to process all the usual information at triple speed without sacrificing Kuck’s safety. Every guide dog, no matter how talented, makes mistakes sometimes, but in Audi’s seven years of guiding, Kuck has never been injured.
In the blind community, running with a guide dog is unheard of and not without its detractors, who point to the real risk of serious injury or death for both partners, or even the life-long self-torment of a dog psychologically unable to work after a traumatic incident. Kuck is matter-of-fact, but not glib, about what running has done for him. Without it, he says, “I’d be dead.” He’s lived with Type I diabetes for almost 40 years and runs in part to help maintain circulation and regulate his blood sugar. His blindness was caused by diabetic retinopathy, a leaking of blood vessels in the retina. Prognosis is poor, and yet he’s kept it in check since the mid-1980s. “Running blind is easy,” he likes to say. “It’s managing diabetes that’s difficult.”
Audi has proved to be indispensable. He never cancels at the last minute with a schedule conflict, which allows Kuck to run at the same time every morning. He also has a nose for Kuck’s blood-sugar levels—a more accurate gauge, in fact, than Kuck’s $800 continuous glucose monitor. He has been known to turn his partner around and head home on training runs when he senses Kuck’s low blood sugar.
Off the clock, Audi checks discipline at the door but maintains his irrepressible energy level. Janet Leonard, Kuck’s partner of more than two decades, calls Audi a nine-year-old puppy. All the household trashcans have metal lids to keep him from strewing their contents. He knows how to open the zippers on luggage to steal treats. And dancing to disco music with Kuck is a favorite pastime.
In those moments, a person could be forgiven for mistaking Audi for a pet. But when he nudges Kuck awake in the middle of the night to do a monitor test— and sure enough, the reading is low—it becomes clear that there really is no “off the clock” for Audi. There is only off leash and on-leash. And from both sides, there is endless gratitude.
Photographs by Nathan W. Armes