Blind Ambition

A guide dog goes the distance for her human hiking partner.
By Jennifer Dziuvenis, June 2016
A selfie taken while hiking Vermont’s Long Trail, the oldest long-distance trail in the U.S.

A selfie taken while hiking Vermont’s Long Trail, the oldest long-distance trail in the U.S.

When Tennille’s kitted out in her “work clothes,” she knows it’s time to hit the trail. Her skill in helping Thomas navigate in a variety of environments—from a rocky outcropping in Virginia’s Grayson Highlands or a plank walkway across a boggy section of Vermont’s Long Trail to a quiet path through the forest— has made it possible for him to continue to challenge himself in the great outdoors.

When Tennille’s kitted out in her “work clothes,” she knows it’s time to hit the trail. Her skill in helping Thomas navigate in a variety of environments—from a rocky outcropping in Virginia’s Grayson Highlands or a plank walkway across a boggy section of Vermont’s Long Trail to a quiet path through the forest— has made it possible for him to continue to challenge himself in the great outdoors.

Left: Boy Scout Troop 3 and students from the Perkins School partner up as part of Team FarSight’s Blind Ambassadors program. Right: Tennille enjoys her down time.

Left: Boy Scout Troop 3 and students from the Perkins School partner up as part of Team FarSight’s Blind Ambassadors program. Right: Tennille enjoys her down time.

For most dogs, a hike in the mountains is an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. But for Tennille, a five-year-old black Labrador from North Carolina, it’s just another day at the office. While other dogs sniff the underbrush and splash through creeks, Tennille is hard at work keeping her owner on the trail, alerting him to obstacles and watching for dangerous wildlife.

If it sounds like Tennille’s hikes are no ordinary walks in the park, it’s because she’s a guide dog and her owner is a professional long-distance hiker who also happens to be blind.

Tennille’s story begins not on a trail in the mountains, but in the California home of Tasha Laubly, a volunteer puppy raiser. Laubly socialized Tennille, taught her basic manners and then, like many a proud parent before her, selflessly sent her baby off to school. That “school” was Guide Dogs for the Blind, and it was there that Tennille would meet Trevor Thomas and the course of her life would change forever.

In 2005, Thomas, a recent law school graduate and self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, received the devastating news that a rare and incurable autoimmune condition was taking his sight. Eight months after that diagnosis, his vision had diminished to nothing.

To reclaim his independence, Thomas began long-distance hiking. Just 18 months after losing his vision, he became the first blind person to complete a solo thru-hike of the 2,190-mile-long Appalachian Trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine. And that was just the beginning.

Thomas began hiking trails all over the country and found that, while he could navigate the well-traveled Appalachian Trail by himself, if he wanted to take on more remote areas, having a partner was vital. When Thomas’s human hiking partner pulled out of a big hike at the last minute, he decided it was time to get a guide dog.

The search for the right dog and an organization that would work with him was arduous. While dogs have long been used to help the visually impaired regain their independence, training one for the trail was unheard of. When Thomas explained that he wanted a dog he could take on long, solo expeditions in the backcountry, most guide-dog schools balked. They were concerned that a guide dog would not be able to handle the sport’s mental and physical demands.

Then, he put in a call to Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, Calif., and found an organization that was willing to give him and his crazy idea a chance. When the trainers introduced Thomas to high-energy and exceptionally smart Tennille, the bond was instant, which was a good thing. Tennille was the only dog they had who might be able to meet the mental and physical demands of long-distance hiking.

Training a guide dog for backcountry work was unprecedented. There were questions about how she would physically handle the rigors of the trail, whether she could adapt to the unique demands of backcountry work and how she would transition between days on the trail and life in town. When it came to taking a guide dog into the backcountry, it seemed like there were more questions than answers. But Thomas, Tennille and her trainers were willing to give it a shot.

To be Thomas’s eyes on the trail, Tennille not only needed to master all of the skills required of guide dogs in the city but also, had to learn about life in the wild. She was trained to watch for low-hanging branches (she knows how tall Thomas is) and alert him to tripping hazards. If she decides that a situation is too dangerous, she will refuse to move forward. The Lab has also been trained to handle encounters with everything from rattlesnakes to moose, and knows how to look for trail signs and other landmarks.

“I’m the luckiest person around,” Thomas muses when talking about Tennille. “In a world of extraordinary animals, she is exceptional. She is a genius.”

In the three years since they became a team, Thomas and Tennille have covered more than 6,000 miles together, tackling trails all over the United States. With Tennille’s help, Thomas has completed solo hikes on remote, unpopulated trails that were out of his reach before she came along. Having a guide dog has been a game-changer for Thomas, who says that many hikers he meets on the trail don’t realize that he’s blind.

A day on the trail for Thomas and Tennille typically involves covering 13 to 18 miles of rocky and uneven ground. The distance alone is a lot for any dog, but Tennille is also working. She knows that once her backpack (which takes the place of a traditional guide-dog harness) goes on, it’s time to do her job.

As you may expect, this is no spur-of-the-moment operation. Long before Thomas and Tennille set foot on the trail, their hikes have been planned down to the last detail. In the months leading up to a hike, a set of detailed daily instructions is painstakingly created. Thomas uses these notes to tell him things like how far it is between trail junctions and which direction he is supposed to go.

Then, he employs a combination of bat-like echolocation and meticulous tracking of time, speed and cadence to get close to where he needs to be. Tennille takes it from there. She knows how to look for signs and other trail markers that will keep them headed in the right direction.

Thomas is quick to say that, while he holds the leash, Tennille is the boss. In the time they have been hiking together, Tennille has learned what is important, and when she alerts him to danger, he listens. It’s this unwavering trust in one another that has allowed them to take on some of the longest and hardest trails in the country.

In the summer of 2015, Thomas and Tennille conquered one of their toughest challenges yet when they completed a thru-hike of the 600-mile-long Colorado Trail. Traversing some of the tallest mountains in the United States, the two successfully navigated the rugged route that runs between Denver and Durango, summiting 14,440-foot Mt. Elbert along the way. While Tennille excels in the cool Rocky Mountain climate, there was some concern about how she would handle Colorado’s high altitude. But, as with everything else in her life, she was unfazed.

“Ice water runs through her veins,” Thomas replies when asked how his companion is able to handle the demands of long days and tough conditions. He has yet to find a situation that she can’t manage.

As the years and miles have gone by, Tennille’s body has become accustomed to the demands of her job. While many dogs’ pads become sore during long hikes in the backcountry, Tennille’s are as tough as leather. Thomas always carries booties for her, but unless the ground is very hot, she rarely needs them.

Thomas says that getting Tennille was the best decision he’s made since losing his vision. Not only has she greatly expanded the possibilities of what he can do, but also, she has changed how others see him. She’s a powerful icebreaker when it comes to interacting with people both on and off the trail. Thomas believes that Tennille’s friendly face and wagging tail have allowed him to form deeper connections with those he meets who may not know how to engage with a blind person. These connections have been an unexpected benefit of having Tennille along.

When asked what’s up next for the duo, Thomas rattles off a long list of goals. He is constantly on the hunt for new places and different environments in which to challenge himself and Tennille. In the coming years, he hopes to return to the Appalachian Trail, this time with Tennille by his side, and dreams of doing the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim hike. The canyon’s high-desert environment would present a different kind of challenge from the mountains they are used to, but Thomas feels that Tennille will be up to the job.

Thomas’s courage and tenacity are making him somewhat of a celebrity in the hiking world, but he’s quick to point out that it is his dog who should be getting the attention. “I just hold the leash,” he says. “I’d be happy to be known as the guy who’s with Tennille.”