Thanks to one very active Labrador Retriever, Trevor Thomas is living his dream.
Thomas lost his vision to a rare autoimmune disorder in 2006. To beat the depression that came with his disability, he became interested in distance hiking. With the help of other individuals, he trekked through the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Tahoe Rim Trail and more than 15,000 other miles of land in the United States. But it still wasn’t enough. “I wanted to branch out and do more remote, tactical trails,” Thomas tells AKC.org. Those routes, though, would require the help of a dog who could serve as his eyes through the less-traveled wilderness.
Enter Tennille. The black Labrador Retriever was the first dog ever trained by Guide Dogs for the Blind for extreme hiking. Together, Thomas and Tennille have traversed 6,000 miles together. They’ve completed the 950-mile Mountains to Sea Trail in North Carolina, and most recently, a 500+ mile hike on the Colorado trail from Denver to Durango and summited the 14,440-feet peak of Mt. Elbert, the second tallest mountain in the contiguous United States.
Having Tennille by his side has allowed Thomas to go on these hikes without a sighted human guide. “Since I started hiking, my goal has been to achieve independence as a blind person,” Thomas says.
The trouble was, guide dogs aren’t trained for completing physical activity or to perform their tasks as guide dogs while also climbing cliffs and scaling glaciers.
After reaching out to various guide dog schools across the country—and being rejected by all of them—Thomas was finally accepted by Guide Dogs for the Blind. The organization admitted they had never trained a dog to work with a hiker before, but if the right dog came through their program, they would give it a shot.
After waiting almost a year for a match, Thomas was invited to the school in California to meet Tennille. The smart and headstrong Labrador Retriever was originally meant for a different handler but was too active for that individual. “It was a match made in heaven,” he recalls. The dog trainer at Guide Dogs was also a hiker, so she worked with Thomas and Tennille during their two-week training period, helping them learn the ropes of managing a guide dog. At first, Thomas explains, Tennille could only complete about three miles of hiking a day before becoming tired, but by working just a little bit more each day, she is now able to travel 20 miles at a time.
Mapping the Trip
Before an upcoming hike, Thomas will work with an expedition coordinator who will help him map out the entire trip. He plays back the directions on his iPhone during the trip, and Tennille leads the way. “I’m the big picture guy, and she’s the detail girl,” he says, adding that for every mile the two trek together, he spends about an hour mapping it out.
As with any extreme sport, hiking requires specialized gear and nutrition to do it safely. And that goes for Tennille, too. Thomas explains she wears boots to prevent her feet from being injured and has several cooling products to keep her temperature down on hot days. Also, he gives her Drool Fuel, which he describes as a beef bouillon–flavored sports drink for dogs. She has an inflatable sleeping pad, a custom-made down sleeping bag, rain jackets, and more. “Her comfort has to be equal to mine,” says Thomas. “Every time we go to a new environment, we have to figure out solutions to keep her healthy and safe.”
Several dog food and pet supply companies have sponsored Tennille. For example, Grandma Lucy’s offered a supply of freeze-dried dog food that is lighter to carry and of higher quality than standard kibble. And Ruffwear, another sponsor, is working on redesigning the traditional guide vest for active guide dogs like Tennille.
Loving the Sport
Anyone wondering how a dog can manage long hikes in the rugged outdoors need only see Tennille in action. “When I get out her hiking pack, she gets an extra spring in her step,” says Thomas. But once, her enthusiasm almost caused a serious problem. Thomas explains that when Tennille sees snow, “she turns into a puppy again.” When a hike brought the pair to a set of glaciers, he was worried she would lose focus. But her instinct kicked in. “She seemed to know the difference between playtime and work time,” he said. “She was right on point. And when Tennille finishes a trail, tradition says she gets a filet mignon with French-style green beans. If she ever loses that enthusiasm for being in the Great Outdoors, Thomas says he will retire her.
Tennille and Thomas leave for their next trip, the Sheltowee Trace Trail in Kentucky, on October 1. Until then, he plans on hiking 10 to 15 miles with Tennille each day to keep them both in tip-top physical shape. In the meantime, he’s working on writing a book and filming a documentary about his experiences. You can follow his adventures on his website here.
As for everything he’s been able to accomplish so far, he’s eternally grateful to Tennille and Guide Dogs for the Blind. “I knew that getting a guide dog would change my life, but she has changed every aspect of my life,” he says. “Even having the stigma of carrying a cane was removed. I used to get pity from people but the minute I got Tennille, people wanted to meet her and it gave me a chance to educate them about blindness. People started to accept me as a person instead of as a blind person. Tennille has enabled me to achieve my dream of hiking and self-navigating the less traveled trails in the country."