Trevor Thomas has been the first blind man to reach the end of many of America’s longest hiking trails. But his guide dog, Tennille, usually arrives a few steps ahead of him.
When Thomas finished his trek across North Carolina’s nearly 1,000-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail in June, instead of claiming the title of the ninth person in history to complete it all in one go, he said Tennille was the official No. 9, and he preferred to think of himself as No. 10.
Thomas, who lost his sight in 2005 due to a rare autoimmune disorder, shared tales from his hiking expeditions with Davis Girl Scouts at Holmes Junior High on Wednesday night. He recounted how his now figuratively decorated pup has steered him clear of hazards in rather extreme environs on these solo excursions.
Though Thomas hails from North Carolina, Tennille has local roots; she was raised through Yolo County’s Eyes for Others, a program that fosters puppies until they are ready to undergo professional service dog training.
Gail Bimson, who leads Eyes for Others, explained that Tennille was one of the more than 75 pooches reared by the county’s residents that have gone on to successfully graduate from a training program administered by Guide Dogs for the Blind, a San Rafael-based organization.
The local puppy caretakers follow guidelines prescribed by Guide Dogs for the Blind, in an effort to properly socialize and teach basic obedience to the future service dogs, until they reach approximately 16 months old.
“There’s rules regarding stuff like how a dog should relieve itself, or interact with other people and dogs,” Bimson said. “It’s relatively strict compared to how one might raise a pet dog. But in the end we’re also there to provide a loving and fun environment. We’re not exactly formal trainers.”
She added that the number of puppies being raised at any given time in the county fluctuates from five to more than 20. Like Tennille, most of the dogs are Labradors, but there are golden retrievers as well, and mixes of the two breeds.
Janet Gift, a Davis resident who has helped raise about puppies for Eyes for Others, was Tennille’s caretaker in the pooch’s infancy. This was long before Tennille was Thomas’ partner for his lengthy hikes.
Gift’s sentiment upon having Tennille sent off to be trained as a service dog two years ago speaks to the bittersweet cycle that the temporary caretakers accept as part of the job: “For me, it’s exactly like having your first child be sent off to college,” Gift confessed with a grin.
But Tennille’s calling as Thomas’ companion on sometimes six-month-long adventures through woods, swamps and tundra has made the letting-go worthwhile.
As Thomas told members of Girl Scout Junior Troop 171 and Cadet Troop 2586 on Wednesday, he had done the more than 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail and the similarly long Pacific Crest Trail without a dog. His ventures earned him a lot of attention, and a total of 17 companies decided to support him financially.
“When I started distance hiking, I did it in an effort to get my life back,” Thomas said. “I feel kind of special being blind, and not a lot of people would say that, but it has afforded me something cool in life. I have a really interesting and unique career — getting paid to go on long hikes.”
What Tennille offered to Thomas was an opportunity to make the lengthy trips more self-sufficiently, without relying on a guide or anyone else to accompany him on trails that are primarily empty.
Tennille was able to learn how to seek out sources of water, trail signs and obstacles on the ground that Thomas might trip over. The utility of this guide dog extends to seemingly impossible feats:
“She keeps things from hitting me in the head,” he said. “When they told me that, I thought they were crazy. … She’ll stop me with a branch inches from my face, so much that I can literally feel the edges of the leaves.
“Tennille is the only guide dog in the world that can do this: She can switch modes from doing all the normal stuff I need her to do when in town, and then adopt a completely different set of skills when we’re backpacking.”
Thomas is consistently impressed with what Tennille is capable of, and says he awaits the day when his furry comrade is confronted with a task too difficult. Going up and down stairs? Even that’s not too much for her.
Most of the Eyes for Others’ eventual guide dogs won’t be expected to perform such a wide array of tasks, nor travel such long distances, but Thomas said these would-be service pups will be exceptional in their own way.
Part of the Girl Scout Troops’ purpose for hosting the talk was to encourage interest in Eyes for Others. To make an inquiry about how to get involved with the volunteer group, email Bimson at [email protected].
— Reach Brett Johnson at [email protected] or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett