Coordinated by Maribel Steel
Editor’s note: To celebrate independence in this month of many independence-related events, our peer advisors share their perspectives when it comes to choosing a white cane or dog guide to maintain personal independence. Be sure to read Part One on Choosing a White Cane.
Why Choose a Dog Guide?
by Mary Hiland
Contrary to popular belief, only a very small percentage of people who are blind use a dog guide at all. Why is that?
Those of us who do would never go back to using only a white cane. Yet most people who are cane users will argue that using the cane is the only way to go.
It’s a Friendly Debate
This debate is like the one that involved two of my visually impaired friends recently. One has been a dog guide user for many years, while the other would never consider it, mostly because she has never cared much for dogs. She does quite well with a white cane. She enjoys being able to fold it up and put it away when she’s reached her destination.
My cane-using friend never has to worry about dog hairs on her clothes, arranging her schedule around feeding time and getting the dog groomed, or taking it to the vet. Canes are very low maintenance tools, but to my knowledge, no one has ever said, “What a beautiful cane you have!”
My Beautiful Dog
I am on my third one now, and she has been the catalyst for many conversations with people who ordinarily would pretend I wasn’t there. Of course, the initial conversation is with my dog, as in “What’s your name, you pretty thing.”
Then follows a teachable moment. “I’m sorry, but she’s on duty. She’s a working dog, and she’s not allowed to be sociable when she’s in harness. But you can talk to me. My name is Mary.”
Finding the Way
Over the course of three dogs who each have enjoyed a long working life, I must have said these words a thousand times. But, I’m one who would never go back to using only a white cane. Whenever I’m ready to leave a meeting or a restaurant, all I have to do is say to my dog guide, “Find the door,” and she heads right for it.
When we’re crossing a street, she stays inside the white lines of the crosswalk. She leads me around obstacles, including construction in a graceful and efficient way.
A Sure Step Toward Commitment
Lately, as Pippen nears total retirement, I’ve had a conversation with an instructor from the Seeing Eye to talk about getting another dog. We talked about my life style and how I employ a dog guide. She saw my neighborhood and some of the places we regularly walk to. I’ll be enrolled in one of the spring classes at the Seeing Eye in Morristown, NJ. This is the first step in making that commitment. In the meantime, for the most part, it’s me and my cane, but I’ll gladly put it away, come spring and I get my new Seeing Eye dog.
What Can You Do With a Cane-Critter?
Every guide dog handler will face a time when one guide dog is retired from service and there is no successor waiting in the wings to take on the task of guiding. In the interval while you are longing for a class-date, that obstinate cane-critter must be located from the back of the coat closet.
There are some advantages to having one of these cane-critters in your life. They don’t shed, need to be fed, groomed or taken out to perform bodily functions. Their good health is maintained by replacing parts at a lower cost than visits to a veterinarian. It is wonderful at locating stuff that has rolled under furniture and no one of my acquaintances has ever claimed to be allergic to my cane-critter.
Cane-Critters Don’t Offer Emotional Support
Somehow, though, they just aren’t as good company. They don’t display any initiative in problem solving. They don’t offer emotional support when things go wrong and aren’t very cuddly. Several of my canes have met with an untimely demise through unfriendly encounters with elevator doors, automobiles and stationary hazards like storm drains.
Forget being told about overhead obstacles. Barriers above waist height don’t impress cane-critters at all. However, a crack or slight elevation in a sidewalk or grating will inevitably snag a cane-critter’s attention. It will halt your forward momentum so suddenly that you will find you are being launched into an unexpected pole vault!
Cane-Critters Lack Loyalty
If you go into settings where other visually impaired people are present and place your companion in a corner with others, it will allow you to leave without it or refuse to let you know which of several like creatures is theoretically yours. I find it useful to mark mine with some distinctive key chain, or other emblem to circumvent this lack of loyalty.
Keeping company with one of these cane critters, though,always reminds me why I choose to be a dog guide handler. German Shepherds can be noisy; labs can be food oriented; and golden retrievers can be too friendly to the public. But they all are much better at self- preservation than is a cane!
Why I Love Traveling With My Dog Guide
I recently visited my husband in Boston who is there taking a summer course at Harvard. So I went up with my dog guide, Sophie and we had a blast!
I was reminded over and over, why I love traveling with my dog guide.
It would ordinarily be quite difficult to go to a place I have never been and navigate. With Sophie, it was easy and stress-free. Though we do not live in a big city, she retains her skills and works the environment like a professional.
Our Special Connection
We boarded planes, trains and buses in the city with no problems at all. I feel safe and confident with her at my side. We share the responsibility to get to where we need to go and I feel her constant care and support. I cannot overstate the benefit of the connection we have with each other. It is indeed the most surprising and wonderful aspect of using a guide dog. We know and understand each other so well. Not only does Sophie anchor me physically, she is a stalwart ballast for my spirit as well. Her exuberance and eagerness empowers me to explore and reminds me to enjoy the journey.
The Freedom to Travel
I am grateful for this freedom; the ability to move about in the world with ease and without constraint with Sophie. We have places to go and people to see in this great adventure called life and I love doing it together.
Let Us Hear From You!
Do you have a preference for using a white cane or a dog guide for maintaining independence? Please share in the comment box, we’d love to hear from you.