Guide Dog or White Cane? Mobility Tools for Individuals with Vision Loss

Editor’s note: February is low vision awareness month, and we are highlighting the importance of being safe when walking around, even in a known area. VisionAware peer advisor, DeAnna Noriega, gives sound advice about what you should think about when making a decision about a dog or cane.

Orientation and Mobility instructor with older man walking with cane

Questions to Consider

If you have low vision, your lack of depth perception may make it hard to judge changes in the elevation of the ground where you are walking. Other questions to consider: Do you have trouble adjusting to differences in lighting when you go outside or come into a building? Are blind spots in your vision beginning to hamper your safe travel? Maybe it is time to look into training to use the long white cane.

Need for Mobility Basics

Even if you plan to use a guide dog to assist you during travel, you need to know mobility basics first. Contrary to common belief, a guide dog doesn’t know where you want to go until you direct him. He understands basic commands such as right, left, find door, and can learn to recognize places you visit frequently, but you must be able to judge traffic by sound, be able to remember how many blocks you need to walk, and when you must turn a corner.

If you answered yes to the questions I posed, you might consider learning new techniques to verify what you think you see. Is that darker section a drop off or a shadow? A properly used cane can tell you. There are very light weight folding or telescoping canes that many people find useful for when their vision isn’t proving sufficient on a particular day.

Consider Your Lifestyle

Consider your lifestyle and which tool would best serve your mobility safety needs. Cane users are usually people who like to confirm where they are and independently problem solve. When using a cane, locating landmarks is how you can navigate. A guide dog is trained to avoid obstacles and will do his best to guide you around them like a human guide does.

Guide dog Zoe sitting down on the sidewalk with boots on to protect her feet

If you enjoy the company of a dog and don’t see caring for the dog as a burden, a guide dog might be the right choice for you. You will have to take the dog outside multiple times a day, pick up waste, groom them, feed them, and carry things to make them comfortable. In exchange, you will have a friend by your side who is willing to use his vision to help you prevent falls, avoid traffic, locate doors and curbs, and dodge overhanging branches.

If you like to explore your environment in detail and have a sense of adventure, then a cane might be the tool for you. If you would rather have a mobility aid that doesn’t shed, need feeding, walking to deal with bodily functions, or isn’t adverse to spending time in a corner or closet when not needed, then a cane might be the best choice for you.

Choose the Option That Is Best for You

The most important thing is getting where you want to go and regaining control of your life. Choose the tool that gives you the best option for your personality and gives you the confidence to go where you want to go. Whatever you decide, don’t put yourself at risk by avoiding lessons from an orientation and mobility specialist on how to compensate for decreased vision.

More Information About Low Vision and Mobility

Using a white cane as tool for fall prevention

Leader Dog offers orientation and mobility training

What does having low vision mean?

Low vision and scanning efficiently