Just the other day I was asked by a friend what was the difference between walking with a white cane versus a guide dog. I thought about it for a long time, eventually giving them a standard and uncomplicated answer: a cane detects things, a guide dog avoids them.
Later on in the week I thought about the question again, and knowing I needed to write another post for my blog, I decided to expand upon the question.
I asked myself, what are the most difficult challenges while finding my way around the environment and how does a dog help more than a cane? I will also state here that I am still a cane user. I, doo in fact use my cane at least once every day or at night to keep in practice. I do not condone giving up cane skills for guiding skills. As a person with a visual disability, I need all the tools I can acquire to be as independent as possible and having both a dog and being able to pick up a cane and use it confidently keeps in line with this personal philosophy.
Okay, now that the “I don’t Hate White Canes” disclaimer has been stated, we can now move onto the main idea of the post: what I find more natural and why.
While first learning to use a cane, I learned how much navigating I could tolerate and I was disappointed to discover I could not mentally tolerate more than an hour of independent walking and way finding with just myself and the cane. Sure, I could tap around a hotel, store, or familiar place without a serious drain on my brain power. The drain came when I was out on the street going from point A to point B and the attention it required. I would call it hyper awareness that took absolute control at all times or I would risk tripping, falling, or getting lost. I will also tell you, constant reader, that I suffer from a mild traumatic brain injury and since the injury, I do have some trouble with coordination and multi tasking. Using a cane just hurt my head.
Working a dog requires awareness, better than average way finding skills and complete trust in the dog’s ability to guide. Some of the same tools, yet also a different feeling altogether. Yes, it is different physically, but it is also freeing, once you get the hang of it. The dance is graceful, like a waltz, rather than the herky jerk of the jitterbug. The team is more than one person and an unfeeling object; the dog listens to you, you listen to the dog and together way finding becomes more accurate, relaxed and even fun. I don’t know about you, but I never confided in my cane that I had fun finding my way around that parking lot safely or thanking my cane for getting us past that broken up sidewalk without a scratch or twisted ankle. Plus, unlike a cane, working with the dog didn’t hurt my head.
Below are some examples I no longer find unsafe or anxiety provoking thanks to my canine companion that, if I used a cane, would be more difficult and even a bit of a hazard.
Hallways and corridors. Those hospital or nursing home halls sometimes cluttered with beds, wheelchairs, and food/medication carts don’t matter, we just step around it all with quiet ease. No tapping, clanging on objects or other patients’ ankles. Have you ever knocked over a blood pressure station, you know, the ones that roll around and rattle when moved? I don’t worry about doing that again thanks to my dog.
Hotel corridors strewn with those pesky cleaning carts, armed with protruding spray bottles and broom handles, vacuum cords, and room service trays. No issues here, except maybe a leave it command not to sniff the leftover food trays on the floor.
Motels are also a challenge unless your dog can find the door to the room so you don’t have to trail the wall and risk hitting someone while passing their door. Yes, folks, I was trailing the wall while in a motel and as I passed my hand across a door, it opened, and I accidentally groped a woman’s booby shelf. “nuff said. A dog will target your door and take you to it so you don’t need to trail a wall to find it.
Routes without sidewalks, while taking more practice, are much more easily traversed when the dog does the shore lining. For those who don’t know, shore lining is a phrase describing how to follow the path by finding the natural grass line or shoulder boarding a road. Cane users must keep in constant touch with it or risk veering out into traffic or other hazards. A dog will keep to the line of travel and when prompted, will also bring the team to it and remain there while traffic passes, then resume the line of travel upon command.
I have taught my dogs to find people by name, like “Daddy” and by the names of other dogs. That is handy when in a crowded room or finding one’s way back from the restroom.
Finding the checkout counter in a store is another cool thing, along with finding the steps, elevator, door, chair, bathroom and other locations that make a huge difference in the mutability of life while passing through it.
If the explanations above don’t convince you, that in most circumstances, a dog is safer than a cane, maybe these will:
Have you ever had your cane tip snapped off by a car turning right on red? I have, I’ve also had it snatched from my hand and broken by a turning car and a speeding bicycle. My dog, like many other dogs before him, have pushed, pulled, or shoved their handlers away from danger. Each time this happens, I am reminded of the first time my dog pulled me from being hit by a car and it still makes me get emotional.
A white cane can’t be thanked or petted. Or make choices that keep you safe. Or let your mind feel relaxed while walking through a quiet street. Or feel less anxious when traveling through a crowd. Or help you traverse a train platform or airport terminal filled with people, bags and strollers.
After traveling for extended periods with my cane, I’d be mentally exhausted, as if I just been through a 400 question math exam. The level of concentration, for me, was tremendous and I would often suffer from headaches and fatigue when traveling at night, too.
My dog helped mitigate all of it. The only part I work on is night travel and this is only because I now suffer from vertigo, which is worse at night.
Yes, using a cane or a dog is a skill set that takes time to learn and a good amount of practice. Either will keep one safe but in my opinion, a white cane has a more frequent user failure. What I mean is even if I think it is safe, my dog will evaluate my decision and, if necessary, divert us from a potentially harmful result. A white cane does not have this fail safe and cannot use intelligent disobedience. Who coined the phrase two heads are better than one? Simple and totally apropos for team work.
I hope you’ve learned a little bit more about what it means to live with and work with a dog. I also hope you’ve appreciated the effort and time it takes to learn to travel without the benefit of sight. Thanks for reading.