White Cane vs. Guide Dog: Why or Why Not?

September 15, 2016 | Leave a Comment

by Kathy Austin, CVA

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Cane User on left and guide dog handler on right

 

You’re walking down the sidewalk and encounter two people with vision loss.

One person is strutting along tapping his cane side to side in front of him. The other person is walking with a yellow Labrador retriever holding onto a harness handle. You ask yourself, “Why do some people travel with a white cane and others with a guide dog?”

Is it the places a person travels or a special skill that determines the mobility aid?

If you are thinking about your options or are just curious why some people choose one tool over another, read on to learn about the nuances of cane and guide dog travel.

The very first thing you should know about traveling as a person with vision loss is this.  To travel safely and effectively, whether by cane or dog, it takes solid orientation and mobility skills. The confidence you receive from proper training and practice with a white cane go a long way in how the public perceives you and your ability, not to mention the quality of your safety when traveling independently. You can obtain this training from a certified orientation and mobility specialist.

So I don’t appear to be too prejudiced about the advantages and disadvantages of each tool — I am, after all, a guide dog user — I’ll start with the best things about using a cane!

Advantages of Cane Travel

  • A cane is easily replaceable and affordable.  With a cost between free to $40, you can have a spare on hand in case of emergencies.
  • Canes give you tactile information about your environment.  You can stop and smell the flowers when you know exactly where the flower box planter is on the sidewalk.
  • You can learn your environment faster and more thoroughly.  The tactile information you gain from the cane finding fixed landmarks helps you understand the terrain you are exploring and provides concrete objects to ensure your orientation is correct.

Disadvantages of a White Cane

  • Increased interference from the public wanting to assist – kindhearted people always want to help by grabbing your arm, cane or clothing but sometimes their help isn’t helpful.  (Hint:  Always ask first!)
  • Cane travel can be more cumbersome and not as fluid.  A cane gets stuck in cracks and you get a poke in the stomach – ouch!
  • Weather negatively impacts cane travelers.  A six-inch or more snowfall with a cane can really wreak havoc getting around, as it is difficult to tap or sweep the cane and some landmarks may not be available to check your orientation.

Advantages of Guide Dog Travel

  • Faster and more graceful travel in general—with a dog you breeze by people and obstacles without much change in pace or direction.
  • A guide dog can be a bridge to the general public opening opportunities for conversation and making new connections.  Personally I have made many new friends talking “dogs” with my fellow commuters and folks who are interested in learning about guide dogs.
  • Guide dogs can be a deterrent to potential personal attacks.  While guide dogs are not trained to attack, a thief may think twice before trying to take your purse, wallet or smart phone.

Disadvantages of Guide Dog Travel

  • Time and responsibility of daily care for a guide dog – feeding, watering, relieving, grooming and playtime are all a part of a guide dog handler’s day.
  • Two- to three-week commitment to train with a new guide dog – it may be nice to get away from it all and have your meals prepared and your room cleaned, but it is still time away from work, family and other responsibilities.
  • Expenses incurred with a guide dog – big dogs eat lots and vet bills are not inexpensive.
  • Dog attacks are increasing and can ruin a dog’s confidence and ability to work.  With the increase in pet-friendly hotels and apartments, therapy dogs, emotional support dogs and the like; we are running into more and more dogs in our daily travels. Dog encounters can be a dangerous situation with one serious act of aggression ending a dog’s working life.
  • Dog hair on clothing and in home – lots of grooming and a lint brush and tips for getting dog hair off fabric surfaces is a must.

The Answer to the Burning Question

For most people, whether to choose a cane or a dog is a personal preference. Some of us are not dog lovers and don’t want to put in the time necessary for a successful guide dog/handler relationship. Putting your cane in the corner when you arrive home is a pretty attractive notion. However, parting the sea of pedestrians and gliding down the sidewalk with your guide dog is an exhilarating experience.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Help us expand our pros and cons by commenting below.

If you are at a stage in your life where you need to think about a mobility tool, we hope this list helps you sort out some of the issues related to each way of traveling.

We also invite you to join us on Monday, September 26 for our discussion, “Facing Your Fears of Traveling Alone:   Can a Guide Dog Really Help?” And, don’t hesitate to contact us for a consultation, resources or questions on the advantages or disadvantages of travel by cane or dog.

Kathy is the Community Engagement Specialist at Second Sense.  She is currently partnered with her third guide dog, Weller.

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