Skip to main content
Second Sense - Beyond Vision Loss

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

September 15, 2016 | 12 Comments

by Kathy Austin, CVA

Tags: , , ,

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.

12 comments on “White Cane vs. Guide Dog: Why or Why Not?”

  1. Michael Ramirez says:

    Thanks I use a guide dog and a cane it all depends on where I’m going and how I’m traveling I think they both have an advantage and a disadvantage at times.

  2. Kathy Austin says:

    Michael, I agree with you. There are times I leave my guide at home. It is a good idea to use your cane to keep up your skills. It’s also fun to get that tactile information you miss with a guide. The places you go, too, can determine what the best method of travel is. It’s nice to have both options at hand!

  3. Maria says:

    I for one, love my guide dog and no matter how much more work this may be, the rewards from having a guide dog don’t compare with a cane. Canes are unfeeling and do not invite conversation. By saying all of this, I also should add that I always have my cane near by, as close as my back pocket, just in case I want to get more information. My guide dog is my friend, she loves me and gives lots of laughter. My independence is much better because I have this beautiful guide dog at my side!

  4. Sean Gilligan says:

    Very informative and balanced article. I’m currently considering a guide dog as the job I’m training for requires a lot of traveling in a large city. I have some useful vision but have difficulty at night and in crowds.

  5. Don’t plan out every single minute of a trip, either. It’s better to add an activity or two once you’ve arrived at your destination and have a better sense of the possibilities.

  6. Marissa says:

    I happened to be Google searching “drawbacks of having a guide dog” and came across this article. Very helpful. I was accepted by a school in Utica, NY for a guide dog in the Spring assuming there is a good match. I am ready for the responsibility in all senses, but I wonder if I am ready to face possible abandonement by Uber drivers lol. Is this a real concern? I also am feeling hesitant giving up the trust I have in cane travel, say, to find the stair drop off. This article helps me see the benefits. Thanks!

  7. Kathy says:

    Marissa, I have had Uber drivers refuse service and yes, it is not always convenient. When it does happen, I will call for another driver and make the complaint to Uber. Uber has been very responsive in making sure the driver is aware of the regulations about taking service animals. I do take my complaint one step further and submit a complaint to the National Federation of the Blind service animal survey. The NFB and Disability Rights Advocates (, a nonprofit protecting the legal and civil rights for people with disabilities, are both monitoring these complaints to ensure Uber and Lyft are abiding by the decisions of federal lawsuits requiring Uber and Lyft drivers to take service animals. Usually within 24 hours, I’ll get a call from Disability Rights Advocates, who will also follow-up with me by phone to gather the details of my ride refusal. I don’t believe ride refusals are any less or more frequent when compared to hailing a taxi cab. All this being said, the incidence of ride refusals are small.

    As far as finding those drop offs for stairs and other changes in elevation, your guide dog training will cover this when you go to class. It does take time to get used to this new way of moving about. And as others have mentioned in response to this post, you can always have your cane in your back pocket when you need that extra tactile information. An I.D. cane is a great tool and because it is smaller than a regular white cane, it will fit easily into a backpack, purse or even hooked on to your guides harness.

    Best of luck with class and getting your new guide!

  8. Ellashae says:

    I am also a candidate to get a guide dog. I am extremely excited but at the same time I’m very nervous. What if I am in a parking lot, and I am unaware that there is a curb coming up. Will the dog just keep on walking? And or fall? I don’t think that safe. Also if I have a guide dog, I don’t want to be using my cane all the time

  9. Kathy Austin says:

    Ella Shae, Getting a guide dog, especially for the first time, is an exciting and anxiety ridden experience. So, understand your feelings are normal and understandable. When you train with your new guide dog, your instructor will expose you to all sorts of environments – crowded downtowns with lots of vehicle traffic and pedestrians, rural settings with no sidewalks, trails for hiking, parking lots and any other types of places that you will encounter in your daily travels at home. They will teach you how to work your dog through these different environments. Your training will start with simple things like working your dog indoors down a hallway and then progressing each day to add a new handling technique to your education. You may want to think of the places you visit regularly, or places you’d like to be able to go, and give your instructors this information. Your training can then be customized to your individual needs. Know that guide dogs are trained to stop at any change in elevation–that may be a curb, staircase or traffic intersection. As for using your cane – normally people who use guide dogs do not use their canes at the same time. This does not mean that you shouldn’t carry a cane with you. If your guide becomes ill and cannot work during a route, you’ll need your cane to travel at that time. Your cane can also be helpful in situations where you need the tactile information a cane provides. It may be a construction area, an object you need to figure out what it is, the depth of a snow bank, etc. Trust your guide dog instructors as they are the experts. My best advice is to follow their direction to the very best of your ability. This will help you be a successful guide dog handler. If you would like to talk further, please don’t hesitate to give me a call at Second Sense. Good luck and safe travels! Kathy Austin

  10. Rick from NYC says:

    Hey, Marissa!

    Did you have a chance to get your guide-dog? You said it would be in the Spring, but I’m not sure because New York state was on a shut down since March.

    Either way, send my regards to Erik and Sharon!
    They were the trainers back when I got my first guide-dog at Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

  11. Justin says:

    Very good information. I never considered a guide dog before, since my O&M isn’t the best. It’s not bad, but not the best. Just out of curiosity, I know the dog normally walks on your left. But, are they trained to walk in step with their handler basically a normal heal, or do they tend to walk further out front, and if out front, how far?

  12. Jim in Philly says:

    I’m a TVI, and I think it is important to stress that even if you have a guide dog, you are still responsible for navigation. The dog will make sure you get to your destination safely, but you still have to use your orientation skills to choose the route, the correct bus, the correct entrance to a building and so forth.
    I think a lot of people have the misconception that the dog is leading the person to their destination and they are just holding on for the ride.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.