A woman on a tram once saw me with blindness and was determined I needed a dog to guide me safely across the road. How could I say dogs weren’t my bag? Still this encounter raised the question of what are the advantages of using a dog to guide a person over the benefits of a white cane.
Why a dog?
You probably have seen trained labradors helping people with a vision impairment to be guided safely around the streets.
Vicki, a dog user, regards the dog as superior to other aids for those with a vision impairment to get around. She says “you can enjoy the walk a bit more. It takes you around things so you don’t have to worry about [obstacles] as much”. Dogs can indeed be trained to avoid such obstacles as branches, holes and steps.
Generally, people seem more aware of how dogs guide people with a vision impairment rather than understanding what a white cane means. Pedestrians also seem more likely to approach a person using a guide dog.
Maribel explains how her guide dog Nev has helped her. She says he gives her a “sense of freedom and leans on him to make decisions”. She asserts having a dog was particularly valuable when living in semi-rural Mornington where public transport was not an option.
Dogs can be trained to find places like banks or shops. They can also secure a seat on public transport for their handlers courtesy of a big wet nose.
Guide dog challenges
There are disadvantages though to having a guide dog. Although illegal, people with guide dogs have been denied access to restaurants and taxis. Vicki recalls how a driver insisted she sit in the back of the cab as he claimed there was no room for the dog in the front.
Dogs also require more organisation. Maribel, already experienced with children of her own, admits there are daily tasks such as the need to feed the dog and harness it for the day’s work. It may also be necessary to pack bags and water bowls. She says it is like having another child.
And then there are other challenges such as places where it may not be suitable to always take a dog. Maribel recalls one wet day where she didn’t think it was fair to enter a smart dress shop as her dog’s paws had become quite muddy. Dogs may also attract more public interest so their owners need to be aware of getting unwanted attention from the public. It may even be possible your dog could embarrass you by barking during a movie or pinching a leg of lamb intended for Sunday lunch!
And of course dogs are naturally more expensive than a cane. Ben Jessup from Seeing Eye Dogs Australia says the organisation recommends guide-dog users budget up to $120 per week for vet and food expenses.
Why a cane?
When a cane breaks, you can replace it without sentiment. After the day’s travel you can throw it into a corner. And they’re cheap. You can pick one up for as little as $30.
A person who uses a guide dog must be reasonably fit and healthy, and show they can control, house and take care of the animal. No such things are necessary to use a cane.
A cane allows you to detect objects more directly, whereas a dog guides you around them. And while a cane may not grow old with you at least you don’t have to worry about it growing old too.
Making the decision
For Maribel both the cane and dog offer independence. However she stresses that taking on a guide dog means making a commitment for a number of years. She believes a person needs to make the decision based on their own personal needs and requirements.
Making the choice is more about a person’s feelings and less about their level of vision. I weigh up these factors. While I may be a dog sceptic, when someone sprawls over my cane twisting it into a boomerang, I think perhaps there’s something to having a dog after all.