Cane or Canine

Changing from cane to guide dog (or vice versa) often elicits questions that boil down to why one method of navigation is considered superior to the other. Ultimately a matter of preference, there are some aspects worth explaining and since I have just gone from long white stick to something that likes to eat sticks, I thought I’d put words to my choice.
A blind person moving through the world must attend to:
1. walking in a straight line
2. stationary obstacles
3. moving obstacles
4. the route being followed
5. geographic location within that route
6. any and all changes that might give warning of unexpected hazards
For me, simultaneously keeping track of all these elements of travel is mentally and thus physically taxing. Miss catching one of the six balls and catastrophe results. For example, should I be focused on walking in a straight line and not hitting anything, I might zone out and miss a landmark essential for my route. Should I have all those navigational course elements in my head, chances are I’ll forget about moving obstacles. Anyone who knows me is aware of the fact that getting my attention while I’m walking around is next to impossible. I literally zone out to the point that I don’t hear my name being said. Forget trying to have a conversation or toss off a casual greeting while walking past someone. All my mental powers are required to safely navigate my course.
On an unfamiliar route, a dog can attend to walking in a straight line, avoiding stationary and moving obstacles, and unpredictable hazards. The handler’s job is primarily to focus on their location in the route being traveled. Some attention is necessary to encourage the dog, correct mistakes, and give commands, but it is mostly routine.
On the other hand, when you get home, your cane goes in the corner and stays put until you are ready to use it again. A dog requires food, water, potty breaks, petting, love, praise, entertainment, and grooming. On the other hand, your dog will wag their tail at you and lick your face whereas a cane is a singularly unresponsive cuddle buddy.
It all boils down to the cost of cane travel versus the cost of maintaining a dog. Each person has a different bottom line for both. In fact, it is much like manual versus automatic car transmissions. I’ve seen people have heated arguments about which is superior and the same can be said for those who prefer canes versus those who want a four-footed guide.
For me, a dog grants me independence. Oddly enough, I really didn’t appreciate that fact with my first dog. (I had a very different life then including a significant other which probably caused me to be too dependent on people.) It was only with my second dog, Emmy, that I began to see how my life could change. Suddenly, I could go places that had complicated routes and reach my destination not ready to fall over from fatigue. While I knew this truth in a theoretical way with my first dog, it’s practical application was not obvious until Emmy.
The challenge now is to fully realize the independence this dog offers me. With talking GPS, I can literally go to an unfamiliar area and find an unknown destination. Unfortunately, I’m a bit of a wimp and have a tendency to fear the “what if”s I can imagine. “What if I get tired and can’t think clearly so I get really lost? What if my phone battery dies? What if the dog gets hurt? What if the dog does something stupid? It really all boils down to what if I fail? Somehow, in my mind, blind people aren’t allowed to fail. Or, well, at least not this one. This is a clear case of disability – blindness and chronic fatigue – not being my problem, but rather my own uniquely shaped mind.

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About Jen

After acquiring a degree from Vassar College in psychology, I moved to Western Mass where I ran a peer mentoring network for disabled college students as well as activism and organizing around disability issues. I also conducted research on disabled women’s body image. An Upstate New York native, I eventually followed my heliotropic nature to the sun of Southern California. I divide my time between writing (disability fiction and essays) along with moderating San Diego Bisexual Forum which is one of the oldest groups of its kind in the country. In my off hours I can often be found in my neighborhood live music venue enjoying our local talent.

2 thoughts on “Cane or Canine

  1. That reminds me strongly of using my powerchair versus my manual wheelchair. In a powerchair the level of exhaustion is similar to what I’m told driving a car on ice is like. I can’t go out practically ever in it because it wipes me out and I already have several conditions where fatigue can turn dangerous. But my manual wheelchair, pushed by someone else, allows me to go out more (still not a lot) than I otherwise could.

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