4. White Canes and Guide Dogs

Some of you have asked me – “what’s the difference between using a white cane and using a guide dog”?

The short answer is that a white cane is an obstacle “finder”, and a guide dog is an obstacle “avoider”. One isn’t better than the other; they are just different ways that a blind person might use to help them travel safely. It is a personal choice whether a person chooses to use a cane or a dog. Here are some more details:

White Canes

White canes come in various lengths and are typically made of aluminum, fiberglass or carbon fiber. They can be made as a single rigid cane, or they can be designed to fold up into sections for easy carrying or storage (like many tent poles are designed). There are also a variety of cane tips (such as ceramic, metal, pencil, marshmallow, roller, hook, etc.) that can be used for different surfaces. The different materials provide for different tactile and auditory feedback as the cane is tapped or swept along the ground. Oh, and they don’t have to be white anymore! I happen to have two old white ones, and a bright green one!

A cane is an obstacle finder. For each step, the cane is tapped or swept across the path of travel to check for obstacles. The user contacts poles, planters, signs, parked cars, sandwich boards, people, stairs and curbs, etc. Everything is located physically at ground level by the cane. A cane does not detect overhead obstacles, such as tree branches or awnings, and will miss things such as signs and parking meters that may stick out into the path of travel at shoulder or head level. Finding physical landmarks with a cane is part of how a cane user knows where they are and helps them to find their way.

I used a cane until I was about 22 years old. I had thought about switching to a guide dog, but that is a very big step to take. It was an encounter with a fire hydrant that helped me make up my mind to give guide dogs a try. One day while walking quickly, my cane failed to detect a fire hydrant, and I hit it very hard with my knee. Ouch! Sitting on the ground almost in tears, I figured there must be a better way! I filled out the paperwork, and the rest is history.

Now that I’m a guide dog convert, my cane skills are quite rusty. I understand and know the techniques, but I use it so seldom that I’m not comfortable with it anymore. Over the past few months when I have used my cane, Jim has commented about the deep look of concentration on my face. Just coming down the 81 “shortcut” stairs is mentally fatiguing for me now with a cane!

Guide Dogs

Guide dogs are typically Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, lab/golden crosses, or German shepherds; both males and females are used.

A guide dog is an obstacle avoider. It chooses a straight-line path through obstacles and people while also watching for overhead clearances and for things that may clip a shoulder in passing. A guide dog stops at curbs (flat and raised), and finds things like stairs, doors, escalators, and elevators on command. A handler can teach a guide dog to find more things such as pushbutton poles, chairs, ramps, etc. (Trainers teach us how to use target training to expand the dog’s vocabulary of “find the …”.)

A guide dog user gives the dog directional commands such as “left”, “right”, “forward”, or “find the door, inside” to get to a destination. Because the dog is guiding around physical landmarks, the blind person must rely on other clues for orientation. These might include things like textures underfoot (grass, dirt, smooth concrete, brickwork); changes in terrain (slopes, hills); auditory clues (traffic noise, fountains, echo location); or smells (coffee shops for example).

One of the main skills a guide dog user relies on is “a sense of distance travelled over time at a particular speed”. This is one of the only orientation clues I have on our island. For example, I have a pretty good sense when leaving home and walking along Pirates Lane, when we are close to the path for the stairs. I rely on my knowledge of the terrain (the hills along the way), and a sense of how long we have been walking, to then suggest to Bode “left, find the stairs”. If I’m close, he will locate the path as we get there. My next dog will have a different walking speed, and that will throw my orientation off entirely. I will walk for what feels like the same time, but I may have passed the path or not yet reached it, depending on the pace of the new dog. Everything will have to be relearned!

For anyone interested in seeing how a guide dog team uses orientation skills to travel, this is an excellent YouTube video. It was produced by the Seeing Eye (another very good guide dog school) for orientation and mobility instructors who might be working with guide dog users, but it is an excellent video for anyone to watch.

The Seeing Eye

Go To Chapter 5: Travel and Settling In

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