Cane versus canine

By Cass Embling

As I have explained in an earlier post, canes and guide dogs are both primary mobility aids. This means that someone who is blind would usually rely on one or other of these to get around. In this post, I am going to delve into why someone would choose a cane over a guide dog, and vice versa.

Notice I used the word “choose”? This was very deliberate. Many people think that everyone who is blind should have a guide dog. Several of my cane-wielding friends have encountered many a dumbfounded stranger who can’t understand why they don’t have a Labrador by their side. But it is exactly that… a choice. So let’s explore the two, and talk about the pros and cons of both (and I will do my best to keep my bias out of it).

This photo was taken close to the ground, facing towards Cora. Cass is sitting in a chair at a café table, visible only by her white sneakers and blue jeans. Cora lays beneath the chair with her harness on. She is spread out, extending one paw to her left in a relaxed pose. Her face is squished into the floor gently, eyes half open, almost as if she is falling asleep. Small garden beds are visible behind them, along with a small window where sunlight comes in. Photo by Lee Anderson.

While both canes and canines help with getting around, they also both help with identification. It is immediately clear that you have a vision impairment. This means that other pedestrians will (hopefully) move out of your way, wait staff will read you the menu, bus drivers will let you know which route they are driving, and so on. And you never know, it might even get you a sneaky trip to the front of a queue from time to time (but the advantages of being blind is a topic for another time).

The cane is an obstacle detector. It is a very tactile way of travelling. It is almost constantly hitting things, and often getting stuck places (tram tracks anyone)? As a traveller, you use the cane to locate the obstacle and navigate your way around it before continuing on your way. Not all canes are created equal. Some canes fold up smaller than others (which is great for slipping them into your bag). Some canes are more lightweight while others are sturdier (which is great if your balance is not so good). Some canes are purely for identification and won’t have any contact with the ground (which is great for people with low vision). There are also different tips available. For example, some tips are more suited to bushwalks or long walks on the beach than others.

You can use a cane to shoreline along the edge of a footpath or building. This is useful for making sure you stay on track or finding a doorway or a turn in the footpath perhaps. It is often easier to feel different surfaces with a cane than with your feet. The cane is great for helping you judge distances. Whether that be feeling how deep a step is, or how far from the platform the train is, the cane has an advantage here. Another advantage of the cane is that it does not require feeding, toileting, grooming, or vet visits. It won’t complain if it hasn’t been for a walk in a few days. It won’t drop hair on your carpet or clothes, and you can just leave it in a corner after a long day. You also don’t need to think twice about taking your cane onboard a super crowded tram, into a loud bar, or to a concert. Restaurants and taxis aren’t going to try to refuse your cane, and no one is scared of it. Lastly, no one is going to try and distract your cane.

Having said all that, canes don’t have brains. They can’t help you find that tricky café that’s tucked away in that large shopping centre. Canes can bend and break easily if they are stepped on by another pedestrian. They aren’t particularly good companions, and they don’t act as an icebreaker in situations where you are meeting someone for the first time.

On the other hand, a guide dog is an obstacle avoider. They are specifically trained to guide you around these obstacles. Guide dog mobility is a much less tactile way of travelling. It can be challenging for a cane user to transition to being a dog handler because suddenly they are sailing straight past the things they used to use as landmarks. In this case, you would probably tune into the smells and sounds more as well as paying more attention to what is happening under your feet to get feedback. But remember, a dog can make up for this lack of tactile feedback with their smarts.

You can teach a guide dog specific destinations. This is super helpful for finding your favourite burger restaurant, the tram stop, or your friend’s house. Even when a dog hasn’t been to that location for a long time, they will most often nail it! Guide dog mobility tends to be a lot faster and more fluid because you aren’t constantly stopping to untangle your cane from the legs of café tables. Most dog handlers tend to find that it is a lot less tiring travelling with a dog compared to a cane too. This is largely because it requires a lot less concentration. The bond between a dog and handler is something special. I know the same can be said for most pets and their humans, but my feeling is that the bond is even more intense in a working relationship. This is because you are side-by-side 24/7, and the dog has usually given their handler so much more freedom, confidence, and independence. This is the foundation for a very special relationship.

I guess you could argue that the pros of a cane (no hair, no vet visits, etc) are the cons of a guide dog. But honestly, I don’t think you would find a handler who would say that these minor inconveniences (if you would even call them that) aren’t worth it. But it is important to realise that you can’t train the dog out of a guide dog. At times, even well-trained guide dogs will get distracted by food on the ground or other dogs for example. But the most significant con of guide dog mobility is the fact that they do not live forever, and things do go wrong sometimes. I speak from experience when I say that the grief you feel when your guide dog retires or passes away is crippling, especially when it is earlier than expected. My first guide dog, Josette, passed away under anaesthetic during minor surgery when she was only four-years-old. This was a very difficult time for me. But as painful as it is to admit, this is the reality of having a beautiful furry companion guiding you through life.

How did I go keeping my bias out of this post? Not too well, I suspect. But I am going to let my bias loose in my next post without shame. I am going to devote the next post entirely to guide dog mobility specifically, and share a lot more about Cora too. I hope you will join me.

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