Guide dog vs. cane

Since my guide dog, Flossie, died, I’ve been thumping along with my cane, veering into driveways, tramping accidentally on neighbors’ flower beds, wondering how I ever navigated for nine years with this uncooperative, metal stick. Last night I walked too closely to very busy Wightman Avenue, because the sidewalk curb blended into the street for a good 50 feet. Years of using a guide dog have rendered me awkward at best and unsafe at worst as a cane traveler. Mostly I fret about the lack of grace, which tells you something about my priorities—worrying more about looking elegant than looking dead under a PAT bus.
Often People ask about the choice: dog or cane. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each? Here is a list of some of the pros and cons.
Cane:
Less work: No feeding, grooming, bathing, bathrooming, disciplining, or exercising
Less expense: No food, medicine, or trips to the vet (We estimated that sweet Flossie’s care cost $12,000 a year)
Less disruption: No dogs or cats or people want to play or fight with a cane; no one wants to pet it.
Enhanced contact with the environment: a cane is like a long arm that touches steps, curbs, obstacles that could cause tripping; it locates walkways and doorways that help in orientation.
Enhanced appreciation of surroundings: a cane touches trees, hedges, chairs, tables and gives interesting details and useful data
Demand for concentration: To walk down the middle of the sidewalk, the blind person must listen to traffic going in her direction. This takes constant listening to cars coming up from behind, making conversation difficult while walking.
Credit for independence: People rarely say, “that cane sure gets you around,” which is a common remark to dog users. (Both cane and dog users need maps in their heads of streets to cross and turns to make; dogs have to be told where to go).
Most crucial advantage: Canes don’t die.

Dog:
24/7 Nurture: Dogs provide unconditional love, universally good company, and unparalleled attention.
Smoother travel: Undistracted (which is not always the case with unleashed dogs and hissing cats) dogs walk straight down the sidewalk without veering into driveways or streets.
Faster travel: Dogs are speedier than canes.
Occasional inattention possible: A dog user can manage short conversations (while carrying a toddler, for instance) and give only 95% of an ear to traffic
Safety net: A dog double-checks decisions. He won’t step in front of a car, even the hard-to-hear hybrids. For those of us with hearing impairment, this is a huge advantage.
Social icebreakers: Dogs, like children, provoke interaction with others.
General pleasure: Dogs are way more fun and adorable than canes.
Family member: Dogs become as close as human family members, but with shorter life expectancies. Guide dogs aren’t ready for work till they are about 2. Recently Seeing Eye finds that illness is coming earlier—i.e., more cancer in humans, so more cancer in dogs—so guide dogs show problems as early as 8. And when they die, we are heartbroken.

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About Sally Hobart Alexander

Blinded at the age of twenty-six, I left California and elementary school teaching for life in Pittsburgh, Pa. There, I met my husband, got a Masters' degree in social work, had two kids, now 35 and 32, and became a writer. Surprisingly, the writing career led me full-circle to teaching, and I teach in Chatham University's M.F.A. program and lead two writing critique groups. Always, since the age of 26, I have traveled, not in the stereotypic darkness attributed to blindness, but a mist. My blog then, "traveling through the mist" will deal with issues in my culturally different life as a blind writer, teacher, speaker, and human being.
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