By Katherine Schneider, Ph.D.
People often ask which is better, a cane or a dog as a mobility aid for a blind person. Having used a cane for 12 years and a guide dog for 40, I can compare and contrast for people. The bottom line is: it all depends on the person. When I got my first cane, I hated it because it made me look “blind”; however, I came to love being the independent and confident traveler I became because of it.
Canes, when used correctly, are great mobility devices that are easily replaced when old or broken. They don’t have to be fed, taken out in cold Wisconsin winters to answer the call of nature and they can be left in a corner when not in use.
On the other hand, dogs find the path even if it’s not well shoveled and they can help make decisions about street crossings and other safety issues. They also break the bubble of isolation that surrounds blind people at times.
I’ve learned a lot of life lessons from my nine Seeing Eye dogs. The first thing I know for certain is that each working dog is a unique gift. No two are alike! The first dog often changes one’s life so much that the second dog suffers by comparison. After you realize that of course they’re different and have different strengths, you can still honor that first dog and go on to fully embrace number two, three, etc. Each dog does its job. The fun and sometimes frustrating part is figuring out how to work with that individual dog so he/she shines.
Each of my working dogs has built my character in different ways. My first dog taught me to be positive instead of crabby when my expectations were not met. My retired dog showed such courage in telling me that she needed to retire by refusing to work when she thought she could not safely do so because of a vision problem that I am in awe of her. Then there are the funny little things they do that show you they definitely do think. For example, I’ve taught each of my dogs the words “up” and “down” so when we go into a building, they’ll find the stairs for me. As they reached middle age (about seven) each one started showing me the elevator instead of the stairs.
I’ve learned from retiring dogs that it’s never easy no matter how many times you do it, but you will get through it and you will love again. I grieve the decision to retire a dog, the actual retirement and eventually the grief of the dog’s death. As with any grief, rituals like a retirement party and writing a bio for the family who adopts the dog help. Coaching friends to treat it as seriously as they would a death or divorce may be necessary. A few empathic souls “get it” that working dogs are very different from pets, and they do the right things, like listening and showing up to help with the transition or just bringing a dish. I’m convinced that more would respond if they realized that this dog is my best friend, my eyes, and my key to safe transportation.
I’m still learning from my dogs that you can be joyful in greeting each new day, quick to love and forgive, enjoy the little things like fresh water and a bowl of food and that a wagging tail wins a lot of friends.
When it all boils down, whether you use the arm of a friend, a cane, or a dog guide, all that matters is that you get where you’re going. Happy trails!
Katherine Schneider lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.