Whenever there are 3 or more blind people gathered, it is very rare that they all have guide dogs, which is contrary to popular belief. The truth is that a very small percentage of people who are blind use a dog guide. Why is that? Those of us who use dog guides would never go back to using only a white cane. Yet most people who are cane users will argue that using the cane is the only way to go.
Its a friendly debate, like the one that involved 2 of my visually impaired friends over dinner one evening last week. One has been a dog guide user for many years, while the other would never consider it, mostly because she has never cared much for dogs in the first place. She does quite well with a white cane. She enjoys being able to fold it up and put it away when shes reached her destination, something you cant do with a dog. However, those of us who are seasoned dog guide users are pretty good at tucking our guides neatly under the table or desk, so that its often a surprise to others in the room when we get up, and the dog suddenly appears. My cane-using friend never has to worry about dog hairs on her clothes, arranging her schedule around feeding time and emptying time for the dog, getting the dog groomed, or taking it to the vet. Canes are very low maintenance tools, but to my knowledge, no one has ever said, What a beautiful cane you have. My beautiful dog, and I am on my third one now, has been the catalyst for many conversations with people who ordinarily would pretend I wasnt there. Of course, the initial conversation is with the dog, not me, as in Whats your name, you pretty thing. With this opening, I always know theyre not directing their words to me; at least I hope not. Then follows a teachable moment. Im sorry, but shes on duty. Shes a working dog, and shes not allowed to be sociable when shes in harness. But you can talk to me. My name is Mary. Over the course of 3 dogs who each have enjoyed a long working life, I must have said these words a thousand times. Am I always to be the first person with a guide dog these people have ever met? Annoying as this is, Im one who would never go back to using only a white cane. Whenever Im ready to leave a meeting or a restaurant, all I have to do is say to my dog, Find the door, and she heads right for it. When were crossing a street, she stays inside the white lines of the crosswalk. She leads me around obstacles, including construction in a graceful and efficient way.
Lately, as Pippen nears total retirement, Ive been leaving her at home, while I go out for dinner or to a doctors office with my white cane. Sometimes, like when I go to the doctor, Im given more help if I dont have the dog. Sometimes, with a dog, I look confident and like I know where Im going, when in fact, I dont. On the other hand, there are many cane users who are so competent in their mobility skills that they look much more confident and dignified than many guide dog users. In other words, its not the dog that makes the difference. Its the person.
Today, an instructor from the Seeing Eye, ® (the first dog guide school to be established in the U.S. ) came to interview me about my next Seeing Eye dog. We talked about my life style and how I employ a dog guide. She saw my neighborhood and some of the places we regularly walk to. Ill be enrolled in one of the spring classes at the Seeing Eye in Morristown, NJ. This is the first step in making that commitment. In the meantime, for the most part, its me and my cane, but Ill gladly put it away, come spring.