Domonique Lawless, NOMC, NCLB is a graduate of the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University. These remarks are excerpted from a presentation she recently made to the Tennessee Association of Guide Dog Users.
I am often asked the question: “Which is better, a cane or a guide dog?” My answer is: I am a two-car household.
Some of you who know me will know that I grew up on the east coast, and know that I have a deep-seeded love for Dunkin Donuts. I’m also a frequent flyer, so I try to always connect through the Atlanta airport. On one trip home, all I could think was: “Dunkin Donuts, gotta get to Dunkin Donuts, I’ve got some time for Dunkin Donuts.”
So, after zig-zagging through the maze of people and bags, I get my donut. True happiness! I look at my phone, and we’ve got 10 minutes until the flight leaves! At this point, I’m in Terminal A and I need to be in Terminal B!
Now, for those who don’t know, in Atlanta, that means crossing the entire airport via the always-crowded Plane Train.
There’s no feeling as remarkable as the ability to zoom in and out of the crowd, to squeeze between a wall and a person talking on their cell phone, and to walk around—without tripping over—suitcases.
It was an even better feeling to know that, while I had my dog that time, I could have done the same thing with my cane. I can choose whether I want to drive the Mercedes or the Lexus, if you will, and any blind person has the choice to be a two-car household as well.
So, for those of you who are guide dog users (or who are considering applying for a guide dog), here are some ideas to keep in mind to ensure that you take advantage of that choice you have to be a two-car household.
Some places just aren’t for dogs.
As a guide dog user, I know that I legally can take my guide dog everywhere. Some places just aren’t conducive, though…like a bar, out dancing, a concert, or Mardi Gras. (I’ve been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans twice, and I can safely say that is not a place you want to take a guide dog! I take my guide dog to work, run errands, church, and—before I graduated—my classes in Northern Louisiana.
I use my guide dog and my cane pretty interchangeably. I recognize that each has its purpose. I love using my dog. He’s a wonderful companion in my life. This is my third guide dog, and we’ve been working together for a little over a year now. We work seamlessly and with a beautiful agility that I would recommend to most people. I think having a guide dog is a wonderful experience, but I recognize he just can’t go everywhere with me. If I can’t give 100 percent of my attention to making sure that he’s safe, then that might be something to which he probably shouldn’t go.
Also, guide dogs are living, breathing things. They can’t be on 24/7; they need to have a day off just like you and I do. Sometimes, too, they get in bad moods where work just isn’t for them. I recognize that there may be a time and a place to use my dog, but that isn’t everywhere at all times.
So, when I don’t take my dog—say to the NFB National Convention—he gets to have a vacation with my parents, and I get to have a little time apart to have a different experience.
You have to pay attention to the personality of your dog to know the kinds of things that he likes to do. Mine likes to go, go, and go; sometimes, I have to step back, be the adult, and say, “Okay, you need to stop for a moment and have a break!”
The attitudes about canes at guide dog schools have changed.
Another thing to pay attention to is the changing expectations of guide dog schools. When I got my first guide dog, I was pretty much expected to put my cane in a drawer and forget about it until my dog retired. While training with my second and third dogs, I saw the attitudes change. Guide Dogs for the Blind has an orientation and mobility instructor on staff who helps students during class if they need more O&M practice with orientation skills. Leader Dogs has a great, advanced orientation and mobility program. It’s a compressed schedule where you just go for two weeks, and you focus on nothing but orientation and mobility for 8 hours a day. From there, you become at least a proficient cane traveler and that will make you a better dog user. More and more guide dog trainers are becoming orientation and mobility instructors, so that they can understand both perspectives of using a cane and guide dog.
I am an orientation and mobility instructor, and most people think O&M is just about learning to use a cane. When you learn to use a cane, you learn to pay attention to things like sun cues, echo location, picking up different textures, and listening to your traffic. Those are all incredibly vital skills that can be used with a cane or a guide dog. Once you learn those skills, you’ll find that you’ll be a better guide dog user.
I have done extensive traveling with my cane, most notably at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, and I’ve learned how to get home if I’m dropped off somewhere in the city…even if I’ve never been there before. The cane or dog are what help me get where I’m going; my other travel skills tell me what direction to go.
Have a backup plan.
Many guide dog trainers are saying that it’s not just OK to carry a cane; they expect you to carry one as a backup travel tool. There’s, of course, the obvious possibility that your dog could become sick or injured. There’s also the likely chance, too, that you may have to point something out to your dog to refocus their attention or have them learn from a situation. You can’t always get as much texture with your feet to figure out where you are, so—when you need that information—you can use your cane.
I don’t think trainers would advertise walking around with a harness in one hand and a cane in the other 24/7, but every once in awhile, there’s nothing wrong with using the two in tandem for a specific purpose.
Keep your cane skills from deteriorating.
If you don’t use your cane regularly, you can forget some of those fundamental skills of travel. You don’t want it to become scary to use a cane in those situations where using your dog just isn’t appropriate. Personally, I’d recommend taking your cane out with you on a regular basis, even when your dog would be a perfect substitute, just like you’d exercise the engine in your spare car (if you’re fortunate enough to have a spare car!).
The key to remember is that you always have a choice to use your cane or your dog. Yes, it’s perfectly legal to take your dog just about everywhere in the U.S. but sometimes it might just not be practical. It’s my hope to encourage every guide dog user to learn, use, and brush up on his or her cane skills to stay as independent and self-sufficient as possible. To those who teach cane travel, I know some teachers feel like their job is just to get students’ skills “good enough” to use a guide dog. The reality is that when you are a superb cane traveler, you’ll be an even better dog user because those fundamentals of travel still apply.
Oh, by the way, we made the plane, just barely before the doors closed, and—most importantly—I made it with a donut.