Future Reflections Summer 1990, Vol. 9 No. 2

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by Diane McGeorge

[PICTURE] Vivacious Diane McGeorge is always on the go-with dog or cane.

There is one subject that comes up consistently when we as blind people discuss independent travel with parents of blind children: "Should I get my child a seeing eye dog? Would a dog really be helpful? I have seen blind people with dogs, and I just wonder if a dog wouldn't be better than parents, but by the rest of the general public over and over. Let me share with you some of my ideas about the use or non-use of a dog guide.

First of all, lets talk about the name."Seeing Eye Dog" is the title mistakenly ascribed to nearly every dog that you see accompanying a blind person. In fact, The Seeing Eye is the name of a particular school which was the first established in the United States. However, there are now a number of schools in the country which provided training, and each school has its own name. For example, there is the Leader dog school, pilot dogs, guide dogs for the blind, just to name a few. A generic name would be dog guide, and I think this term is most acceptable to all dog guide users.

In order for a blind person to travel competently and independently, it is of the utmost importance for her/him to receive instruction in cane travel from a competent mobility teacher. However, that may sound easier than it actually is. The key to being a good traveler is in one's confidence level. Unfortunately, many orientation and mobility teachers do not themselves believe that blind people are capable of safe independent travel and thus build in many fears and limitations in their students. I do not believe this is intentional on the part of the teachers, but rather stems from their limiting, stereotypic attitudes about blindness. After all, how can mobility instructors build confidence and security in their students when they themselves lack that fundamental faith in the abilities of blind people?

Too many blind people believe that a dog guide will solve any problems they may be experiencing with their travel skills. The dog works on commands only. It does not possess any amazing power or sense of direction. The user must be in control at all times and give the dog the appropriate commands and directions. A classic comment made by the sighted person waiting on a street corner with blind dog guide user will be, "Isn't that wonderful! Your dog will take you across the street when the traffic light is in your favor." Of course this is nonsense since dogs are color-blind and therefore have no way of knowing whether the light is red or green. The blind person monitors the traffic and gives the dog the appropriate command before any street crossing occurs.

Another misconception is that the dog guide will identify buildings that the traveler may wish to find. The user must always have good information and good travel skills at his command in order to be an effective dog guide user.

I think it is important to remember that a dog guide has some inherent limitations simply because it is an animal. Although it is generally recognized that there is little difference between the competent use of a dog guide and the competent use of a cane, the responsibility incurred with the former technique is indeed far greater. Simply put, one need not feed, groom, or vaccinate one's cane, and one must realize that the decision to get a dog guide must not be undertaken without consideration of the accompanying responsibilities. The user-dog guide relationship also embraces far more than the owner-pet relationship in that the relationship is essentially a working one. In assessing the merits and limitations of using a dog guide, one's evaluation must be guided by reason rather than sentiment.

Whether or not you choose to use a cane or a dog, the key to independent travel lies in a high level of self-confidence. Making this decision is a very personal choice, and it is important to respect each person's individual decision.

Should you as parents get a dog for your child? Absolutely not. Most schools will not accept an applicant under the age of 16. However, at the age of 16, blind people have not had enough cane travel experience to make an informed decision about whether or not to use a dog guide. Placing a dog guide in the hands of a child is a disservice to both the animal and the child.

I was asked to write my views on dog guides and there you have them. Yes, I am a dog guide user --and yes, I am a white cane user. I am fortunate to have received excellent cane travel instruction; it was unfortunate that it came much later in my life. There are times when I enjoy using my dog very much, and at other times using my white cane is much more efficient. And so you see there is no clear-cut answer to the question of which mobility tool to use -- cane or dog. I leave it up to you, the reader, to decide.

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