Grads share their stories of going from cane to canine.
For many of GDA’s graduates, there was an “aha moment” when they knew it was time to take the next step toward greater mobility and independence — making the switch from a white cane to a guide dog. Here, we share stories of three of our graduates about when they knew the time had come and the difference that having a guide dog has made for them in their lives.
In addition to these graduate stories, we have included quotes from several of our graduates in response to the question, “Was there a specific incident or moment that made you realize that you needed to transition from a cane to a guide dog?”
Is it a stick or a snake?
Karen Lemmon went outside after a windstorm to pick up the branches scattered on their ranch property. She used the tip of her white cane to help her find the fallen limbs, which she then tossed into a wheelbarrow. When she picked up one of the “sticks” it moved. She had just picked up (and thrown) a “great big bull snake.” Lemmon, whose vision loss has been progressive, decided that day that it was time to “make the switch from white cane to wise dog.”
Lemmon, who has been working with her second guide dog, Sal, since 2012, keeps busy on the ranch and off. In the summer months, the team may be found giving tours at the state park.
“When I’m giving a tour and I get to walking and talking too much, it’s Sal who reminds me to stop before I lead the group across the road that cuts through the park,” said Lemmon. “He takes my job as his job. It’s not just me giving the tour; Sal is the tour guide too. Everyone loves him.”
Lemmon, who also does work with the National Federation of the Blind, appreciates the freedom, assurance and faster pace that she has from having a guide dog.
“I can move a lot faster and I am more secure. I’m not very good with the cane; it’s a slow process for me,” said Lemmon. “I’m able to walk straight and move out of the way of obstacles. I have traveled alone by plane many times. With a cane, I am very tentative and people tend to not approach you as often. When someone sees you with a dog they are much more likely to ask if they can be of any assistance.”
When using a cane, a blind person needs to stay constantly focused so they don’t miss what the cane is telling them.
“If I am not concentrating fully — if I don’t ‘listen’ to the cane — it’s quite likely that I will bump into something or someone. Plus, Sal sees those things that my cane might not come in contact with,” said Lemmon. “I can rely on him to make decisions and lead me around things that I may not have detected with a cane; the cane doesn’t have a brain. I trust Sal to make the decisions because that is what he was trained to do.”
Watch your step…
It was the mid-’60s, and Alberta Hall was living in Brooklyn. She was in her early 20s and, looking to become more independent, started cane mobility lessons. Practicing with an instructor at the subway station, the still-new cane-user almost fell onto the subway tracks.
“When I asked the instructor how this could be prevented his answer was, ‘Well, if it happens once, I guarantee you won’t do it again,’” said Hall. “I had seen what a guide dog did for friends, but hadn’t considered one for myself until that moment.”
It was still a few years before she applied to GDA but, in 1969, Hall graduated with her first guide dog.
“Having a guide dog changed everything for me,” said Hall. “The dog gave me the freedom to go where I wanted, when I wanted. I didn’t have to think about it. With my guide dog, I felt safer when I was out by myself, especially on the New York City subway. When using the cane, I had to feel for the edge. If you missed it, then down you’d go. With my guide dog, it was no longer a concern.”
Hall, who traded the city streets for country roads long ago graduated with her current guide dog, Loman, in 2010.
“He’ll walk me around ditches and pot holes and take me around things that are in my way, things that I may have missed with my cane,” said Hall. “He stays right on the edge of the road. When he knows a car is coming, he will move me over to the side.”
Hall has developed balance problems, and her guide dog also provides the support and counterbalance she needs.
“If I didn’t have a guide dog, I would be petrified to travel,” said Hall. “I’m not a good cane traveler. I have had guide dogs for more than 40 years and would never be without one. I could never go back to using a cane.”
Greg Hoover has one word to describe how having a guide dog changed his life. “Freedom!”
“Having a guide dog gives me freedom! The cane touches everything, including people,” said Hoover. “The dog passes by or goes around. I have not only freedom on the street, but peace of mind.”
Hoover has been blind for 37 years. The first few years, he relied on a cane for mobility but he was not comfortable working with it and decided a guide dog would give him greater mobility. He received his first guide dog in 1980 and, in 2009, Hoover graduated from GDA with his current dog, Kuma.
“I would hear comments from people about the cane and I would worry about what the cane was touching,” said Hoover. “After I got a guide dog I would hear, ‘What a beautiful dog.’ It took the emphasis off of me. I no longer feel insecure about being blind.”
For Hoover, having a guide dog has made a great difference.
“I am able to move quickly and I don’t worry about bumping into things,” said Hoover. “The dog also makes a big difference in crossing the street safely — he keeps me in the crosswalk and going straight.”
Hoover works at a racquet club within walking distance from his home and it’s his guide dog that gets him there.
“We live in the Midwest and we can get a lot of snow and ice in the winter,” said Hoover. “With a cane, you can’t go through heavy snow, you can’t feel anything. With my guide dog, it’s no problem at all.”
Before an applicant can be accepted as a GDA “student,” he/she must already be an experienced, independent traveler, which most often means they’ve had a full Orientation and Mobility (O&M) training course, including using a cane. For our graduates, a guide dog is a step toward greater mobility and independence. We asked some our students to respond to the question, “Was there a specific incident or moment that made you realize that you needed to transition from a cane to a guide dog?”
“Before I lost my vision, I was a fast walker. I liked to get to my destinations quickly. With a cane I was always running into or bumping into obstacles. I found that when I transitioned to a guide dog, those issues were no longer a problem.”
“I find that using a cane makes me tired and frustrated within a block. With my guide dog, I can walk like I am on a cloud.”
“Twenty years ago I broke my left hip and it was repaired with pins. I fell due to my diminishing sight. I was able to rehab and learn to walk again with a support cane. As my sight loss worsened, it was time to transition to a guide dog. I work with a large dog to keep my balance on the weaker side. It is awesome to be able to be independent and travel easily.”
“I had been walking up to three miles each way with my guide dog. When I retired him, I thought I’d see what life was like without a guide. I found that I was just staying home or using the bus to avoid walking with the cane. Within the first month, my exercise and independence had declined so drastically that I couldn’t sign up fast enough for my next dog. I’m so much happier now with my second dog. I encounter more people because I am out in the community much more.”
“The final decision was made when a gentleman, about 15 years older than I was at the time, blew by me on the sidewalk with his guide dog while I continued to tap-tap-tap along with a cane. It made me look like I was waiting for a bus.”
“When my first guide dog, a beautiful Golden Retriever, passed away, I swore I would never go through a heartbreak like that again. About a year later, I noticed my frustrations with using a white cane. My cane would get mixed up in table legs, corners, people’s legs, etc. It also didn’t respond with love and devotion like my guide dog did. I longed for that feeling again. Along came my second guide dog. It’s the best decision I could have made. My cane did not warn me about danger or curl around my legs like my four-legged best friend. I love her so much.”
“During the two years leading up to my decision to get a guide dog, I was a student attempting to safely negotiate a crowded college campus. I became increasingly tired of my cane getting stuck in uneven terrain, running into everything (especially other people), the non-intuitiveness of an inanimate object and my general lack of confidence. All of those things combined made me desire something better… a partnership with a guide dog. After working with Persia for five years, I can say — without a doubt — that it was the best decision I ever made!”
“I have a dear friend who got her first guide dog, and I observed how gracefully she moved through traffic. I knew then that I wanted a guide dog.”
“It was the day I fell over a cement pylon and hit my head on the back of a car bumper. I never dreamed I’d ever need a guide dog but it was the best thing I’ve ever done.”
“Bringing home my first guide dog returned not merely independence to my life but the light of human kindness. The guide dogs are a magnet for love and compassion, and I am privileged to be able to share in that.”
Guide Dogs of America’s remaining classes for 2017 are scheduled in June, July, October, and November.