Braille Monitor                                                                                 January 2006


Old Nate

by Fredric K. Schroeder

Fred Schroeder
Fred Schroeder

From the Editor: Dr. Fred Schroeder is a member of the National Federation of the Blind board of directors and president of the NFB of Virginia. He is a research professor at San Diego State University and a former commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration. But long before he was any of these things, he was the first blind person to earn a master’s degree from San Francisco State University in orientation and mobility. That is what makes his introduction to Nate, a guide dog in training, so interesting. This is the way he tells the story:

I have been a cane user for all of my adult life. Over the years I have observed blind people with guide dogs who travel well and, of course, some who travel less well.

As a cane user I have a hard time understanding what it would be like to use a guide dog. It seems as though the method of orientation must be significantly different, and as with most
differences we tend to assume that the familiar must be better than the unfamiliar. This is human nature; we assume our way of life is better than the way of life of others. We assume that our form of government is better than the forms of government of other countries. The assumption that the familiar is inherently better than the unfamiliar extends to many things in our lives—to food, dress, music, religion, and so on. In other words, much of what we assume to be superior is nothing more than an expression of the comfort of the known as contrasted with the fear and apprehension of the unknown.

For the most part this is harmless. It leads us to order the steak instead of the escargots, to select the soft-rock station instead of the rap. If the draw to the familiar were nothing more than a choice of meal or CD to add to our collections, no great harm would be done. The truth is, however, that our choices, our devotion to the known, are also the root of prejudice and intolerance. They lead us to talk about “those people,” as if people from other lands, races, and cultures are alien, apart from us. They lead us to look down on difference. We ask, “How can kids today listen to that noise?”

So I use a cane; I have as long as I have been blind. I like using a cane. I find it comfortable, efficient, and familiar. But does that mean it is better? And, if so, is it better in general or just better for me?

At the 2004 national convention I had lunch with an old friend, Michael Hingson. I have known Michael since the mid-seventies when we were both living in California and active in the Student Division. Over lunch Michael and I talked about many things, including Michael’s move back to California following his escape from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He now works with Guide Dogs for the Blind, one of the largest and most respected guide dog training programs in the nation. Michael invited me to visit Guide Dogs, tour the facility, meet the staff, learn about the training, and try out a dog. So a few months later, in November 2004, I took him up on his offer.

After a day and a half of meetings and touring the program, the time came for me to try out a dog. Michael introduced me to one of the experienced trainers at the school who would prepare me for my trial experience with a dog. The session began with a Juno walk—a rolled-up piece of carpet with a harness, affectionately called Juno, simulating a guide dog. The instructor introduced me to the various aspects of working with a dog and had me practice walking with Juno.

Then came the part I had been waiting for, I was introduced to Nate, a young black Lab in training to become a real guide dog. Now I am not a dog person. I like dogs well enough but am not the type of person who would have a dog or, for that matter, any animal as a pet. I assumed I would like the dog but did not expect to have much in the way of an emotional response or an immediate sense of attachment to him. Yet from the first moment I met Nate, I found myself deeply touched. He was the sweetest dog, gentle, loving, and affectionate. He wanted to please, and even though he and I had just met, he wanted to please me.

We began with a few basic commands. The trainer told me to give Nate the command to “sit.” Still moved by the unexpected attachment I was feeling toward Nate, I gently said, “Nate, sit.” But Nate did not sit. Instead he turned his head and looked up at me over his shoulder. It struck me that the command to sit was purely arbitrary, and there was really no particular reason for him to obey. Apparently Nate felt the same way, also seeing no value in sitting. It might have ended there, but the trainer told me to repeat the command firmly while pushing down on Nate’s backside to show him that I meant it.

I knew that dogs are pack animals, and as a pack animal Nate knew that someone had to be in charge. Clearly Nate had in mind that the one in charge should be him, and that seemed perfectly reasonable to me. After all, he had had much more experience with this than I had, but I remembered the Juno walk and the dreaded leash correction—a sharp snap of the leash to get the dog’s attention and let him know you are serious. It occurred to me that, if I didn’t get Nate to sit, the trainer might well direct me to give this sweet, gentle animal a leash correction. It would break my heart. I repeated the command to sit with all the firmness I could muster, silently pleading with Nate to go along with the charade and pretend that I was the one in charge. To my relief Nate complied and complied with all the subsequent commands I was asked to give. He sat, stayed, heeled, and so on. Of course he would; he had been well trained and was a smart fellow.

Then came time to actually walk around the campus. I had several impressions all at once. I found the speed exhilarating. I am used to walking at a good pace, but I was surprised by Nate’s speed. He stepped right out, and I must say I enjoyed the pace. As trained, when he came to a curb, Nate stopped on a dime, while I, less practiced and less graceful, did not. In short order, however, I found it was not hard to react quickly when Nate stopped, but I also found I was concentrating intently on Nate’s movements so as to be able to react at the right time. This affected my orientation. While concentrating on Nate and his movements, I was not paying attention to what was around me. In a few minutes I found myself disoriented, and I don’t mean a little disoriented—I was lost.

Years ago I taught cane travel in Nebraska. It occurred to me that what I was experiencing was precisely what my new students did when first learning to use a cane. I used to call it “following your cane tip.” New students are so focused on what their canes are touching that they ignore all the other cues around them. I was following my cane tip, or more precisely I was following Nate and ignoring the sound cues and the other information in the environment.

In my short time with Nate, I never got past concentrating on his movements to the exclusion of other information. Yet I assume that this is easily remedied with time and experience. All too quickly the time was up. It was time for Nate to return to his duties and for me to move on to the next phase of my visit. Hugging Nate goodbye, I could see just how deep the bond must become between a blind person and his or her guide dog. I felt bonded to Nate, and Nate, doubtless knowing that he was the alpha dog in our little pack, seemed genuinely attached to me as well.

I do not know if I will ever get a dog. Right now I doubt it. I have used a cane for so long and find it so comfortable and familiar that I cannot imagine changing to a new way of traveling. I still have a hard time understanding how people using dogs orient themselves. For me the contact of my cane with objects I encounter is basic to the way I learn my way around and integral to building a complete picture of the world. Yet I know that many blind people use dogs. Some are well oriented and others are not, but the fact that some are leads me to assume that it can be done. I suspect it is for many of the same reasons that some blind people who use canes are well oriented and others are not. Some people have better natural ability to orient themselves than others; some have had better training—training rooted in high expectations; and some pay more attention than others. If I used a dog regularly, I assume I would learn to be as well oriented as I am with my cane, but I don’t know for sure. It may be that in some situations a cane is better and in others a dog is an advantage.

One problem is that you really cannot test drive a guide dog. To give it a fair test, I would have to use a dog for a long time—I assume a year or more. But after a year with Nate, I would not be able simply to make an objective appraisal and dispassionately select between my cane and Nate as if they were merely objects. When I leave my cane, it does not kiss me goodbye. As hard as it was to say goodbye to Nate after only thirty minutes, I know I would not be able just to hand him over after months of being together; and, even if I could, it would not be fair to Nate. Not meaning to be boastful, but I assume Nate would find it as hard as I to live and work together for a year or more, then simply shake hands and walk away with no regrets.

The decision to get a guide dog seems to me to be a kind of leap of faith—acting on the belief that, given all of the practical and lifestyle considerations—the person decides to go with a dog instead of the cane. For some I assume the choice is easy. True dog lovers would probably find the prospect of a dog in their lives a welcome addition. For others the choice is likely more one of function, the care of the dog, and the individual’s lifestyle.

Speaking personally I cannot see a dog in my life; I like using a cane. Perhaps it is merely out of habit and familiarity, but whatever the reason I am comfortable with it. Perhaps it is because I suspect that I do not have it in me to be the alpha dog in the relationship; who knows? Yet I will never forget the experience and the attachment I felt to this young, energetic dog who seemed so guileless and eager—so loving and ready to please—ready to become a part of my life and, if I was not up to the job, the leader of our pack.