by Lois Wencil

Copyright © 1995, 2010
National Federation of the Blind

From the Associate Editor: Both dog guide and cane users would probably agree that life is more lively and complex with a dog. Canes don't look intelligent, cute, or patient. No one is tempted to pat them or talk to them inappropriately, and while one's children may occasionally experiment with the cane, a toy lawn mower or baton can usually be substituted with great success. In short, there isn't much competition for the affections of or the control over a white cane. Moreover, despite the attractions of devotion and sentient companionship, dog guide users must go outdoors in unpleasant weather and work constantly to maintain in the dog's mind and that of every human being in contact with the team that the blind person is in command and controls every situation. Sometimes this is easier to accomplish than others. Clearly, however, committed dog guide users find these annoyances a small price to pay for the satisfaction of working with a responsive animal.

          In the December, 1990, edition of “Harness-Up,” the publication of the National Association of Dog Guide Users, Lois Wencil of Millburn, New Jersey, wrote an amusing piece about this ongoing struggle. Everyone who has ever battled a toddler for supremacy in any arena will sympathize with Mrs. Wencil, who has written many other articles, two books, and a computer tutorial. She has been a rehab teacher, holds an M.A. in special education, and is the parent of two children. Here is the article:

          From the time our son arrived home from the hospital, friends would ask me if I wasn't afraid that my dog guide was jealous or might hurt the baby. As he grew, it was, however, Steve who terrorized her and stretched her endless patience. When he crawled, who better to chase? How still she remained as he pulled himself up by her fur. She seemed to know that if she moved he would fall. Fawn did learn to jump that spring; on several occasions she gracefully cleared the gate that confined Steve to our first floor. His attempts to cut his teeth on her resulted only in mouthfuls of hair. Although we tried our best to rescue her and barricade her from him, she felt compelled to be near me; I needed to be close to him. She, therefore, learned to tolerate this invader into what had once been her domain. First a front pack, then a backpack, and finally a stroller pulled behind kept him safe and her out of his reach when we were outdoors. Sitting prettily at my side, she watched carefully all who stopped to admire our carry-about. My pats and praise were what she wanted.

          As he became too heavy and prideful to be conveyed, she slowed her pace to accommodate his stride. Pausing at the down curb, I would scoop him up and carry him across the street. Our purchases were carried in a camping backpack now; my purse was left at home; I wore only clothes with plenty of pocket space for tissues, lollipops, and money.

          All went smoothly until we began discussing crossing streets; red light means..., green light means...,etc. We learned to be quiet at corners so Mommy could hear the traffic; he learned stop, look, and listen before you cross the street. He took great pride and joy in knowing when we could safely cross. Then Steve began to command in his deepest, strongest voice, "Forward, Fawn!"

          What a quandary; learn but don't practice! If she should respond, should I correct her? Yes! We discussed and rediscussed this point of order, but he was so very proud of his new knowledge. "I'll tell the dog, Mom! My job." In this case, however, there could be no opportunity to let him try.

          So we struggled on. He now was growing heavier; at four he would not be treated like a baby. A second traveler would be on board in about five more months. The pregnancy made carrying him both imprudent and dangerous.

          In total frustration he began to demand, "Leave dog home; I'll wear the harness!" This was out of the question. "Don't use a cane like Daddy; I'll take you. I'm your big helper." I quickly put a stop to his even trying on the harness because Fawn did resent it. The result was a tug of war between them. The struggle for supremacy raged on!

          On a windy spring day we all began a trip for a light load of groceries. "Go, Mommy! We can cross."

          With trees swishing, it was difficult for me to hear. "Please be quiet so we can listen."

          "No! Go! Forward, bad girl."

          Dropping my harness, I patted my friend. "Good girl!" Then turning to him, "Do not tell the dog what to do. I give the command and she moves when it is safe."

          This was too much for the budding child-traffic guard to bear. Enraged, he sank to the sidewalk and began to screech. Enough was enough for poor Fawn too. She lowered herself to the pavement and, uncharacteristically, began to whine. What a sight to behold! First I got one up into position and then turned to the other. In the meantime, the first had gone down once again. A car stopped so its owner could offer assistance. However, when I offered both my charges to him as a gift, he beat a hasty retreat. Spanking time had arrived. We drank water instead of juice that afternoon. A week of playing only in the yard convinced Steve that Mommy alone gave the dog commands. For some time after that episode, he remained at home with Dad or a neighbor while the dog and I went shopping.

          Supremacy had been determined. When my daughter eventually took her place as a toddler walking beside me, she also learned to cross streets with less talk and more action. Yet today we all still travel safely.

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