Why a Guide Dog Needs a White Stick

Using a White Cane may be counter intuitive for a blind Guide Dog User but David Grifit explains why it is essential.


Guide dog Mobility Instructors are normally great. However, when I was first introduced to Training 6 years ago, before I even got Nyle, an instructor, who shall remain nameless, told me that I should never use a white Stick with a Guide Dog. Her argument was that my using a cane would “confuse my dog”.

In many other areas this Instructor trained me effectively but I am afraid not in this particular area.  I was reminded of this issue when I recently met another guide Dog owner who had also received this advice. In her case it is now causing her problems. So it appears I was not alone. Now reflecting on several years of working with Nyle I now believe that this is the single worst piece of guide dog advice I have ever received. Certainly for a completely blind guide dog user this is dangerous policy. In the years since I have talked with other Guide Dog Mobility Instructors who agree with me. This blog is written just in case anybody else gets this poor instruction. To explain why this advice was so unfortunate I will recount a journey with Nyle I undertook a couple of weeks ago.

ON this day we travelled on a regular, routine trip to Bart’s Hospital, but on this day all sorts of unexpected complications occurred.

The first problem is that our local Train Station was unstaffed. No assistance was available. This is an especial issue here as it has one of the most dangerous gaps between the train and the platform I have ever encountered. In fact on a couple of occasions I have fallen down this gap, the second occasions necessitating several months of hospital and nurse home visits. I was obviously anxious not to repeat this. There is simply no way a dog can safely lead you across this gap. You have to perform a Basil Fawlty type lunge to bridge the gap successfully.

When I heard the train coming I ask Nyle to find the door. This he faithfully did. Now however I had to drop the harness and allow Nyle to leap across. Now I pulled out my white stick and checked the gap between the train and the platform. I was able to find the right side of the door. Whilst at the same time checking I was not about to slip. Now , slipping the loop of my stick over my wrist, and whilst still holding Nyle’s lead with my left hand , I grasped the side of the door with my right hand and was able to haul myself safely on. This is not a straightforward manoeuvre but practice makes it easier.

As train gaps go this is an extreme chasm but using a combination of Nyle and a stick I was able to get on safely. Nyle could find the door, something I would otherwise find difficult, but I needed the stick to safely navigate the gap.

After departing the train with no issue and catching a tube we exited the Barbican Station as normal. Nyle started to guide me down Aldersgate. However after 50 yards Nyle came to a stop. Now the point is that however skilled your dog is, and I think Nyle is superb, he cannot talk to you. Without a white stick I would have been forced to slowly shuffle forward to try and feel with feet and hands what was worrying Nyle. With a cane I was able to easily and safely identify that there were two problems. Firstly there were major roadworks which had completely blocked the pavement, but more particularly there was an extremely dangerous ramp which had been constructed to direct you onto the road. Nyle had every reason to be worried. I found it was actually a trip hazard, with the front lip of the ramp curled up into the air. I think it was dangerous for people who could see, let alone those who could not. If I had not had a stick I would almost certainly have fallen. I was however able to step over the danger. Once safely pass the hazard Nyle was perfectly happy to lead me alongside the roadworks and then pull me back onto the pavement. Without my white stick there would have been too much pressure on Nyle, he may have eventually thought he had no choice but to try guiding me over this trip menace.

After attending the hospital we found another issue. Just outside, after Nyle led me to a Pelican crossing, I put out my hand to feel for the push button control box. To my confusion I felt only fresh air. I was instantly disorientated – had Nyle brought me to the right crossing? Pulling out my cane I again investigated. It turned out that the box had been removed. However using my stick I was able to find another box the other end of the tactile area which allowed us to cross safely.

After repeating the negotiation back through the Aldersgate roadworks with a combination of Nyle and my cane, we returned to the Barbican station, only to find that in the short time we were away, this station also had become unstaffed. After the difficult previous experience,  which I covered in my last blog, we now had a technique to deal with this. Nyle guided me down to the relevant platform, where I then put my back against the wall and called out for sighted help. Basically I ask somebody to inform me when our train was at the platform so I knew with certainty I could safely board the train. I then again asked Nyle to “find the door”.

Ironically at the Barbican there is the extreme opposite difficulty to the problem I had earlier. There is virtually no gap between the tube and the platform and the tube is flush level with the platform. This means is that if I simply let Nyle guide me onto the train I will have no sensation or awareness of when I have entered the train. The problem is that there is completely level footing. This can result in uncertainty, am I on the train or not? It can also result in a stumble or a fall if you are standing on the tube and it departs before you have found a hand hold.

The solution is again to use a white stick. As Nyle guides me to the door of the tube I simply let my stick, with its rollerball tip, roll across the ground as he leads me onto the train. My stick will click when it meets the inch wide gap between the train and the platform giving me perfect feedback as to when I have embarked.

So finally back to our local station. I asked Nyle as usual to find the stairs down to the station exit. However on this occasion when he stopped at the top flight of stairs I was yet again waving my hand in thin air. I was unable to feel my normal handrail I use to guide us down. It turned out that the station, in their wisdom had replaced the old handrail. The new rail, unlike the old rail, did not protrude beyond the top of the stairs. This is actually in breach of building regulations. You should be able to feel a handrail before you start to descend steps for safety reason.  Nevertheless with this new rail I discovered you need to be on the lip of the first step before you can feel it. This is obviously dangerous but after swishing my hand uselessly I had to again resort to using my white stick. I was then able to discover the location of this new perilous handrail on the cusp of the stairs.

Recently I asked the guide Dog owner who had received similar advice not to use her cane what she did when her dog stopped because of roadworks and other problems. She told me that all she could do was to return home.  She is feeling increasingly trapped because of all the building works where she lives. This cannot be right.

Now all this sounds stressful for what should, for me,  be a routine journey to the Hospital, and to an extent it was. However just imagine how much extra stress would have been involved if I had not taken a white stick. Accidents would have been more likely on at least 4 occasions. There would have been some stress for me but perhaps more importantly enormous stress and pressure would have been placed on Nyle. On this journey using my cane did not “confuse” Nyle. It enabled us to clarify options.

90% or even 95% of the time Nyle deals with problems, I am sure most of the time without me even being aware of it. However I will always carry my stick folded up in its leather case for those occasions in which Nyle needs help. It is only fair on your dog.

David Griffith.