It’s already won the hearts and minds of many festival-goers throughout the country. Now it’s our turn. In the new highly entertaining and successfully informative documentary from directors Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman, Pick of the Litter, as soon as you witness the birth of five Labrador puppies, three black, two yellow, hearts will melt. It’s going to happen. Unless you really don’t like dogs, or you’re a hardcore, dedicated cat lover, and only a furry feline in the house will do, it’s going to happen.
Chronicling the lives of those five newborns as they begin their exacting journey to becoming guide dogs for the blind, Pick of the Litter begins with the fun of picking names. After a title card informs that 800 dogs are born at Guide Dogs for the Blind every year, with only 300 making it all the way to becoming guides, the caring people of the San Rafael, California based GDB campus brainstorm names for the new litter. “Phil it is!” they happily declare at the conclusion of picking a series of monikers then eliminating them down to 5, all beginning with the letter ‘P.’ In addition to the solid-sounding Phil, there’s also Patriot, Primrose, Potomac, and Poppet; three boys, two girls.
We’ve all seen guide dogs in public, but most of us, it’s fair to say, have no clue what is entailed, or how long a qualified customer has to wait in order to finally receive their trained dog. After approval, the wait may be up to a year.
After about eight weeks on campus where the pups are monitored on their early behavior – “They not showing any uneasiness with things in their environment,” observes one of the handlers – the young dogs are ready for their foster families, or Puppy Raisers. The pups will be with their raisers for approximately the next sixteen months where they’ll learn social skills.
Being a raiser requires a special quality. Raiser families have to have the mindset from the beginning that the puppy is not really theirs. The parting at a later date can and probably will be difficult, no matter how prepared the families think they are. In one unfortunate example, a raiser called Patti is told that the GDB has decided to transfer Phil to a more experienced raiser, citing that this was always the plan from the beginning. A heartbroken Patti insists she was never told this in advance. “That was so devastating,” Patti tells us, “It was a blindside. I’m so angry.”
A military vet is thrilled when he’s accepted to be a raiser. “A dog gives me purpose,” he states, but even though the military has taught him discipline and the need to be a stickler for the rules, he can’t suppress a tear when the time comes to hand his puppy over. “It doesn’t make an empty house any easier,” he states.
There’s also the issue of a dog not making the grade from almost the beginning. In GDB parlance, the term ‘Career Change’ is a polite way of saying that a dog has been cut from the program. In the case of these five puppies, one is noticeably rambunctious from the outset when out on walks. He pulls on the leash, plus he’s continually distracted by everything around him with a desire to lunge at things that take his attention. If statistics have already informed that only 300 out of the original 800 will make it, we’re already aware that some of our intrepid 5 are going to be ‘career changed’ at some point along the journey. “All right, mister,” a GDB member tells one of the dogs when it’s clear that being a guide dog is not in his future. “Civilian life for you.”
Directors Hardy Jr. and Nachman’s documentary both educates as well as entertains, and there are plenty of cute shots of Labrador puppies, but how can there not be? Plus, it adds layers of several emotional ups and downs that creep up on you when you least expect them. You can’t help but feel for a raiser family when they have to give their dog up, ready for the next level of training. You might even shed a tear along with family members; how can you not? But more importantly, the Pick of the Litter is fun.
Like a reality TV show with its rounds of elimination until the big climax, the documentary keeps you guessing which of the five pups will make it. And you’ll have your favorites. You may even cheer. After a lengthy wait and a lifetime of having to use a cane, when customer Ron Strother is finally awarded his guide dog, brought to him by the letter ‘P,’ he’s only too aware that his life and his ability to get about is about to change. “To say that I’m grateful is an understatement,” he declares with the broadest of smiles.
At the film’s conclusion, one, maybe two – I’m saying nothing – will make it. The remaining few will be career changed. For one of the dogs, the change for her will be that of a breeder. Just as we saw at the beginning, one of the original five will ultimately give birth to five new puppies, all of whom will go on to be trained as potential guide dogs. New names will be chosen, and the process will begin again. And let me repeat, hearts will melt. Guaranteed.
MPAA: NR Length: 80 Minutes
Please Note: Pick of the Litter will have an exclusive showing in the valley at Shea 14 theatres beginning September 14