It doesn’t take more to make people see the documentary “Pick of the Litter” than to say one word: Puppies!
But the cute baby Labradors we meet at the beginning aren’t just on display for our amusement. They are here to work, doing one of the hardest and most noble jobs a pooch could have: Acting as a guide dog for a blind person.
Directors Dana Nachman and Don Hardy follow the two-year process it takes to train a guide dog, and they start with an impressive statistic: Of the 800 pups born into Guide Dogs for the Blind’s breeding program every year, only 300 make it all the way through the program to work and live with blind and vision-impaired people.
The movie follows one litter of five pups through the process. The pups are given names, all starting with the same letter of the alphabet. In this case, it’s “P,” and the staff brainstorm the names Potomac, Patriot, Phil, Primrose and Poppet. The pups spend about two months at GDB’s facility in San Rafael, Calif., going through basic moves to get accustomed to walking on different surfaces without hesitating.
From 2 months to 16 months, the dogs go to live with volunteer families, who help train the dogs how to handle being around people calmly. If a dog is too high-strung or energetic, he or she may be moved to a different foster family, sometimes more than once. Every three months, the dogs are tested for their temperament, and some may wash out of the program — the polite term is “career changed” — then and there.
The third step is back at GDB’s facility, with a rigorous 10-week training program to get them to master obedience and their abilities to sense and avoid dangers — including busy sidewalks and oncoming cars. At the start of this phase, some of the female dogs learn their fate isn’t to be a guide but to be mama to the next generation of pups.
Nachman and Hardy capture the personalities of the five dogs, but more fascinating are the vignettes of the humans who train them. The most fascinating is Adam, an Iraq War veteran who’s still adjusting to civilian life, and hopes concentrating on the dogs’ welfare will help him overcome his own post-traumatic stress.
“Pick of the Litter” has built-in suspense, as we wait breathlessly at every turn to see which dogs make the cut and which ones don’t. You may find yourself rooting for each of the five, hoping they’ll get matched with kind people waiting for a guide dog and the independence such an animal provides.
‘Pick of the Litter’
Opened August 31 in select cities; opens Friday, Sept. 28 at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Not rated, but probably PG for mild thematic elements. Running time: 81 minutes.