Pick of the Litter

The outstanding documentary Pick of the Litter, co-directed by Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman, follows a litter of puppies for two years from birth through training and graduation (or washout, gently called “career change” here) to be Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB).

The tone is light while the topic is serious. The film keeps this balance throughout and dog lovers (at least, probably everybody) will need to hold the edge of their seats to see how the dogs fare in the process.

“…follows a litter of puppies for two years from birth through training and graduation

For two years, the dogs train for the ultimate responsibility: to protect their blind partners from harm. The dogs encounter an army of people from those volunteers who raise them from pups and then hand off to trainers, to the vets and staff at GDB.

The notion that you can or should train a dog to disobey his/her owner is counterintuitive, but it’s clear that’s what must happen when the dog is the guide in charge of safety for both animal and owner. It’s fascinating seeing how this training is done and surprising when it works.

The people with the dogs are equal measures awesome and annoying in the proportions you’d expect. Except for the clients hoping to get guide dogs, none of the human cast stands out: the dogs are the stars. This is the “P” litter: Patriot, Poppet, Potomac, Primrose, and Phil. They have distinct personalities and capabilities. It’s a rare animal with the intelligence and trainability to be a guide. My own dog holds down the sofa OK and can find his food and water and that’s about the limit of his skill and ambition.

“…that you can or should train a dog to disobey his/her owner is counterintuitive…

The most difficult moment is when a handoff takes place. My gut reaction was “hell no” as it was explained that the first part of the puppy’s life is spent with a volunteer raiser for a year or so then they must give the dog back. For a dog person, a dog quickly becomes part of the household woven into daily life. The intent to take a dog as a newborn and then give him or her away after a year is repulsive. Like giving away your cousin or your own kid. I know people who would have trouble parting with the dog after a long afternoon. Yet, this needs to be done. The service provided through GDB is invaluable and only someone who will engage deeply can be trusted to raise a puppy.

About dog people: GDB staff and everyone interacting with the dogs uses the correct gendered pronouns: her, him. This is a “dog person” flag. Anyone who refers to a dog as “it” slides down my priority scale of “souls to pull out of burning building” a bit. 

Hardy and Nachman’s film is the uncommon near-perfect documentary: the filmic elements fade, done so well the viewer focuses on the dogs and their journey. All of this leads up to the tremendous joy of freedom and partnership for those whose lives are transformed by their new guide dogs.

Pick of the Litter (2018). Directed by Don Hardy Jr., Dana Nachman. Written by Dana Nachman. Starring Patriot, Poppet, Potomac, Primrose, and Phil. The world premiere of Pick Of The Litter was held at the Slamdance Film Festival opening night film presentations on Jan 19th.

8 out of 10

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