After watching “Pick of the Litter,” you may need to go lie down, or at least sit in a quiet room for a few minutes to collect yourself. Dana Nachman and Don Hardy’s documentary, a hit at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year, is so filled with genuine doggy goodness that even this avowed cat person found herself utterly charmed. I mean, come on – puppies licking the camera lens? Staring into space, with a look of mildly confused nobility? Exuberantly greeting a new owner, a blind person who has waited many months for this day?
If you can resist any of this, you are made of sterner stuff than I. “Pick of the Litter” follows five puppies born to a breeder dog at Guide Dogs for the Blind, a guide dog school in operation since 1942 in San Rafael, California. We meet the squirming Labs on the day of their birth; charmingly named Potomac, Poppet, Patriot, Primrose and Phil. The puppies are sent to live with volunteer puppy raisers (including Rebecca and Eric Minelga of Snohomish, Washington) until they are 15 to 17 months old. At that time, they return to GDB and enter training to become full-fledged guide dogs.
There’s an unexpected element of tension here: Only the best, brightest and most perfectly trained dogs make it to that final category. The film tells us that out of 800 puppies born in a typical year, about 300 become working guide dogs; the rest either become breeders or are “career changed,” a strangely corporate phrase that basically means they become somebody’s pet. A couple of the P’s get career changed – in the film, we see their names being dramatically removed from a recurring graphic of the litter – and you could swear they seem a bit embarrassed, because every dog in this sweetly earnest movie seems to have a strong sense of responsibility.
“Pick of the Litter” teaches us some interesting things about guide-dog training (the dogs, for example, are taught “intelligent disobedience” – how to ignore a command that might lead its owner into danger). And it reveals something deeply moving, between the cute-puppy moments: the bond between dogs and their humans, and the everyday miracle the trained dogs bring. At the end, one of the P’s (I won’t spoil the suspense) happily leads Ron – blind since early childhood – on a hike; they look the very picture of freedom.
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