When you notice a blind person with a seeing-eye dog do you ever wonder how that dog was trained? “Pick of the Litter,” co-directed by Dana Nachman, also the screenwriter, and Don Hardy, is an utterly fascinating documentary that digs into the entire two-year process, which is even more complicated than one might imagine. Watching any group of dogs has built-in appeal for dog lovers, and the dogs shown in this film are extra special.
We begin with a litter of five Labrador puppies looked after by experts committed to preparing guide dogs. Will all of them make the cut? If not, which ones will, and what will happen to the others?
The process begins early as the nurtured pups are observed for qualities that might be promising. For a time they are boarded with what you might call foster parents, who will take care of them as they mature and are ready to begin being tested, at which time the foster parents will give them back. Parting can be such sweet sorrow as we watch those who have become so attached to their charges that there is heartbreak in saying goodbye, a moment that they know in advance must come.
Then begins the road to success or failure. The dogs are given careful training by the experts who walk and observe them. Stability is a big factor in testing. If there is edginess, that is not a good sign. Calm and obeying commands are a plus. And sometimes disobeying a command is a special plus. The dogs are coached to stop when in contact with traffic. They are trained so that when they see a car, even if the leash holder indicates that they should go, they will disobey and halt to protect the one they lead. Trainers take the dogs out into the world to see how they behave.
Watching the step by step process is intriguing, and one may begin to root for the Labs to succeed. In “Pick of the Litter” two dogs will make the grade and be taken to the blind owners who eagerly await them. But there is still a process to make sure there is a good fit as determined by a trial of walking together.
One female Lab that doesn’t make the cut is assigned as a breeder to produce more pups as potential guides. Those who were foster parents are given the option of taking back the dogs that can’t become guides. There is a very emotional scene in which a young man is beside himself with joy at getting back the Lab he grew to love, and the dog immediately starts showing its renewed affection.
While this is a film ready-made for dog lovers, it is also enlightening for the general public. If you see “Pick of the Litter” the next time you spot a guide dog or one in training, you’ll have a better idea of all that goes into the humanitarian effort to help the blind get along better in life. An IFC Films release. Reviewed August 31, 2018.