Puppies. They may be the only thing just about everyone can agree is good in 2018. This video of a Pembroke Welsh Corgi trying to figure out how stairs work is good. This story of an English Sheepdog enthralled by his own reflection is good. And a movie about five Labrador puppies, being put through a rigorous training course to become seeing-eye dogs, is especially good.
That’s the premise of Pick of the Litter in a nutshell. Award-winning documentary filmmakers Dana Nachman and Don Hardy (co-directors of The Human Experiment, Witch Hunt and Love Hate Love) teamed up to follow a litter of puppies over the course of two years, as they’re taught to lead their owners through crowded city streets and steer them clear of potential safety concerns they can’t see themselves.
The film begins shortly after the puppies are born, at the California-based nonprofit Guide Dogs for the Blind, where staff members are debating what to call each of the five pups they’ve been tasked with training. They settle on a smattering of “P” names: Primrose, Patriot, Poppet, Potomac and (my fave) Phil. Then the dogs are whisked away to separate homes to meet their volunteer foster families, who spend the next year-ish taking care of them and teaching them the basic skills they’ll need to become good guide dogs.
A few of the foster families have already trained several generations of dogs and even seen some of them paired with the blind owners they’ll spend the rest of their lives helping. Others are new to the process and as eager as the pups to prove themselves. Unfortunately, enthusiasm isn’t always as valuable as experience, and the saddest moments in the movie come when certain volunteers are abruptly told that their dogs are being re-assigned to more seasoned trainers.
The film is full of many touching moments and achingly adorable shots of the dogs. But it’s also surprisingly suspenseful – the filmmakers make it clear from the get-go that some, if not most, of the dogs will be “career-changed” before they reach the end of their two-year training period, meaning that they’ll be booted out of their Guide Dogs for the Blind program and put up for adoption elsewhere. I found myself on the edge of my seat near the end of the film, rooting for the dogs to successfully lead their handlers through crowded city streets as part of their final round of tests. And when one of the dogs finally learned to intentionally disobey commands in order to stop his handler from walking into oncoming traffic or construction hazards, I’m pretty sure I cheered loudly enough for my neighbors to hear.
The movie is as much about the trainers as the dogs themselves, and I sometimes found myself wishing that the filmmakers dug into their human protagonists’ backgrounds a bit more. The story of one of the volunteer owners, an Iraq-War veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, is especially poignant, and I would have loved to see the filmmakers linger longer with him. That being said, their decision to maintain a tight focus on the dogs, and the culmination of their training, gives the movie a sense of momentum rarely seen in documentaries, and that’s part of what makes Pick of the Litter so compelling.
I won’t spoil the ending by saying which, if any of the litter-mates ultimately become seeing-eye dogs, but I can at least say that, if you’re as sentimental as I am, you’ll probably tear up at least once, and you’ll certainly leave the theater with a newfound respect for our furry friends.
Go See It: Pick of the Litter
- Saturday, Oct. 27 | 2:30 p.m. | Oriental Theatre West