Pick of the Litter

Documentary shows the rigors of training guide dogs for the blind
By Claudia Kawczynska, September 2018

I’m sure that many of us have wondered what it would be like to volunteer as a puppy raiser with a guide dog organization such as Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), or are curious about how these dogs, elite members of the service-dog corps, are trained. While few of us will have either opportunity, in Pick of the Litter, the new film by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, Jr., we get to witness just how rigorous and stimulating this can be for the people who work at GDB, the puppy raisers and the pups themselves.

This new documentary takes us into the lives of these remarkable dogs from the moment of their birth to their first eight weeks, during which the pups are socialized and begin learning complicated skills, then to assignments to home-based volunteers. After 16 months, they are returned to GDB for further screening and 10 weeks of intensive training to qualify as guide dogs. (I was surprised that it only takes 10 weeks of “graduate school”-level training to hone the unique skills that turn these dogs into invaluable guides for their blind partners.) Not all the pups make it that far, however; only 300 of the 800 born each year in GDB’s breeding program go on to become full-fledged guide dogs. The rest are either returned to GDB to join the kennel’s breeding program or are career-changed; some become pet companion dogs while others are retrained as service dogs in another field.

The litter tracked in this moving and captivating film is labeled with the letter P, which is reflected in each puppy’s name: Patriot, Phil, Poppet, Primrose and Potomac. The volunteers range from novices to the well seasoned who have cared for many of these pups (one couple is on their 10th dog). Every three months, the GDB staff evaluates the progress the pups and their humans are making. You can definitely see how differently those with more experience interact with their dogs. Early on, a couple of the dogs are reassigned to other volunteers who are thought to be better able to direct their development.

Once the home-based training is done, dogs are returned to GDB and their readiness for the final rigorous 10-week training session is assessed. That was the most interesting part of the film for me. With only five cue words— “forward,” “pop up,” “halt,” “left,” “right”—plus ample use of “good dog!” they learn to handle the myriad challenges and obstacles of modern life, including traffic, escalators, sidewalk-less streets and more. It is truly amazing that any of them pass.

Toward the end of this crisp 81-minute film, we learn more about the two people who will be paired with the “picks” of the P-litter. Ron, a 32-year-old from Kansas City who lost his sight as a baby, is getting his first guide dog, while Janet is being matched up with her fourth. We see the moving and appreciative graduation ceremony and marvel that at least 300 people receive life-changing partners this way every year.

Pick of the Litter is artfully scripted, directed and edited. Juggling many different storylines, the filmmakers have produced a work that is both seamless and suspenseful. In the end, we are left with an increased awareness of and appreciation for all the many people who help guide these remarkable dogs to their various destinies. This is an enthralling and very entertaining film.

Nationwide screenings; for more information, go to guidedogs.com/pickofthelitter.

Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.

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