Pick of the Litter

This documentary follows five puppies from birth as they train to become guide dogs to the blind. We literally do get to see Potomac, Patriot, Primrose, Poppet, and…Phil be born, all shiny and new and a little slimy to the world, and by the age of two months they’re already being placed in homes where raisers will abide by strict rules to bring up ideal candidates for the guide dog training program. As Pick of the Litter constantly reminds us, not everyone will make it. In fact, of 800 puppies born to the centre every year, only about 300 turn out to be suitable. The standards are exacting because the job is important. Matched with a visually impaired companion, these dogs will be the seeing eyes for their loved one, keeping them safe, but also giving them a sense of freedom that a cane just can’t mimic. Still, I find it a little heartless to keep throwing the “only the best of the best” tag line in our faces, like it’s a dog’s fault for not being the “ideal candidate.” Not all humans are cut out to be dog trainers, but the rest of us aren’t pieces of shit, we just have other things we’re good at. Can’t we maybe think the same for dogs?

The film is far-reaching, documenting and interviewing everyone involved in the process – the vets, the families, the future recipients. When a dog is deemed unsuitable for the program, there are a lot of broken hearts. “Career changed” is the euphemism employed, though I’m not sure the dogs care or notice as much as we may think. There are many MV5BN2EyMDA1NGMtZmMxNC00YTZjLTkyZDktYTBlMTVmYjkwODlhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTEzNjYxMjQ@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_dedicated volunteers who invest a lot of time into these dogs, and getting cut from the program can seem like a failure; indeed, there are far more applicants for guide dogs than can be handled in any given year. But these are all smart dogs who work hard and do their best. I have four dogs at home: at least 3 of them are geniuses, but none of them would be guide dog material, not even if they’d been bred and trained for the job since birth. They’re hyper and they love to interact. We really do ask a lot of guide dogs, but I know that some dogs really love having a job to do, it makes them feel fulfilled, and I can’t think of a more important job or a more beautiful connection between dog and owner.

It is a testament to the filmmakers (to directors Don Hardy Jr.¬†and Dana Nachman) that I myself felt rather emotionally invested in the process. A lot of love and effort is poured into these dogs before they ever meet their partners. It’s interesting to see the ins and outs of the process, particularly as many of us have noticed little dogs in training vests out and about with their handlers during training. This documentary lets us into the family – right into the dog’s crate, in fact, over a period of two years. It’s uplifting, it’s adorable, it’s sometimes bittersweet. It’s got everything but the wet nose.

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7 thoughts on “Pick of the Litter

  1. Isey

    OF course you are a dog person! Makes complete sense now….

    Have you watched any episodes of “Dogs” on Netflix? – it’s about dogs and their connections.. I have only watched the first episode and it is about Dogs that can recognise and alert seizures so the kids they work with can gain independence. First episode was good enough to watch the second =)

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  2. Willow Croft

    The guide dog world always has me on the fence. Partially because of my lack of knowledge about dogs in general (<—cat whisperer) and about the guide dog training process, but also because I'm an "adopt-don't-shopper". And I have vision damage, myself. What would I do, in this situation, if the day came (*knock on the wood of my Heywood Wakefield writing desk*), and I needed a guide dog? Rescue a dog from a shelter and have them trained up as a guide dog? Is that even possible? I don't know, and I don't want to jinx it by asking too many questions. But that is what I would wish for, to save the life of an abandoned, unwanted dog. At which point, I start visualizing my HUD house now, with ten-plus "failed" guide dogs, all running around, and terrorizing (or being terrorized, more likelyl) my cats. Can anyone say "hoarder"? *wry laugh*

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  3. joanne m. austin

    This looks really interesting. Even the pups who get paired up with people sometimes need a refresher. I have a friend who is a guide dog “fixer,”though he says the people often need some retraining, too. And the dogs that don’t make it through the training are awesome pets, anyway.

    My dog is just smart enough/not too dumb. I’m happy with that!

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  4. Liz A.

    Sounds fascinating. I know it’s a hard road for the dog, so of course they would have to weed out those who didn’t have the temperament for it.

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