Starring Patriot, Poppet, Potomac, Primrose, and Phil
Directed by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy
(The film is the opening night film at the Slamdance festival. It does not yet have distribution.)
“Batkid Begins” director Dana Nachman turns her lens on another heartwarming story in “Pick of the Litter,” as she (and d.p. Don Hardy) follow a litter of five Labrador Retrievers who are born into the Guide Dogs for the Blind organization. They are trained from birth to become guide dogs, but not all of the pups make the cut for the rigorous program.
We watch Patriot, Poppet, Potomac, Primrose, and Phil as they learn what it takes to be a guide dog.
The number of people who help train the dogs along the way is more than you’d expect. Much of the film’s heartbreak comes from their having to part with a dog they’ve grown attached to if the organization feels the dogs need more guidance or a different kind of training.
We meet a variety of people who help train the dogs, including a military vet with PTSD who bonds with Patriot.
Some of the trainers have done this dozens of times already, but it’s always a sad day when they have to give the dog back. (Keep your tissues handy.) They take pride in knowing that the dog they helped train is now helping transform a blind person’s life. But not all the dogs make it. Many are “career changed,” the term for a dog who is cut from the program.
If a dog isn’t cut out to be a blind person’s eyes, then they can still be a candidate for a less-demanding life, such as an alert dog for a diabetic, a breeder for the program, or someone’s pet.
A dog whose energy level is too high might get cut, as can a dog who is too easily distracted by other dogs, traffic, or anything in its path. We hold our breath as each dog undergoes tests that will mean they will be eliminated or move on.
Along the way, we meet blind people who are hoping for their own guide dog. Walking with a cane can’t offer the same kind of freedom (or briskness of pace) that a guide dog can offer, so they are counting down the days until they can get a dog of their own. Some have had guide dogs before (and now have their retired guides as pets), while others are entering the program for the first time.
The previous trainers attend the ceremony as the most dedicated dogs graduate to their new career. It’s an emotional moment as the dogs are paired with the people they’ll be guiding, with the thanks of everyone who guided the guide dogs to this point.
Although it’s very hard to see dogs being moved from trainer to trainer, the final result, especially if they’re chosen to become a guide dog, seems worth the frustration. It’s a noble undertaking that certainly takes a toll.
I did wonder what life is like for dogs chosen for the breeder program, something the film doesn’t really address. I assume they eventually become pets as well, but I would have liked to be shown that.
Since the screening I attended had a sight-impaired man with his own guide dog, Heath, I couldn’t help notice that the “where are they now” segment of the film, in which we follow up with all five dogs, was conveyed via captions, not narration. I hope a version with additional narration for a sight-impaired audience will be available.