“Pick of the Litter,” which opens Friday, August 31, is a wonderfully moving “dogumentary” that follows a littler of five dogs born into the Guide Dogs for the Blind program as they undergo training to become official guide dogs. (Read the 4-star Moviepaws review.)
At the film’s press day, Moviepaws talked to co-directors Don Hardy and Dana Nachman, as well as two reps from the Guide Dogs for the Blind program, Karen and Margie. GDB handler Margie brought Rodrigo, a fox red lab who just finished his training and is waiting to be paired with a visually impaired person. (The dogs in the film — Potomac, Primrose, Phil, Poppet and Patriot — are busy living their new lives and were not at the press day.)
Here’s what we learned:
- How did the filmmakers get the idea for the movie?
Dana Nachman says of herself and co-director Don Hardy, Jr., “We were journalists in San Francisco and we did several stories on Guide Dogs for the Blind. One at a graduation and one on puppy raisers. They were 2-3 minute news stories and we always knew there was a much bigger story there of all the people who come in contact with these dogs during the life of training the dogs. Several years later, we came back to the idea and said this would be a perfect documentary to follow one litter of puppies from the day they’re born to if they make the cut to be guide dogs.”
- How much control did Guide Dogs for the Blind have over the film?
Says Hardy: “They had input. Early on, it was still in the getting-to-know-you phase, they didn’t want us to show cages, which are just a part of a kennel looks like. So we just had to say, ‘Okay,’ and then do it anyway. And then when they saw a rough cut of it, they understood better what we were doing and they knew our track record and we weren’t doing a hit piece of them. But there was some give and take there. We wanted to do a film they were proud of, but definitely keep the editorial control for ourselves.”
Adds Nachman, “It was an amazing leap of faith for them, because nobody knew how this was going to turn out. ‘We said, We’re doing a film of whatever happens,’ and they took the risk.”
- How did they choose which litter to follow?
GDB selected a promising dog from their breeding program, Ojai (One of the puppy raisers in the film who got to raise her also gets to raise her daughter, Poppet). The filmmakers had expected to start filming in August, but got a call to show up far ahead of schedule, in June. Hardy tells Moviepaws, “We had two films going into release and we had some personal family stuff going on. But we were like, sure, we’ll be there tomorrow. Documentaries don’t care about your timeline.”
- How does GDB feel about the final film?
GDB spokesperson Karen says, “I think it represents the heart of our mission really well. It’s been seen everyone, by the raisers and staff. I think everyone gets something different out of it, because the raisers may not know what know training looks like and trainers might not know what raising looks like. And clients get this whole new insight into this wonderful partner they have. And because we don’t receive public funding, this is an incredible way to raise our profile and hopefully gain more interest and get people invested in our mission. We want to serve more people, so however people want to help is welcome.”
- The toughest part of making the movie?
Hardy admitted that walking behind the pups as they’re in training resulted in, well, a lot of butt shots. A lot of careful framing and angles were necessary.
- The poster pups are stand-ins
The dogs in the poster? Not the dogs in the movie! The filmmakers realized they didn’t take a photo of the litter at the right time and later subbed in lookalike puppies also in the Guide Dogs program.
- Are there other breeds besides Labs in the program?
The film follows a litter of lab puppies, but GDB uses other breeds as well. Says GDB handler Margie, “We also breed and train golden retrievers, and golden-lab crosses. But our highest percentage is the Labrador. They’re kind of an all-purpose dog. They have a double coat, which makes them good for all climates. They’re a medium to large size, so they’re portable enough but they’re also big enough to pull a person around. And their temperament is very even. They’re adaptable to any environment.”
- How does a guide dog know when it’s “off duty”?
Karen from GDB says, “We like to say that the harness is the dog’s business suit. When it’s on, they’re all business and when it’s off they’re like every other dog and can just play with toys and having a great time. Even though they have a great time when they’re working, because they enjoy the service.”
- How many guide dogs are currently in service?
“We have 2200 or so active client teams throughout the US and Canada,” says Karen. “GDB has been around since 1942. We were founded to serve wounded veterans returning from the war. In 76 years, we’ve served over 14,000 people.”
- How does GDB match dogs to people?
“It’s a little bit of art and science,” says Margie. “We like to think of it as setting someone up on a blind date. Primarily it’s based on how fast people walk and what their lifestyle is.” It’s incredibly rare that the matches don’t work out, according to Janet. And if, for some reason, it doesn’t work out, a new match is made.
- How many years do guide dogs typically work?
“About 8 years, although some can go much longer,” says Margie. “That’s typically when we start talking about retirement. Are they slowing down or getting arthritis? Most of the dogs stay with the owner, so that’s really nice. They can enjoy their retirement.”