Anyone who has ever had one of man’s best friends knows just how easily they can transform a bad mood. With just a solicitous face lick or an enthusiastic greeting at the end of a hard day, they can make everything better. Lately there have been a lot of hard days in this country, no matter what your political affiliation or perspective. With the new documentary film Pick of the Litter, Don Hardy Jr, and co-director and screenwriter Dana Nachman have found a way to whisk us all into the world of training for Guide Dogs for the Blind, where it seems perspective pups train as hard as would any Johns Hopkins Medical School student.
When a documentary makes you tear up in the first five minutes, that can be either a very good or very bad sign. For dog fanciers, it’s all good. Before we even get to meet the litter mates that are put through the arduous training making the grade as a guide dog for the blind entails, visually impaired former owners relate how their own pups saved their lives. They all get quite emotional talking about them, and so will most members of the animal-loving audience. It sets up the film as a charming, if somewhat sentimental education on the process of making lifelong companions to humans in need.
Hardy and Nachman show the intense training and care offered by the dedicated community of veterinarians, dog trainers, and loving foster parents, but add enough tail wags, face licks, and enthusiastic park romps to create cheerleaders for each dog profiled. On several occasions, the camera even gets gets butted with a wet nose.
Audiences are first introduced to five newborns, who are promptly named Patriot, Potomac, Primrose, Poppet, and Phil. As each pup grows, they are given ever-more complicated, challenging tests to assess their aptitude for the rigors of guiding the visually impaired, including following or refusing commands, depending on the situation. Will they stay calm and do what’s expected, or will they get distracted and overstimulated? There is a surprising amount of tension created as the directors let viewers get to know each dog onscreen. From the beginning, we are told the odds aren’t in favor of their success. Only a small percentage of those trained go on to graduate, getting paired with hopeful applicants. There is a huge feeling of relief whenever any of the dogs pass their tests.
The film makes it clear just how life-changing these dogs are to their human partners. One person goes from rarely leaving home to going on long walks in the woods. Another, who is not visually impaired but has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, speaks of just how much better his spirits are when his canine companion is near. It’s clear, regardless of whether these pups are in the lives of featured humans for a short while, or for a lifetime, that they create a huge amount of love. Even those who have to work hard, knowing they are only training the dogs, and will have to give them up, express how much joy they bring.
Those with animals in their life know how powerful the connection can be, and how much they add to their quality of life. With Pick of the Litter, we get to experience just how much these great dogs can do, and how selfless and happy they seem in the doing of it. It’s a beautiful thing to see. Feel-good documentaries aren’t that common, really. For anyone who needs an infusion of positivity, Pick of the Litter is as warm and fuzzy as the puppies it profiles.