Guide dogs can be more than hard-working helpers and companions for the humans who use them — they can be heroes, even life-savers. The documentary “Pick of the Litter” opens with moving testimony from a group of owners as to how their beloved canines enabled them to avoid assorted hazards and deadly situations, including 9/11.
The film recounts the training and testing of five Labrador puppies born at the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus in San Rafael, Calif. At eight weeks, the pups are turned over to families and individuals who put them through the paces necessary to produce a certified guide dog. It’s a rigorous process — of 800 puppies, only 300 will make it all the way through the system.
The training involves teaching the dogs, among many goals, to ignore distractions, to cope with cars and even to disobey their owners if safety dictates it. The canines are given every chance, and some are even farmed out to experts to deal with specific issues, such as nipping. When the dogs finally return to headquarters, their trainers ache like parents with children leaving for college.
Dogs who fall short in some area are “career-changed,” and wind up as breeders, or are sent to other nonprofit groups. Some even become pets. San Francisco Bay area filmmakers Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman present the process as a kind of competition — we wonder which puppies will make the grade, while rooting for all five.
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Part of the reason we root for them is that the pups have an adorability quotient that is off the charts. The five Labradors are all from the same litter — we see their births — and all are given “P” names: Patriot, Primrose, Potomac, Poppet and Phil. Don’t even bother trying to resist their puppyish charms — you won’t succeed.
We spend a good deal of time with the off-campus trainers, including an Iraq veteran who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a lot of work for all the trainers, and they take it hard if their dogs don’t graduate from the full program.
While “Pick of the Litter” can’t be described as innovative, it still creates a solid emotional punch when we see several of the five now-grown dogs finally matched with grateful humans. It’s quite moving to hear the recipients detail how liberating it is to have the assistance of one of these amazing animals.
It’s also nice to see the good work of this organization get some well-deserved appreciation.
(Opens Friday at the Tivoli.)
‘Pick of the Litter’
Opens Friday at the Tivoli.