Within the first few minutes of Pick of the Litter, five mushy, pink, squealing, impossibly tiny puppies suck on baby bottles and nestle into their mother’s fur. They look like squeaky toys. This is just about all you need to know about the adorable, impossible-not-to-love documentary, which follows five puppies as they train to be guide dogs for the blind. What’s more enjoyable than watching these very good boys and girls lick and leap and play?
Born into the same litter—the “P” litter, hence their names: Phil, Patriot, Potomac, Primrose, and Poppet—the baby Labradors belong to an organization called Guide Dogs for the Blind, based in the California Bay Area. Like hundreds before them, the puppies will embark on an intensive two-year training program before they can graduate into experienced guide dog-dom.
The stakes stem from the process’s competitiveness and rigor; two thirds of the pups who attempt training fail and get cut (or “career changed,” as the trainers kindly call it). Eliminated dogs don’t have it all too bad; they’re simply shifted to become regular civilian pets, and especially well-behaved ones at that. Yet for the visually impaired people seeking support—Guide Dogs for the Blind sees over 1,100 applications per year—a capable guide dog is an immeasurable asset. The more dogs who qualify, the better.
Once a few months old, the puppies are sent off to live with families who have volunteered to care for the dogs and initiate their training. Fostering the young pups is kind of like rearing a child: exhaustive instructions for their care include strict bedtimes, mealtimes, full-time attention, and, of course, lessons coaching them to become sharp and competent guiders.
Many of the temporary owners are repeat-nurturers and already experts; you’ll hear them speak with pride or quiz fellow temp-owners about how many they’ve reared that have gone on to ace the program. A few—like the young woman whose father is blind and the disabled Iraq veteran who’s serendipitously assigned to the dog named Patriot—have personal reasons for taking on the responsibility. And several others are new to the job and don’t prove cut out for it, resulting in tearful goodbye sequences as the dogs change hands.
As the puppies grow and several move among households, consistent problem areas arise. Patriot is nippy and overly energetic; Potomac is easily distracted by flashy items on the ground. After nine months, the organization begins monthly check-ups to receive status updates and chart the puppies’ progress. Like any parents with high standards, the temporary owners are visibly disappointed when their dogs misbehave—especially in front of the organization instructors—and exceptionally proud when the dogs do manage to perform as planned.
In this respect, the documentary feels a little like a reality competition: like Survivor if was virtuous and humane, or maybe The Bachelor if it had any candidates who were actually worthy of love. Of course, this is a comparison that directors Dana Nachman and Don Hardy were deliberately going for; they gently emphasize the competitive nature of the process with a tense soundtrack and animations of the dogs that dramatically get crossed out, one by one, as they are eliminated. A big, self-aware question mark hangs over which puppies will end up making the cut, but the process is hardly dog-eat-dog. There aren’t any real losers here, and everyone’s rooting for there to be as many winners as possible.
More serious bits are dedicated to conveying the real urgency behind their training: the countless applicants to the program, some of whom have been anxiously awaiting guide dog assignment for years. Before the puppy birth montage, the movie opens with a series of choked up testimonials from visually impaired people. Earnestly, they recount stories of their companions stopping them from unknowingly stepping into traffic or falling down a steep flight of stairs. One man, who has been blind since he was a toddler and has never owned a guide dog before, speaks with cautious hope about what he could do if he were to receive one: feel safer on the street, go hiking on his own, be done with the nuisance of canes forever.
Still, the last thing Pick of the Litter wants to be is morose. Later on, the same blind man jokes about what happens when a cane gets caught in a sidewalk crack: if you’re lucky, it’ll poke up into your chest; if not, it might thrust into more painful nether regions.
It’s this sort of upbeat anecdote that keeps the documentary airy and optimistic. The majority of these dogs might not make it through the program, but that’s just a sign of the organization’s high standards and strict criteria. Blind people put total trust in their dogs. Wouldn’t you want one that’s been properly vetted and prepared? But mostly, the documentary focuses on the puppies: those shiny, panting, loyal little fellas who will, hopefully, go on to change someone’s life.