I’ll be clear from the get go – it’s hard for me to objectively review Pick of the Litter. After working eight years a vet nurse, and having worked alongside organisations that train guide dogs, I’ve grown to be just a little sensitive at the sight of working dogs. Heck, I teared up when I wrote my review for Backtrack Boys. So, take my review of Pick of the Litter with a grain of salt.
Directors Dana Nachman and Don Hardy follow a litter of labrador puppies from birth to hopeful graduation, tracking how the puppies go with their training family, and beyond. Some 800 dogs are trained to be guide dogs every year, and only 300 manage to succeed and become working dogs. At the end of eighteen months of training, the hopeful dogs may become a helpful companion for somebody living with a vision impairment, or if they prove to be of good quality, they could become breeding stock. Those that don’t make it as a guide dog are ‘career changed’, meaning they either retire and become a pet, or they simply don’t have it as a guide dog and could possibly move into a different field that might need a service dog.
Phil, Poppet, Patriot, Primrose, and Potomac, make up the ‘P’ litter. Initially, these young pups are placed with both experienced and inexperienced trainers, all hoping that their puppy will eventually become a guide dog. This part of the journey is the most difficult time for the trainers, as not only are they providing the foundational tools for the dogs life, but as a manner of pride, they want to ensure that their dog succeeds. For some, when their dogs are transitioned away from them, they’re surprised and upset, not expecting that it would happen to them. While it’s understandable that they’d be disappointed at not being able to help raise their dog to a level that is suitable for a guide dog, it’s also understandable that every day counts with these dogs, and making sure that they stay on the ‘straight and narrow’.
The core aspect of Pick of the Litter is the joy of watching dogs become dogs with jobs. The personality of each dog as they grow up is a joy to watch – Patriot’s rambunctious, headstrong nature makes him a difficult pup to manage to begin with, but he soon comes into his own, Poppet and Primrose both fall into the role of being guide dogs with ease, while Phil makes a move from a trainer who just isn’t working to a seasoned pair of guide dog trainers, and as for Potomac, well, Potomac is Potomac.
Through each step, you’re reminded of how many hands go into making sure that these dogs are ready for their prospective ‘client’. It’s not just a simple ‘sit, stay, heel’ obedience training. They need to know how to ignore other dogs, ignore treats from strangers, to not jump on or bite people. This all sounds simply and easy, but it’s harder than it seems. Once they’ve managed to conquer these tasks, then it’s on to the big life challenges that they’ll need to employ to ensure that they keep their ‘client’ safe – things like, knowing to stop when a car is coming, knowing how to walk on the side of the road safely, navigating public spaces with ease.
It’s not just the dogs lives that Pick of the Litter digs into – it also looks at the people whose lives will be improved by the presence of a guide dog. After learning the difficulties of walking with a cane, it’s easy to see the value in a guide dog. Equally so, it’s easy to see how important the companionship is that comes with having a service dog.
Which is why – for me at least – Pick of the Litter is such an emotionally rewarding film. Yes, it’s become the ‘it thing’ on the internet to fawn over service dogs because they have ‘a job’, but there’s something so purely wholesome about seeing dogs that have been trained to help people in need. It’s not enough for the dog to merely follow commands, there needs to be a quality of life for them too. So, if the dog isn’t much into the job of being a service dog, then they will likely be ‘career changed’. In this regard, these aren’t tools being used, but living creatures there to help and assist, and, of course, guide.
I adored this film. It’s beautiful, it’s pure, it’s joyous. There’s something truly heartwarming about seeing people working to make the lives of others better. And, when that includes training dogs to help those people, well, your heart just melts. You’ll leave this film beaming with joy.
Films like Pick of the Litter and Backtrack Boys help put into perspective the value of companion dogs. While it seems that everybody has a ‘service animal’ nowadays, these films help show the therapeutic value of having a dog, or a cat, or a companion, by your side to make your life a little easier. Whether that’s because you have a vision impairment, or live with a mental illness, the therapeutic values of animals can never be undervalued. We’d be lost without our canine companions, and it’s films like this that reinforce how lucky we are to have them around.
Directors: Dana Nachman, Don Hardy
Featuring: Patriot, Phil, Poppet, Potomac, Primrose