Published May 02, 2018Aside from providing the ins-and-outs of how a valuable service works, documentary Pick of the Litter is just positively irresistible. As we follow a litter of five Labrador puppies through a two-year journey while they train to become guide dogs for the blind, the film becomes a crowd-pleaser mixed with a dash of built-in suspense.
After discovering that fewer than half of the dogs generally make it, you can't help but choose early favourites from the pack and root for them to succeed at each challenge designed to determine which of them are cut out for the job, and which are better suited as pets.
The first thing that has to be decided on for the puppies is their names. Sticking with a "P" theme, a group at Guide Dogs for the Blind eventually settles on Potomac, Patriot, Phil, Primrose and Poppet. After a short time spent getting a sense of their personalities, all of the dogs sent to live with volunteer foster families. Some of these are first-timers, some have had past success with dogs that went on to become guide dogs, and some have only known failure in their previous attempts, with their dogs eventually not making the cut.
There are three options available as they are being assessed: becoming a guide dog, becoming a breeder that will birth other potential guide dogs or they can get "career changed," a fancier term for being cut from the program. Some of the dogs are moved to different fosters than the ones they were initially assigned, as when a high school student is forced to part ways with his dog after the rambunctious pup starts misbehaving too much in his school.
On the other hand, there are some seemingly perfect matches between dog and raiser. For instance, Patriot ends up with a veteran suffering from PTSD who grows quite attached to the dog, and is soothed by its presence in his home. The couple who steps up to raise Phil provides him with the sort of upscale life that sees Phil accompanying them in a limo as they go wine drinking in Sonoma. You really get caught up in analyzing and comparing the various raisers and begin to theorize about what effect their efforts will have on the success or failure of their dogs.
When it finally comes time to really put the pups through the paces, it's fascinating to see the kind of rigorous testing required to determine if they are ultimately ready to be paired with a blind person. The dogs are tasked with obeying their commands without getting distracted by any curiosities that are bound to cross their paths, recognizing potential dangers like automobiles and even learning to disregard commands that would lead a blind person into danger.
One small gripe: it's helpful and instructive to be introduced to a couple of blind people who are waiting to be paired with guide dogs, as we learn all about the added mobility and confidence a dog will provide for them. But if you start thinking about it too much, it will spoil the surprise of how many dogs are bound to make it out of the training by the documentary's end.