Arts movie review

Guide dogs work hard

‘Pick of the Litter’ demonstrates the challenges of training guide dogs with mixed results

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Primrose, guide dog puppy at Guide Dogs for the Blind, gnaws on a rope.
Courtesy of Sundance Selects

Pick of the Litter
Directed by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy
Screenplay by Dana Nachman
Starring Patriot, Phil, Poppet, Potomac, Primrose
Rated NR
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As a person who adores dogs, I saw Pick of the Litter with the expectation of light-hearted, fluffy entertainment. So when the footage of the Twin Towers collapsing and photos from the Iraq war started playing, I was a bit taken aback by the film’s more serious discussions than the promotional material would lead someone to expect. The reason for the inclusion of these scenes was that Roselle, a guide dog from Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), led her handler from the 78th floor of the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11 attacks. While these scenes are the most extreme examples, they demonstrate the flaws and successes of Pick of the Litter. The film solidifies itself as an edifying documentary — beyond mere cutesy fare — while occasionally suffering from tonal whiplash and lack of focus.

Pick of the Litter follows a litter of five puppies as they train to become potential guide dogs under the organization GDB. The ‘P’ litter hosts a variety of personalities: rowdy Patriot, sleepy-looking Phil, easily distracted Potomac, and the well-behaved girls, Primrose and Poppet. Despite this premise, the majority of the film is actually spent concerning the humans. The film bounces between testimonials from people with visual impairment, the struggles of the handlers, and GDB in its practices and testing methods. Due to the thoroughness of GDB, less than half of all dogs trained make the cut to be a guide dog due to various reasons such as food allergies or high levels of energy.

Herein lies most of the issues of the documentary. For some bizarre reason, the film uses a framing device reminiscent of reality television of a competition between the dogs in which the film tracks which dogs are eliminated from the program. Since most of the focus is on the handlers’ personalities however, it was difficult to understand the characters of the dogs apart from Patriot and Phil. Structurally, this device also contributes to sudden shifts in tone, where the playfulness of the dogs can immediately change to a heartfelt confessional. Due to the lack of a main narrator, the film instead relies on awkward graphics and intertitles that disrupt the flow of the narrative. The incidental music of the film is also subpar, which has the potentially dangerous effect of cheapening the documentary to cute animal videos with stock music.

Despite these flaws, the film provides fascinating insight on the complexities of raising a guide dog. For example, the main point emphasized in the film is non-obedience training, in which guide dogs must disobey an order if it puts the owner in harm’s way. This is emphasized in traffic training, where dogs must actively provide a buffer between cars and disobey the handler’s orders if it leads into traffic. These practices lead to some gripping footage where the GDB instructors have to safely drive right at the dog and blindfolded handler. The psychological and cultural aspects of the GDB handlers are also quite interesting. For example, GDB transfers Phil after six months to a more experienced handler, leaving the previous handler devastated, who was unaware that GDB had planned this from the start. The difference in attitudes between the clinical, objective approach of GDB and the emotional attachment of the handlers gives the documentary thought-provoking content.
While the direction of Pick of the Litter could have been improved, the documentary is worth watching, especially for dog lovers. The film’s laidback portrayal of a highly specific community is informative and sometimes even exciting. The dogs are really cute, too. Go, Phil!