If the woes of the world have you feeling down, I suggest sneaking away for an hour and a half this weekend to treat yourself to Pick of the Litter, easily the most feel-good documentary of the year. The story of a litter of five Labrador puppies, each with names starting with “P” and literally born to become guide dogs for the blind, this warm-hearted gem of a film will cure what ails you, both in the moment and each time you think back to their journey into service and the trainers and adoptive families who make it possible.
Directed by Don Hardy, Jr. and Dana Nachman (Batkid Begins), the film premiered at Slamdance Film Festival earlier this year; ironically, it was subsequently nabbed by IFC’s Sundance Selects, the distribution arm of Slamdance’s main competition, Sundance Film Festival. One imagines the programmers at Sundance see Pick of the Litter as a film that got away during their own selection process, as it succeeds both as a crowd-pleasing narrative and a sharply constructed piece of filmmaking.
Structured with a sort of “circle of life” narrative arc, we meet the new litter—three black labs and two golden—just moments after they arrive, all squirmy and squinty as they nuzzle into their mother and find their way to her milk. The handlers at Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB for short) give each pup a quick exam and soon the naming begins, Primrose and Poppet for the girls, and Potomac, Patriot and Phil for the boys. Through clever, unobtrusive on-screen graphics, we’ll keep track of each of the puppy’s journeys into training and beyond.
And the path is anything but certain, as it takes at least two year’s worth of training in order to be the disciplined, productive companion required by the blind and visually impaired. All five pups are assigned to a family of “raisers” who’ll care for them in their earliest days, instilling in them the foundational training and habits that will serve them well as future service dogs. A few go to families with a history of raising these special puppies, while the others find homes with first-time raisers. For example, Potomac is paired with an eager high schooler who’s been given special permission to bring the dog to school each day, so hands-on is this early phase of the dog’s development.
Time passes quickly when you’re a puppy; just a few months go by and these cuddly balls of fur are soon nearly full-sized and full of energy. The staff at GDB keep close tabs on each of our “P” litter, receiving monthly reports from their raisers and keeping one eye on what their progress reports may mean for future training. We learn quite a bit of new lingo in sharing this journey with the puppies, including the term “career changed,” a diplomatic way of saying that a certain canine isn’t quite guide dog material and is being released from the program to enjoy a “civilian life.” Without giving away any specifics, suffice it to say that this phrase pops up more than once as the litter gets closer to their age formal guide dog training.
Documentaries can often be difficult projects to pull together, mainly because unlike something scripted, here you’re telling the truth of any given situation or person; there’s sometimes no clear way to establish a starting line, a finish line and a thread that connects the two. The decision to follow a litter, then, becomes Hardy and Nachman’s most crucial decision; along with helpful on-screen reminders of which puppy we’re catching up with when, the five strings of this particular thread (to further the analogy) weave this way and that, sharing certain milestones but ultimately each leading to a unique conclusion.
Like parents who see their children follow different paths—that one to college; that one to a solid, blue-collar job; that one marrying young; that one traveling the world—it’s not so much about what exactly each ends up doing so much as it is that they’re happy and safe doing it. And sure enough, each of our five “P” puppies does find their calling, even if it looks a little different from what was expected when they first arrived. With the help of GDB staff and professional trainers (who clearly do this work from a place of love), each of the puppies finds their best life.
And if, as the credits roll, that doesn’t leave you a bit better off than when the film began, probably nothing will.
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