'Pick of the Litter': Film Review | Slamdance 2018

Call it puppy love.

Dana Nachman and Don Hardy Jr.'s new documentary chronicles two years in the lives of guide dogs raised and trained to assist the blind.

Puppies rule in Pick of the Litter, Dana Nachman and Don Hardy's seriously cute account of the breeding and training program that prepares service dogs to become guides for the visually impaired.

Returning to Slamdance following their 2015 hit documentary Batkid Begins, distributed theatrically by Warner Bros., Nachman and Hardy have produced another winning and relatable doc combining emotive storytelling with concisely focused filmmaking that's sure to charm viewers well beyond a sizable audience of dog lovers.

National nonprofit Guide Dogs for the Blind, based in San Rafael, Calif., receives over 1,000 requests annually from blind and visually impaired individuals seeking to be partnered with one of the organization's specially trained service dogs. GDB's breeding program births 800 puppies a year, but fewer than half are found suitable as guide dogs. Through an intensive training and evaluation program, GDB identifies both dogs and clients considered appropriate for pairing, giving visually limited people the chance to develop more independence and self-confidence in their lives.

The filmmakers start right in at the beginning of the guide-dog training process, when specially selected Labrador retriever breeding females give birth to pups. GDB veterinary staff dub the new arrivals the "P" litter, distributing five of the puppies at 8 weeks old to volunteer individuals and families. These "puppy raisers" are given responsibility for training and socializing the dogs for the first 16 months of their lives. If the dogs are able to meet GDB's rigorous screening criteria, they return to the San Rafael campus for 10 weeks of training to qualify as guide dogs.

The puppy raisers range in experience from novices to true experts who have nurtured 10 or more dogs over the years. When they're out in public with their temporary trainers, the dogs wear little green vests labeled "Guide Dog Puppy." In the process of evaluating the dogs at three-month intervals, GDB staff decide to transfer several of the P-litter dogs after their first placements, due to the inexperience of the raisers or when the pups start developing behavioral problems.

Rowdy puppy Patriot proves too much for his teen trainer to handle and gets transferred to Adam, a veteran dealing with PTSD who says that looking after the dog helps him remain calm and focused. High-functioning Phil still has some problematic behavioral traits and gets reassigned to experienced couple Kristen and Kenny as their 10th GDB puppy. Potomac never really takes to the training process and ends up getting "career changed" — a GDB euphemism for cutting a dog from the program.

At the end of 12 months, four of the dogs remain, but most face training or behavioral challenges that could eliminate them before they have a chance to begin the intensive final guide dog training.

As adorable as the P-litter pups surely are, there's a good deal of human drama here too, since applicants typically wait up to a year or more for GDB to select a suitable dog. The stakes are high for first-timers like Ron, who lost his sight as a baby because of retinal cancer. Receiving a GDB guide dog would allow him to put aside his walking cane and pursue his dream of getting out into the world and hiking alone with his dog. (Traversing the Pacific Crest Trail is his secret ambition.) First he'll have to successfully complete an exhaustive two-week training to qualify as a candidate for canine partnering.

For Janet, seeking a match with her fourth guide dog, a pairing would mean that she could continue working at her office job uninterrupted and maintain her independence. As the stories of these canine and human subjects converge, the possibilities for pairing narrow. Once a person is partnered with a dog, GDB holds a "graduation" ceremony for all the staff, trainers and puppy raisers involved in each service animal's successful completion of training.

With most of the focus on the puppies, cinematic options might appear limited, but because there are so many people involved in raising the dogs, Nachman and Hardy readily gain access to puppy trainers, GDB staff and sight-impaired individuals. While there are plenty of shots featuring gamboling puppies, the filmmakers also demonstrate the training process, with detailed scenes showing how the dogs are instructed.  

Juggling more than a half-dozen storylines, Hardy's editorial work entertainingly excels at maintaining interest and building tension throughout the film's succinctly packaged 79-minute run time.

While Pick of the Litter stands out for its canine characterizations, it's fundamentally a film about the endlessly fascinating, constantly evolving relationship between dogs and humans, cultivated over millennia of advantageous interaction.




Production company: KTF Films

Directors: Dana Nachman, Don Hardy

Screenwriter: Dana Nachman

Producers: Dana Nachman, Don Hardy

Executive producers: Ian Reinhard, Dan Braun

Director of photography: Don Hardy

Editor: Don Hardy

Music: Helen Jane Long 

Venue: Slamdance Film Festival


Not rated, 79 minutes