Pick of the Litter
There’s an ominous Orwellian term for the dogs who wash out of the Guide Dogs for the Blind seeing-eye program: “Career changed.” And the odds are tough. Less than 40 percent of the 800 puppies born into the program each year make the final cut.
Directors Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman trace the process from whelping to pairing with selected blind recipients. The odds at that end are even longer — over 1,000 applicants annually are hoping to be partnered with one of the 300 or so dogs who make the grade.
The pups we follow throughout the film are dubbed the “P” litter, five adorable little Labrador rascals named Phil, Poppet, Primrose, Potomac, and Patriot. They are parceled out to volunteer raisers, some first-timers and some who have been through this fostering program many times. The volunteers take on these candidates to socialize them and prepare them for professional training, which will determine which ones will be entrusted with the responsibility of serving as the eyes of a blind person.
It’s not exactly but there is a reality-show sense of suspense and rivalry that extends to the trainers and the viewers, if not to the competitors themselves. The program is rigorous and the bar is high. If it were enough to be cute, they would all pass with flying colors, but the evaluators look for much more. Too much energy or a taste for nipping? You’re out of the program.
The movie opens with some heartfelt testimonials from visually impaired people who relate dramatic incidents of being saved from disasters by their guide dogs. These stories — along with the soulful close-ups of dogs that accompany them — pack an emotional wallop that isn’t sustained by the rest of the film, which follows and focuses on the steep learning curve these young dogs must master. Eventually, the pups who survive the training are matched with the selected applicants whose stories we’ve been following concurrently.
The program is inspiring, the dogs are remarkable, and the results are extraordinary. As a movie, however, despite the fact that does its job, it doesn’t rise to the level to which it aspires. Still, there are plenty of “awww” moments, and dog lovers will find much to melt over.
— Jonathan Richards