Pick of the Lit­ter

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER - Chopped, (Batkid Be­gins) 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

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