Well, this one’s a no-brainer. Do you like dogs? Do you love puppies? Then you’ll thoroughly enjoy Pick of the Litter, the super-sweet, illuminating and moving documentary that follows five dogs in a single litter of five who have been bred specifically to be Guide Dogs for the Blind.
We are told that out of 800 dogs going through GDB’s training program each year, only about 300 graduate to become full-time guide dogs. So, we’re set up from the beginning not to expect all five of the dogs from this one litter to make the cut. But, like many documentaries set up with a framework of competition, we find ourselves rooting for all of these very sweet puppies — many of which just don’t develop the right temperament, or meet all the expectations and needs of a dog a person’s very life can depend on. Some of them have setbacks and then just need a bit of extra care and training.
A few turn out so great that they become breeders. That concept makes total sense in this context, although it did bring subtle shades of The Handmaid’s Tale to mind. These are literal animals, though, and this is a movie designed to be heartwarming, very successfully so.
And the “competition” here isn’t of a typical kind — it’s really more like dogs competing with themselves. They’re not trying to be better than other dogs; they are being trained to be good matches for specific people. The camera crew also follows around a couple of people waiting to be matched with a dog — one a young-ish blind man and another a slightly older blind woman.
One wonders how much footage wound up on the cutting room floor, camera crews following people around who did not wind up matched with any of this specific litter. Maybe they “guided” the narrative just for this specific case. Either way, paring it down to a brisk 81 minutes left it with an impressively engaging story, as each of these five puppies find their way between GDB handlers to volunteers who spend time training and socializing the dogs and back to the official guide dog training at GDB facilities again.
It’s easy to misplace where and how the heartstrings are being pulled. Pick of the Litter does not go out of its way to dwell on the dogs themselves being attached to any of their handlers, many of whom naturally get very attached on their own parts. Some of them are on their 10th puppy; some, such as a sweet boy in high school, are on their first. GDB can re-assign dogs to different volunteers at will and with no warning, which occasionally upsets a volunteer. This film shows how effective this can be, though: a dog with one handler who seems to be doing everything right but the dog still doesn’t quite behave, thrives with a new person.
This is really about the people, though — specifically, the visually impaired people whose lives are changed by the dogs. Audiences cheer when the cream of the crop graduates to become official guide dogs; they’re wiping away tears when the blind people they are placed with get introduced. I would have been interested to see a bit more about the incredible sophistication of how these dogs are trained — to stop with a particular buffer between them and oncoming cars; to disobey clear commands if they can see the command will put them and their walkers in danger.
Overall, Pick of the Litter is a true crowd pleaser, the rare documentary that doubles as a genuine feel-good movie. You’ll leave the theatre completely charmed, with a giant smile on your face.