Having grown up with two black Labradors, I’ve always been curious as to how a dog takes up a career as a seeing-eye dog. Had that decision been made for them early enough (i.e. birth), would they have developed the temperament for the work? I suspect not. Loyal our dogs were certainly; calm and disciplined they were not. Harriet would have cowered and barked at anything before nosing under an arm for attention, while anyone being guided by Jack would likely have been abandoned only to be greeted hours later with a kangaroo bone or a zucchini.
With only these reference points, to me a dog that can sit on command is amazing enough, let alone one that can walk at a heeling distance, stop at kerbs, lead people through pathless suburban sprawls and even disobey orders to save their owners. It’s a painstaking and exhaustive process breaking a puppy into this line of work, and this forms the bulk of Pick of the Litter, directed by Dana Nachman (also screenwriting) and Don Hardy, which tracks five puppies from a single litter, along with their trainers. There is Patriot, Primrose, Potomac, Poppet and the slightly clueless sentimental favourite, Phil.
While on face value this is a chance to tune out of the world for 80 minutes and watch some puppers, some doggos, some heckin’ good bois, why not – basically whatever dog lingo you go in for and the weird cooing voice you put on to do it – Pick of the Litter has a more serious message to impart. There’s something daunting in knowing what hard work is ahead for this litter as they flop out into the world, tiny, blind and puffy-cheeked. All the decisions of their lives have already been made and accounted for, destined as they are to be put through their paces in a system of training that is as rigorous as it is rewarding.
The level of discipline required means that only a minority of the dogs initially placed in trainer homes might be deemed fit for continuation. Some will be too energetic, others just a bit too clueless and vague. Some may be career-changed. At a young age, they are understandably very raw but you can see the signs of suitability and/or progression, or lack thereof, early as the trainers explain what they’re looking for. Some are early withdrawals, while others will surprise in their journey from unrestrained loopiness to something approaching discipline. The dogs might even surprise themselves. When at one testing day young Patriot starts acting up, the camera pans to include an older lab lying on the sidewalk next to its human, head slightly inclined, watching on with what looks like complete bewilderment: ‘Surely I was never that bad’.
Regardless of the playfulness inherent in taking a puppy into a home, the amount of pride and responsibility taken in the raising of these dogs does not vary among the group seen here. The possibility that such a creature might one day be someone’s saving grace means there is no such thing as too much time or frustration invested in getting these animals to the next stage, even if the dogs themselves are too young yet to understand what is required of them. When a young boy of school age takes on the challenge of training a dog, taking it to school and finding the going tough, it’s heartbreaking to see his passion project taken away from him. On the other hand it’s equally as satisfying to see a trainer’s efforts pay off on the way to a deserving owner—whether they be a sight-impaired person wanting to explore the world further, sick of the white cane getting jammed in cracks and jabbing them in the stomach, or even a returned veteran needing support.
The insights as to how these dogs will help such people are what keep the stakes high in this film and are a huge reason for Pick of the Litter being a heartwarming look into community volunteerism. The reward for these trainers is a personal achievement in a small way, but that achievement is inherently altruistic: it is that of a dog enriching and easing the life of someone in their community who needs it more.
Pick of the Litter is in cinemas from 10th January through Madman Films.