Five Puppies Train to Become Guide Dogs to the Blind in new Documentary
DIRECTED BY DON HARDY JR. AND DANA NACHMAN/2018
This latest documentary has to be one of the cutest to watch, especially if you are a dog lover. Pick of the Litter follows a litter of puppies from the moment they are born, and the quest for these five pups to be trained into being successful Guide Dogs for the Blind.
While the calling of these animals is noble, the fact is that very few dogs make it through the rigorous training program and actually become what the training intends. Many are “career changed”, meaning they no longer will be able to continue the program. Often, these dogs are either made available to be adopted as pets, or sometimes, they are offered to other programs who use dogs for other purposes to help humans, such as becoming PTSD-coping animals, or being used to assist those with anxiety, diabetes, and more.
While the vets handle the dogs from the moment they are born, a group from GDB (Guide Dogs for the Blind) begin the prep work. This includes assigning the dogs to a cohort and naming them. For this documentary, it is the “P” cohort. All five of the dogs are given names that start with the letter “P”. The five puppies we will follow are Patriot, Potomac, Phil, Primrose, and Poppet.
The film takes us through each stage of their development and training. We are introduced to the initial handlers who are tasked with socializing the dogs. This includes taking them on walks, to school, down escalators, on subway trains and airplanes, and anywhere else they may have to be comfortable going based on the needs of their potential placement client. Dogs who demonstrate fear, that are easily distracted, that don’t pick up on danger cues such as approaching vehicles at an intersection, are weeded out pretty quickly.
For those who successfully get passed the initial socialization aspects, that learn not to bark, whine, bite, or exhibit other undesired behaviors, they will then be placed with a trainer at the academy. There they will begin training for a five-part exam that will earn them eventual graduation from the program, and finally placement with a client that has requested their services.
The five tests are very interesting and as we spend the time following each dog, we learn their personalities, their individual idiosyncrasies, and get a feel for whether they each truly have what it takes to get through all five of these tasks. Some of the tasks are pretty mundane, albeit practical, like the ability of the dog to lead a person in a straight line down a street, or avoiding objects in the path. Some of these tasks are pretty harrowing as trainers must teach the dogs to back away from danger.
When walking and crossing a street, for example, the dog must look for oncoming traffic, and back away as a car approaches. As a result, they would also pull their handler, who is blind, back with them, to avoid such oncoming traffic. This is done with an actual car, being driven by another trainer, who makes a turn and inches up on the dog. The trainer handling the dog, and who is not blind, will have to pull on the dog’s harness to back it up. They will use behavioral psychology techniques to help the dog look out for these scenarios while remaining calm and executing the desired defensive moves. It is impressive what man’s best friend is truly capable of.
What the documentary does a good job of is exposing the audience to a number of things one probably wouldn’t initially think of. Some of this is explained as a part of the process, but other things are caught just by showing the viewer the day-to-day, from the time these dogs are puppies until they are fifteen months, and must complete their five-tests.
One example is how the more experienced handlers that are socializing the dogs use treats to get them to follow directions and walk where they want them to go, starting off simply laying down on the carpet with the animals while they walk towards them. While this is not new, as everyone with a dog has practiced this type of training before, what was observed by me was how this is often done, with a variety of flooring and other objects the dog often must walk on, that most animals wouldn’t. For instance, little objects that simulate big city street grates, round bars that sometimes are in the road over ditches, along with various tiles, carpets, wood, and other pavement types are all present. The dog, from the time it is a small pup, just grows used to it, as it only care about the treat. As they grow up, they have no fear of such things like an animal that is merely being raised as a pet would.
Along the way, Pick of the Litter introduces you to the people who love on these animals and train them. We see a wonderful story of a vet who was wounded serving our military overseas, and his bond with the dog named Patriot, of all things. We see that often, the people dedicated to training these animals to serve others are often deeply connected to the cause with which they are serving. These are just people who “love dogs”, but who deeply connect with making them ready for those who are blind.
Finally, Pick of the Litter shows you some of the clients that will be receiving these dogs, and the impact it makes on their life. While this is of course heartwarming, it is also fraught with humor, as these clients demonstrate why using a cane to walk can sometimes be highly problematic, especially when one strikes a crack in the pavement. Or, if they are male, and holding the cane too low when it gets stuck, the person might walk right into it. This of course highlights why having a dog assisting them is a much more preferred method, not to mention the benefit of gaining a cuddly friend in the process.
Pick of the Litter isn’t one of the best documentaries I’ve seen, even this year, but it is one that highlights an important need in our society: creating a guide dog for the blind. It is safe for the whole family to watch, and is captivating simply by all of the cuteness on screen, and the nobility of the cause. Whether all five of these pups, or any of them at all, make the grade to earn their graduation into the program, or if they are “career changed” is something you’ll have to watch in order to find out. The great thing is, that no matter how it ends for these five dogs-in-training, you the viewer will have a doggone good time.