Released: 10th January
Seen: 15th January
I’ve been known to say, on more than one occasion, a cute dog does not always make a good movie. Indeed there are times when a cute dog can actively make the movie watching experience a more painful one because you’re aware that you’re about to see that animal go through some hell *Cough*A-GODDAMN-DOGS-GODDAMN-PURPOSE*Cough* so when I saw the poster for Pick of the Litter, I was sceptical. The poster reminded me of old lifetime movies where dogs would come into someone’s life and change it somehow, the title seemed like a joke that someone came up with. Then I read what the film was about and my concern became anticipation, which has now fully formed into a feeling of pure delight having seen a brilliant documentary that everyone can enjoy.
Pick of the Litter follows five puppies (Patriot, Primrose, Potomac, Poppet and Phil) from the second they’re born through their 2 years of training to become guide dogs for the blind. As they go through the program, some of them might end up being better suited to be breeders, some will graduate and make it as a guide dog and some may end up just not being cut out for the job and be adopted as a regular house pet. It’s an emotional journey following these animals as they are taken around the country and placed in different homes for different moments of their training. On top of that, you’ll also get to meet the people who will be taking home a seeing eye dog and witnessing just how much it means to them to know that they have a good chance of going home with a four-legged friend.
On the surface, this could just be a movie filled with footage of adorable dogs doing adorable dog things and that’d be fine, it’d be an acceptable piece of film that can be forgotten easily. What pushes this above the others is that we’re really getting a glimpse into just how tough this process is. Not only is there the issue of the dogs being moved around from house to house, but we also see them dealing with training, dealing with testing. There’s a test in the process that basically involves driving a car right at the dogs, which has to be done because the dogs need to learn to see the car coming and react in order to protect their human (by the way, the dogs are completely safe. This isn’t one of those movies where a dog dies in the middle for dramatic convenience because there’s enough drama here that it doesn’t need that). You see the heartbreak of the trainers when the dogs fail and their pure elation when the dogs succeed and get one step further to being placed with someone who needs the help.
There are moments when the filmmakers indulge in the fact that they have five precious perfect puppies prowling about in a playful way, giving us shots where the dog clearly wanted to investigate what the camera was and nuzzling it to give us a screen full of adorable dog faces. These moments are really just there to make you feel relaxed and calm, so that when they hit you with the reality of how intense this job can be and how hard they work to make sure the dog is perfect it lands with a powerful thud. Every realisation of how important these dogs are is a body blow. The film literally opens with someone telling a story about how their seeing eye dog saved them on 9/11, so no punches are being pulled about just how essential these dogs are.
The film doesn’t waste its time by lingering on details, it feels like a brisk run through the process of training a dog and is aware that we don’t need every tiny detail, just the big moments. By popping in on the dogs every three months we get to spend a little time with each one and witness their progression quickly and effectively. At a brisk 80 minutes, we get a fairly even amount of time with each dog and see the many ways that this can go, positive and negative. We also get a fair amount of time with some of the trainers, from a first timer who had a dog for 3 months and wasn’t told that she’d have to give him back so quickly (kudos to the film for actually putting that bit of info in there), to a veteran who has a powerful connection to Patriot. We get to meet the trainers and the people who work for Guide Dogs; we get to see how much they care for each animal and witness them having to deal with the reality of the job, namely getting attached to a dog that you know you have to give away at some point.
A lot of people have described this movie as an emotional ride and I can certainly see how it could be that for some. There aren’t any really major tear-jerker moments but it’s hard to sit through without a little welling up happening occasionally. Most of the time it’s the happy kind of welling up because you also become attached to these dogs and actively want them to succeed. I caught myself actually whispering “Come on *Insert dogs name here* you can do it” when they got to one of the dogs second testing, you want every single dog to succeed and become the guide dog they were born to be.
Pick of the Litter is a sweet film with a lot to offer beyond just the cute puppies. It’s a love letter to the precious creatures that protect those of us who need the most help. It doesn’t shy away from the reality of what they have to do, both in training and as part of their jobs in general. It’s the kind of film you can watch and enjoy with ease. If you want to go just to look at a crew of cute canines for an hour and a half then this film will do that, but if you’re curious about just what these animals go through in order to become the life-saving helpers that we know and love then you need to see this film.