Dogged pursuits

Puppies vie to become guide dogs in 'Pick of the Litter'

There are two kinds of people in the world: people who hate dogs, and people who will love "Pick of the Litter," the dog-themed documentary sensation of the year. Wait, did I say "dogs?" I meant to say "puppies." Five puppies. Five Labrador retriever puppy siblings named Potomac, Patriot, Primrose, Poppet and Phil. That's right, folks. This movie is taking no chances when it comes to warming your heart.

Bay-Area-based co-directors Dana Nachman (of Los Altos) and Don Hardy (of Alameda) locate a compelling narrative by tracking the journey of this litter of puppies -- born and raised under the auspices of Guide Dogs for the Blind -- from birth through their upbringing and training to their evaluation of ongoing usefulness to the nonprofit organization, whether as guide dogs placed with blind clients or as breeders of the next generation. The numbers involved and complexity of the guide-dog program necessitate an approach of more breadth than depth, the brisk 81-minute documentary playing like a compressed season of the world's most adorable reality competition (the filmmakers really ought to look into franchising "Pick of the Litter" as a reality series).

Filming across a roughly two-year span, Nachman and Hardy show an interest in the personalities of the dogs and certainly in what each dog is capable of achieving. If this is largely a puppy-interest story, the human element still drives it, with as many as 250 people, most of them volunteers, touching each dog's young life in the program. Although the filmmakers cannily avoid any authorial commentary, what we see of the dogs' volunteer trainers as they raise and attempt to prepare their foster puppies to demonstrate their potential as guide dogs can at times evoke the character-based commentary of "Best in Show."

One of the most experienced and successful couples gives off a whiff of smug confidence while other families confess their hopes and jitters as they train their little charges. One puppy trainer, an endearing eccentric with a heart as big as all outdoors, turns out to suffer from PTSD, giving his bond with his dog deeper significance. That the puppies are destined to wind up elsewhere lends these passages a poignancy: We have to watch the trainers return their dogs, a moment as difficult as it is inevitable. Some dogs wash out at this stage -- Guide Dogs for the Blind politely terms this "career change," whether that be to a breeder role (also coveted by the human handlers), a less demanding service placement, or a role as a household pet.

Those dogs identified as finalist candidates get paired with Guide Dogs for the Blind trainers who prepare the animals for Doggy-DMV-style evaluations of their road safety in guiding the blind. This proves the film's most interesting passage, in part because the dogs are tantalizingly close to success and in part because of the intriguing skills the dogs must master, including sticking by a curb in neighborhoods without sidewalks and disobeying a human's command if it would lead the person into a road hazard.

With the local interest a bonus (Guide Dogs for the Blind operates one of its two campuses out of San Rafael), "Pick of the Litter" informs and entertains in equal measure. Nachman and Hardy collaborated on the similarly sunny local-interest story "Batkid Begins," but they've found a subject here that's even cuter. "Pick of the Litter" not only proves thoroughly family friendly, but it's that rare movie-going option likely to please everyone in any group.

— Peter Canavese

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