Five Labrador Retriever puppies are born, and it’s no accident that cameras are there to watch. These tiny creatures, their eyes still closed, will face a specific task in life, to be guides for sightless humans. But first, those eyes need to open, and then there’s a couple years of training, a time of intense scrutiny. Will one puppy learn to ignore other dogs on the street? Will another ever calm down and stop trying to lick the face of every person it sees? And most importantly, will any of them learn to disobey a command that puts their assigned person in physical danger?
Not that we, the audience, care so much about any of these things at first. It’s enough, in the opening moments of “Pick of the Litter,” a low-key yet still satisfying documentary from Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman, to witness their births and the first of many moments of almost unbearable cuteness. The nonprofit organization Guide Dogs for the Blind breeds the dogs and sends them through a rigorous training process that involves volunteers who raise them for their first year. Then the animals are sent back to the main training facility for the serious work.
Focusing on that litter of five — given the names Primrose, Patriot, Poppet, Potomac, and Phil — Hardy and Nachman observe unobtrusively as the barely weaned puppies are placed in specifically designed environments. They run or stumble across varying floor textures, climb up toy slides or are skittish about doing so, and they’re always being watched for signs of curiosity or timidity, adventurousness or indifference.
Every puppy born doesn’t make the cut. Some betray early signs of task inability and are sent off to become domestic pets. Others, more easily trainable, move forward, even if later they demonstrate that they’re not quite guide-dog material. At that point they are “career changed” (a polite term for being cut from the program), possibly proving useful for other purposes such as becoming a PTSD support animal.
The first half of the film prioritizes the stories and emotional attachments of the temporary human “raisers.” They worry about about their own ability to properly train the dog for their future task. They feel guilt when the animal fails to reach guide-dog standards. And this may have been a bit of a filmmaking misstep: the draw here, after all, is the pups, not their temporary handlers, and while some of the raisers get minor narrative codas, some simply disappear, unmissed.
But once the young dogs make it to the second half of training, where they’re tested rigorously on tasks like curb, car, and unsafe space awareness, the film develops a quiet set of stakes. Each dog’s personality fleshed out, we learn that Patriot might prove to be too intense for the job, that Poppet’s lack of focus might make her more suitable as a breeder, and that everybody’s favorite, Phil, might get to the all the way to the finish line and still choke on those crucial final tests.
If those stakes don’t sound like quite enough, it’s because, in the service of not over-dramatizing the process, Hardy and Nachman seem to be holding back on making the film appropriately cinematic and visually engaging. And refusing to anthropomorphize the dogs — outside of some impossibly annoying baby talk on the part of various raisers and GDB employees — also means that the exceptionally handsome creatures aren’t always able to be told apart unless their name flashes on screen. (Not to worry, their name always flashes on screen.)
Hardy and Nachman seem to realize this drama deficiency, spending the final half dealing with minor dramas like crosswalk safety (even though the film never explains what will happen when a dog encounters a car that isn’t the same quiet white Prius owned by GDB) and building low levels of suspense over those final certification tests. There are the briefest of introductions to the people being matched to the dogs, but mostly we get dogs engaged in their process. Some day down the road one of these dogs might literally save their human’s life — there’s a mention of a dog that led its person down more than 70 flights of stairs on 9/11 — but right here and right now, it’s about the repetitive training reality of daily routine.
Still, doggie cuteness and the inherent emotional pull of canine-human companionship wins in the end. Subject matter alone makes “Pick of the Litter,” if not especially memorable, a gently lovable outing. Happy endings, it’s not a spoiler to say, are in plentiful supply, and we find ourselves meeting the closing credits in a cozy place where no dog is a failure, loneliness and human need are presumed vanquished, and each puppy, now a gorgeous adult, finds a purpose and a place to call home.