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‘Pick of the Litter:’ Documentary Traces Training Guide Dogs for the Blind

"If you think I wanted to make 'Pick of the Litter' so that I could hang out with dogs, you are one hundred percent correct!"

“If you think I wanted to make Pick of the Litter so that I could hang out with dogs,” says the documentary’s co-director Dana Nachman, “you are one hundred percent correct! And the plan worked out perfectly!”

The film focuses on a litter of puppies from the moment they’re born and begin their quest to become guide dogs for the blind. Cameras follow these pups through a two-year odyssey as they train to become dogs whose ultimate responsibility is to protect their blind partners from harm. Along the way, these animals rely on a community of dedicated individuals who train them to do amazing, life-changing things in the service of their human.

“My filmmaking partner, Don Hardy, and I used to work at NBC and did numerous short TV news stories on Guide Dogs for the Blind,” Nachman recalls. “Every time we finished one, we were hugely gratified by the experience but knew there was so much more story to tell. But we were a bit stumped on how to structure a long-form film. Meanwhile, my mom was working as a newspaper feature reporter in New York and putting together a series where she followed one litter of puppies from birth to see if they would make the cut to become guide dogs. What a great idea! I stole from the best…my mom!”

“There were 120 shooting days on this film over the past two years, which is about about times the number of shoots on any of our other feature docs,” Nachman continues. “The shoots were challenging (those dogs sure do walk fast,) fun (I mean, they’re puppies,) emotional (seeing a visually-impaired man get a new partner in life, wow!)”

Over three years, Hardy recalls, “we were immersed in the world of guide dogs and the amazing community of people who surround them. Our litter of puppies: Patriot, Phil, Potomac, Poppet and Primrose were aided on their quest by the veterinary staff who brought them into the world, the puppy-raisers who gave them homes for the first 16 months of their lives, and the incredible trainers who taught them to do unbelievable tasks in service of their person who is blind. Everyone who touched these dogs is working with a shared vision—to make lives better. Their commitment inspires me every day.

Nachman says, “Nothing was more poignant to me than seeing puppies, no bigger than the palm of my hand, come into this world and knowing that one day, if all goes well, they will make a huge difference in someone’s life. That packed quite a punch.

Pick of the Litter is about so much more, though… It’s about the community of people it takes to raise these dogs. It truly does take a village…or a big pack, shall we say…to get these dogs ready to be put in the hands of a person who is blind.”

“Then, there are the people waiting to receive a dog,” Hardy adds. “Janet and Ron, who viewers will meet in our film, opened up their lives to us and shared very personal stories about what it’s like to be visually-impaired and how much having the assistance of a dog will mean to them. The canine-human connection is a deep and enduring bond when you have a pet dog. Imagine how much more profound it is when that dog is also your gateway to being able to go more places, have more freedom and experience more things?”

“I am driven to stories that center around the people in society who give so much,” Nachman concludes. “There are dozens of people who touch each guide dog before they are ready to be partnered with their forever person. And these are not just any volunteers: They are people who are up all night with the puppies, with them when they’re sick and outside with them in the snow and rain. 

“This is a 24/7 volunteer position and at the end of it all, they have to give the dogs back! Throughout all of this, there are tears of joy and tears of sadness.”