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‘Pick of the Litter’ an adorable look at guide dogs in training

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Phil is one of the puppies profiled in the heartwarming “Pick of the Litter.” (Courtesy Sundance Selects)

Certain types of movies are critic-proof. For example, those who might criticize documentaries about the evils of the Holocaust or slavery run the risk of being viewed as supportive.

Conversely, not loving puppies training to become Guide Dogs for the Blind in the new documentary “Pick of the Litter” could be construed as heartlessness. Fortunately, the movie, while not particularly deep, is wonderful. It’s the “Hoop Dreams” of dog documentaries.

Opening Friday at the Embarcadero, “Pick of the Litter” begins with an “aww” moment as five new pups are born, destined for the San Rafael-based training program to become Guide Dogs.

Fewer than half that enter pass the rigorous training. They must be so well-trained that they will disobey a command that could lead their human into danger.

Our new candidates are in the “P” group. Their names are Patriot, Poppet, Potomac, Primrose and Phil. They grow from tiny little balls of fur to mid-size doggies and are then given to “raisers.”

The raisers take the dogs home and begin to teach them. One raiser is given the instruction that she must go to bed at 10 and sleep on the nearby couch so the doggie will feel comfortable.

The raisers understand that, whether their dog passes or fails (which is called “career change”), the dogs will go away at some point. One raiser likens the experience to sending a child off to college.

Some of the raiser story lines, especially ones involving a teen boy and an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD, are quite moving in their own ways.

Raiser families seem to be ranked by how many dogs they’ve hosted, and how many of those dogs have passed and become Guide Dogs. The more experienced families are called in to take over dogs that fail (“career change”) early.

Finally, as our P-dogs are slowly eliminated — one is selected to become a breeder dog, which is like graduating with a “B” average — it comes down to two of them taking their final tests.

These tests are often exciting as the dog leads a blindfolded trainer down sidewalks or in residential areas without sidewalks, avoiding cars, ignoring other dogs, going around obstacles and getting out of the way of danger.

Scenes of sight-impaired folks meeting their new dogs for the first time will cause lumps in throats.

We learn that people wanting the dogs are on long waiting lists, and that walking with canes can be problematic; when the cane hits a crack in the pavement, it can bounce up and smack its owner in the stomach. Assisted by Guide Dogs, people aren’t subject to midsection bruises, and they enjoy a greater range of freedom.

“Pick of the Litter,” directed by Bay Area residents Dana Nachman and Don Hardy (both worked on the lovable “Batkid Begins”), runs a scant 80 minutes and is largely a celebration of this noble (and adorable) cause; it finds no criticisms or dark sides.

It also focuses more on fuzzy subjects than on humans, which results in a slightly superficial feeling; yet it avoids the potential pitfall of becoming like nasty elimination-driven reality TV.

The kid-friendly “Pick of the Litter” remains good-natured throughout, and offering viewers the opportunity to better appreciate those special, heroic, lovable canines.

REVIEW
Pick of the Litter
Three stars
Starring: Patriot, Poppet, Potomac, Primrose, Phil
Written by: Dana Nachman
Directed by: Dana Nachman, Don Hardy
Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes
Note: Nachman is slated to appear at screenings at 7:10 p.m. Sept. 7, 4:50 and 7:10 p.m. Sept. 8 and 12:15 p.m. Sept. 9 at the Embarcadero.

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