Pick of the Litter
At The Myrna Loy
Over the past few years, Carroll College has gone to the dogs.
I see happy pups trotting around campus and occasionally sleeping on the floor during my classes – always on leash, of course.
The critters are part of Carroll’s anthrozoology program, which includes an option for students to train working dogs.
I became quite fond of Anna, a dog trained by Breanna Caldwell. Anna was a beautiful, friendly and whip-smart Lab. Breanna loved her, and was very proud of Anna’s progress during the 2016-2017 school year. I encouraged Breanna to bring Anna to class – I’m a dog person.
And then came the tears in spring when Breanna and Anna had to say goodbye. Anna graduated and was placed in her permanent job at Troy High School in Troy, Montana, as a therapy dog working with counselor Kelly Palmer.
Breanna had a hard time saying goodbye, even though she was proud of Anna and eager for her to “strut her stuff” as a therapy dog.
I thought of Anna and Breanna as I watched “Pick of the Litter,” the petable documentary about the training of guide dogs for the blind.
We follow five newborn Labs from the “P litter” as they set out to try to graduate from this rigorous training program. If successful, Patriot, Phil, Potomac, Poppet and Primrose would one day guide their companions down sidewalk-less roads, forever protecting those in peril on the streets.
The puppy training begins with assignment to volunteer puppy raisers, people who love dogs enough to train them and then hug them goodbye. Both dogs and raisers are evaluated regularly -- and sometimes separated because either dog or trainer (or both) just aren’t good enough. A dog who is removed from the program, is “career changed” from guide dog to somebody’s loving pet.
The most fascinating part of this insightful documentary involves training dogs to disobey. Most working dogs must always obey, but guide dogs must know when to disobey – to save a life. The dogs are taken to subway stations, and ordered to guide a trainer over the edge of the platform. Then they go to a curb and are ordered to cross into oncoming traffic.
In both cases, dogs are expected to disobey to protect their owner, a skill called “Intelligent Disobedience.” The best dogs will sense danger and back up, dragging the blind client out of danger. Dogs too eager to please may fail those tests – and they are sent away wagging.
As I watched this, I realized our family dog Dizzy, a lovable golden, could have passed the disobedience test with flying colors! He was really good at not doing what we asked. For that matter, I have those skills, too.
The film deftly weaves its story from four points of view – the puppies, the puppy raisers, the professional trainers and the clients awaiting a guide dog.
I was particularly fond of puppy Phil – and would have adopted him in a woof.
The film gets its power from capturing the unconditional love shown by everyone toward these dogs – a love that was returned by the pups. Love begets love, no matter four legs or two.
I was curious about how the students in Carroll’s puppy raising program would receive this film. Turns out the students had access to the film before it arrived at the Myrna. Ali Hance, a senior anthrozoo major, has been a puppy raiser for Guide Dogs for the Blind, so seeing the film was personal. She was, in fact, part of the club that raised Phil. She says he was “very sweet.”
“I loved this documentary. I’ve seen it four times,” said Hance. “Having been involved with Guide Dogs for the Blind for 14 years now, it has a special meaning for me. These dogs truly are amazing and would give anything to help their person.”
Ali testifies to the film’s accuracy, but she says the film only captures a small part of the process.
“Guide dogs roughly train for about two years and the training can be intense at some points,” said Hance. “The movie doesn’t show all the extra time puppy raisers have to put in.”
And, yes, Ali confirms it’s tough when training ends.
“It was really hard saying goodbye,” said Ali. “But knowing these dogs were bred to work and save lives makes it a little easier and worth it.”
Not surprisingly, Ali hopes the community will head to the Myrna – and support the noble mission of Guide Dogs for the Blind.
“If you like dogs and want to learn about the process of guide dog training and a dog being matched with a visually impaired person this is the perfect movie for you. Just bring some tissues!”
I give the film 3.5 tail wags.