(2018) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Phil, Poppet, Primrose, Patriot, Potomac. Directed by Don Hardy, Jr. and Dana Nachman
All right, in the interest of full disclosure I will make my confession now: I am a dog nut. Not a dog lover – that implies some sort of sanity. I’m absolutely crazy about dogs. There was a meme going around Facebook not long ago about the seven signs your spouse is a dog nut – I fit all seven of them. It drives my poor wife to distraction sometimes. Naturally, when I found out about this documentary about puppies going through the rigorous training of becoming a guide dog I was all in.
Guide Dogs for the Blind is a Northern California-based organization that as their name implies provides guide dogs for those who are sight-impaired. The standards are high and the training rigorous. Many of the puppies that are enrolled in their training program are born right there at GDB and in this particular case we follow the five Labrador puppies from a single litter. Their names are Patriot, Potomac, Primrose, Poppet and, incongruously, Phil.
Each of these puppies will be weaned from their mother in the San Rafael kennel, then placed at five months with “puppy raiser” families which include “empty nest” couples, a high school student and his mom, a PTSD-suffering man who uses the dogs as a distraction from his own issues, and families who simply want to help out. Each of the pups will have one of three outcomes. If they are unable to handle the standards of training, they will be “career changed” i.e. washed out of the program and placed with other charities or, occasionally, placed with families permanently. The second outcome is that females may be kept at the San Rafael facility to be bred. Finally the outcome everyone wants, to pass all the rigorous tests and be placed with a blind person to be their best friend and protector.
The puppy raisers go into this with the understanding that they will get the dogs for no more than a year and in some cases, much less. They are fully aware that they are training their charges for someone else’s benefit, not their own. Throughout the process, the dogs will be tested every three months for certain sorts of behaviors that might disqualify them; an inability to follow commands, a tendency to be easily distracted – that sort of thing. Some dogs may be taken out of the program before their time with the puppy trainers is done.
When their time with the raisers is done, the puppies are brought back to the GDP facility for more intensive work with trainers who will give them particular skills, such as dealing with traffic, with train platforms, walking on streets without sidewalks, the kinds of things that the sighted take for granted but can be deadly if not navigated correctly. The dogs go through a series of exams that test them on particular skills. If they don’t pass, they are given one more chance. If they pass, they advance. If not, they are career changed.
While this is like a lot of child competition documentaries that have proliferated like Starbucks franchises lately, there is a distinct difference in that while there is rooting interest in all the pups, there are no real losers here. None of these dogs have any awareness of the stakes involved; they are all going to wind up somewhere in caring environments.
We don’t see a whole lot of the training the pups go through with their puppy raisers, although the primary responsibility of the raisers is to bring the candidates into the world, learning to interact with their surroundings so that they are better able to do their jobs. The puppy raiser parents are trying to give their charges the best possible chance at acquiring the skills they will learn in the more intensive training phase in San Rafael.
The dogs have plenty of personality; Potomac is “mouthy” and loves to nip his handlers. Phil is endearing and has a bit of a hound dog appeal. Patriot has a ton of energy which sometimes makes it difficult for him to focus. Primrose is affectionate almost to a fault and Poppet is cool, calm and collected (for the most part).
This is as much about the trainers and the raisers as it is about the dogs themselves and I’m sorry that I didn’t get their names written down but I’d forgotten my notebook when I attended my screening. However, I was completely enchanted (dog nut) and was grinning ear to ear throughout the film (dog nut). I was rooting for all the dogs to succeed (dog nut) but I did have one particular favorite (dog nut). In these times of divisiveness and stress, dogs are a natural tonic (dog nut) and this movie may even convince a few non-dog nuts. However if you’re anything like me (and more power to you if you are) you’ll want to see this one every time you’re feeling blue. Expect that this one will be a permanent part of my video collection once it’s available for sale.
REASONS TO GO: Dog lovers, this is your jam. The stories of the trainers and foster families are pretty compelling. Gives you a sense of what the training the dogs go through. I was grinning ear to ear from beginning to end and never lost interest.
REASONS TO STAY: Cat people may take umbrage.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is perfectly suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Guide Dogs for the Blind was founded in San Rafael, California in 1942 to aid blinded soldiers returning home from the Second World War.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heart of a Dog
FINAL RATING: 10/10
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