‘Pick of the Litter’ team talks journey of making guide dog documentary

The documentarian team of Dana Nachman and Don Hardy have collaborated for their fourth time with Pick of the Litter to give viewers an inside look at how a litter of pups vie for the opportunity to become a guide dog for the blind. Following five Labrador Retriever puppies for the first two years of life, bred intently for this purpose, Nachman and Hardy create an emotional “tale” filled with love, disappointment and surprises. It’s a thrilling journey as we wait with bated breath, not knowing if Poppet, Primrose, Patriot, Potomac, or even Phil, will have what it takes to become a service dog, giving independence to a visually impaired human.  

Pick of the Litter premiered at the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival complete with a puppy parade up the quaint mountain town’s main street and I had the pleasure of talking with the filmmakers just hours before the premiere.  The pair, filled with excitement, shared with me the behind the scenes scoop about how this film was created.

Nachman and Hardy first met as journalists at NBC in the San Francisco Bay area where they did a piece about guide dogs which sparked the idea for the film. Finding the right structure for the story was unclear until Nachman’s mother, also a journalist in the N.Y. area, wrote a series about a litter of puppies. That’s exactly what they needed and now Nachman and Hardy were off to the races with the development of Pick of the Litter.

Nachman looked into other types of guide dog organizations, but ultimately decided upon Guide Dogs for the Blind due to the size, structure and staffing of the organization, allowing them great flexibility in filming this project. Nachman, recalling the process, said, “We knew we were ambitious when we set out to do this, but I think we were a little naive about the logistics of how hard it would be.”  The dogs, not named until six weeks, were spread throughout the West Coast, from Washington to L.A. and everywhere in between. “Big” events would happen over the course of two years and getting to the dogs took time. Nachman said, “People don’t speak the film language and you don’t speak their language. We had to learn as we went what was important.” Hardy added, “I think what would have been good to do is go through an entire training period WITHOUT filming and know exactly what [happens] and then go shoot it.”

There was plenty of drama within the shoot as Nachman said she would lose sleep over worrying about the unknown narrative arc of the film.  What if none of the dogs became guide dogs? What if they were all “career changed?” She said, “We just weren’t sure what was going to happen…there were a lot of twists and turns [throughout the film].”  Hardy joined in Nachman’s concerns, stating, “…they could be career changed for any reason; food allergy, anything. It was a big leap of faith. We’re going to follow them for a couple of years and fingers crossed, we have a movie at the end!”

While the focus of the film is the puppies, the human component is just as important as two visually impaired individuals were anxiously awaiting the outcome, hoping that they would soon have a best friend who could help them become independent.  Janet and Ron were interviewed, allowing viewers a glimpse into the lives of someone with this disability and what a dog means to them. Nachman recalled Ron’s desire to hike alone one day. She said with a certainty to her voice, “Think about that.  Alone. It’s hard to always be with somebody.” She continued, “How often do you get to hear from a visually impaired person about what it’s like to be blind?” Hardy added that having a dog makes someone much more approachable than someone with a cane which automatically makes you create a wide path around them.  He said, “Having a furry face brings people to you.”

The filming had its ups and downs as Nachman and Hardy learned about the entire process, finding out that these dogs sometimes change homes and handlers and even have co-families, making it logistically more complex with added characters in the story.  With creative editing and audience input into the rough cut of the film, Pick of the Litter became a concise and emotionally beautiful story of humanity and love.  

Both Nachman and Hardy have their own canine companions and this process taught them quite a bit about raising and training a dog. Nachman laughed, “More or less, I just learned how crappy we are at training our dog! It’s really not that hard, but it’s consistency.” She tried to replicate what the trainers were doing and had great success, but admittedly said, “…I couldn’t stick with it. Our dogs are for fun.”  Within the realm of obedience, Nachman was struck by the intelligent disobedience of these dogs. This is what sets this type of service dog apart from others is that they are taught to make decisions on their own. She said, “I think it’s fascinating that a dog can learn something and then years down the line make a decision … to disobey” in order to save their human from danger.

Hardy hopes that viewers will see that while these dogs are working, they also are living “…really amazing lives. They serve their human, but they’re also a part of the family. They have a best friend.” Nachman added, “Look at my dog. She gets left at home. These dogs never get left anywhere. Dogs just really want something to do.”

Pick of the Litter will be screening at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago beginning Sept. 28 through October 4.  Be sure to bring the entire family and learn about this amazing process of what it takes to become a guide dog.  And bring tissues!

© Pamela Powell (9/25/18) FF2 Media

Read FF2 Media’s review of Pick of the Litter.

Photos: FF2 Media’s Pamela Powell interviews filmmakers Dana Nachman and Don Hardy / Pick of the Litter

Photo Credits: Sundance Selects

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New York native film critic and film critic Pamela Powell now resides near Chicago, interviewing screenwriters and directors of big blockbusters and independent gems as an Associate for FF2 Media. With a graduate degree from Northwestern in Speech-Language Pathology, she has tailored her writing, observational, and evaluative skills to encompass all aspects of film. With a focus on women in film, Pamela also gravitates toward films that are eye-opening, educational, and entertaining with the hopes of making this world a better place. 
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