Bay Area filmmakers feature cuteness, competition in new movie about Guide Dogs for the Blind

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Get your hankies ready. A new feature length documentary about Guide Dogs for the Blind literally has audiences crying with happiness. Even hardened journalists at ABC7 were reaching for tissues.

The movie called "Pick of the Litter" is about Bay Area-born puppies working to make the cut as seeing eye dogs. It's an amazing process, combining canine cuteness and extreme dedication by expert trainers and volunteers.

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Guide Dogs for the Blind has been in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 75 years, but most of us only see the star students once they're fully trained.

This new documentary shows you the entire process, following a litter of five specially bred puppies as they learn what it takes to make it as guide dog.

The nonprofit works with 800 dogs a year, but only about 300 make it all the way to becoming a life-changing companion for a blind or visually impaired person.

"Pick of the Litter" is the work of Bay Area filmmakers Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, who first had to convince the Guide Dogs' CEO Christine Benninger it was a good idea.

Benninger says she was excited to raise Guide Dogs' visibility, but had "a little bit of trepidation at first because one never knows if someone else can really tell your story." When she saw the finished product, she was thrilled, and she cried along with everyone else. "What I'm really hoping is people get a true understanding of everything that it takes in order to get a guide dog" Benninger said.

The filmmakers spent two years documenting the training of both the dogs and the humans who raise them. Producer Nachman is awe of the people who do what she calls a 24/7 volunteer opportunity.

"I think a lot of us feel good about ourselves when we go to the food bank for an hour or two on the weekend, but these people are up in the night with these dogs. They are doing everything just to help one person be helped by this one dog," Nachman said.

The movie shows what happens as the dogs face their toughest challenge. It is called "intelligent disobedience" and comes up when the dog's handler is harm's way. It could be a threat from an oncoming car or a big drop off he or she can not see. At that point, the dog, who is meticulously trained to obey every command, has to disobey to keep the handler safe.

Nachman said watching that training during the filming was "the most amazing thing" and really sets guide dogs apart from other service dogs.

All the training and veterinary care provided by Guide Dogs for the Blind costs $50 million a year, raised entirely from private donations.

Benninger said the dogs give their clients independence and asks "if you think about that -- what is your independence worth?" Each dog is specifically picked to be a good match for each blind or visually impaired client. The clients get the dogs for free, along with extensive training on how to work their dog.

Cute as it is, "Pick of the Litter" is not just a dog movie. It is a high stakes competition that will keep you guessing until the end.

"Pick of the Litter" opens Friday night, Sept. 7, in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Rafael. The producers will be at some of the screenings Friday and over the weekend to talk about the experience and answer questions. Descriptive video services are available for the blind and visually impaired.

For more information about the film, visit this page.
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