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Review: Pick of the Litter is perfect antidote to Marvel

It may sound as if we’re talking about recruitment to ASIO but we’re not. These are the qualities necessary for selection as a guide dog for the blind after a two-year course so rigorous that fewer than 30 per cent of candidates pass.

In this American documentary by former NBC reporters Dana Nachman​ and Don Hardy, we accompany a litter of labrador pups as they go through all the stages, starting with the day of their birth.

Patriot, Phil, Primrose, Poppet and Potomac are their names and after three months, they’re farmed out to minders, some of whom display all the nervousness that the dogs themselves seem to lack. If these sainted people are new to the job, they’re swiftly made aware that it comes with all the upheavals of having a new baby in the house.

Jargon abounds in this business. If a pup turns out not to have the makings of a guide dog, it must undergo a “career change”. And if it needs to be soothed before a particularly arduous test, it’s given “tactile grounding”, which means that someone sits it down and fondles its ears.

This happens to Primrose, one of the most promising members of the team, when she’s taken on a plane for the first time.

Patriot is not as self-possessed. He likes to bite and he’s eventually transferred to a more experienced minder because he’s been behaving badly at the high school attended by his current carer, a teenager.

His next minder is Adam, a military veteran suffering the psychological after-affects of two tours in Iraq and Patriot is a lifesaver, giving him a new reason to get up in the morning.

For the home stretch, the dogs are returned to the school “campus”, where professional handlers shepherd them through their final tests. Progress can be agonising.

Poppet fails her traffic test and has to do the whole thing again. Phil comes up short on the obedience test and Patriot’s impulsive nature is giving everybody problems.

Primrose, on the other hand, is a star, except for a slight tendency towards excitability. And this opens up a new possibility: maybe she should alter direction and become a mother.

And while the decisions are made, two visually impaired people – Janet and Ronald – wait to find out which of the dogs will become theirs.

Finally, the phrase, “career change” turns out to be a lot less ominous than it sounds. All those dogs who don’t make the cut are simply offered another way of living happily ever after with owners who really want them.

This makes it the perfect family film – especially if you’re looking for an antidote to Marvel and DC.

Sandra Hall is the author of two novels (A Thousand Small Wishes and Beyond the Break), two histories of the Australian television industry (Supertoy and Turning On, Turning Off) and Tabloid Man, a biography of Ezra Norton, the man who established Truth and The Daily Mirror. She was film critic at The Bulletin magazine prior to joining The Sydney Morning Herald in 1996.

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