VISION: For Those Who Have Eyes to See It

A Brief Commentary and Review of “Pick of the Litter”

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by John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Director

“If you can sit quietly after difficult news, if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm, if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy, if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate, and fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill, if you can always find contentment just where you are, you are probably a dog.” - Jack Kornfield, Buddhist meditation teacher and psychologist

Adorableness is a given when it comes to puppy movies. It’s also the “Ahhhhh-factor” when people so much as walk past the movie poster of Dana Bachman and Don Hardy’s documentary, “Pick of the Litter.” But it’s serious business when highly bred litters begin their training at facilities like Guide Dogs of the Blind (San Rafael), or Guide Dogs of the Desert (Palm Desert, California).

There are the skilled breeders, vets and other staff. There are an army of volunteer puppy raisers who are willing to change their own personal routines for 14-16 months of basic training. And then for pups that make the cut, there’s another ten weeks of training with highly-skilled guide dog mobility instructors. If it takes a village to produce extraordinary results, it takes a kennel overflowing with great human beings to help one vision-impaired individual.

Along the way, it doesn’t take much to discover and acknowledge that -- like their human counterparts -- some guide dog puppies in training are better behaved than others. But the similarities between us bipeds and those 4-leggers don’t end there. Some succeed, while others fail to meet the highest standards required for the task to be undertaken.

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Like every puppy in training, Potomac has a “record” (above) Note: At GDB names of puppies in the same litter all begin with the same letter.

But unlike those TV-reality shows like “Survivor” or “The Apprentice,” where you’re either bounced off the island or fired, this shared endeavor has a far more humane and tactful way of making such a difficult transition. They call it “career change.” But there’s more at stake in the whole process of whether a pup rises to the top or washes out.

One particularly poignant episode portrays a volunteer puppy raiser who’s a combat vet disabled with PTSD; who finds daily fulfillment, meaning and a cathartic sense of purpose working with his charge, a black lab named “Patriot.” In the aftermath of the latest mass shooting perpetrated by another combat vet who allegedly suffered from the same affliction, this is dramatically telling to consider the choice: entrust the mentally disabled with a dog or a gun?

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The gift of sight -- or lack of it -- has to do with more than a physical condition, of course. Having a shared vision when it comes to the visually impaired is the metaphorical equivalent of a shared gift between humans and some keen-eyed canines. And Bachman and Hardy do a skilled job portraying this in their “dogumentary” with a film that is emotionally charged, but (thankfully) devoid of over-sentimentality. [Photo at left: Michal Anna Padilla engages a Mountain Shadow audience in Q&A, along with her canine in training, “Levi.” Ms. Padilla is Training Supervisor and Guide Dog Mobility Instructor /Orientation and Mobility Specialist at Guide Dogs of the Desert, Palm Desert, CA.]

One of my favorite quotes (other than the Kornfield one above) was found etched more than three centuries ago on a chapel wall in Sussex, England:

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“A vision without a task is but a dream.
A task without a vision is drudgery.
But a vision and a task are the hope of the world.”

When it comes to those who would otherwise stumble in the dark without these remarkably willing and able 4-legged companions, this would appear to be profoundly self-evident. jb