On the big screen

The organization for which Steve and I raise puppies — Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) — takes pride in the fact it was the first to train dogs to assist folks with physical disabilities. CCI started in 1975. But Guide Dogs for the Blind began decades before then, in 1942. We’ve known CCI puppy-raisers who previously raised “seeing-eye” dogs. Steve and I have always heard that training is even more demanding than what CCI dogs undergo. The dogs must learn not only to obey complex commands but also when to disobey an order to protect their human (for example, refusing to walk them into the path of an oncoming bus). Steve and I haven’t known much more than that about what’s involved in the training. However this week we learned a lot.

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Photograph by Robert Schneider

A new documentary film, Pick of the Litter, takes a close but wide-ranging look at the process. Tuesday afternoon Steve and I and Adagio saw the movie, along with several friends and other puppy-sitters and raisers. Adagio didn’t seem at all interested, even when the big screen was filled with squealing, yipping youngsters. But the rest of us were riveted.

The film opens with the whelping of a litter, then follows the progress of its three male and two female members. It’s suspenseful (some of the gang graduate as guides, but some don’t make the cut), and we were surprised by how familiar many aspects of the experience felt. Some commands are identical — “let’s go!” for one example. Another: the Guide Dogs for the Blind puppies wear halters just like CCI requires.

Other parts — like traffic training — are very different. What shocked me most was that the GDB puppy-raisers apparently can flunk out along the way. They don’t appear to take their pups to twice-monthly classes (as we do), and we saw no signs of the vibrant puppy-raising community CCI seems to foster. Instead, they’re observed by a professional every three months, and the organization can (and does) summarily take puppies back. It made me much less interested in ever raising a seeing-eye dog, as enthralling as their work is.

Before seeing Pick of the Litter, I was a bit worried that our documentarian friends Alberto Lau and Bob Schneider might be discouraged from continuing with their project. For years, they’ve been filming Steve and me raising successive puppies, with the plan of creating a film about the puppy-raising experience. They attended this new film with us and didn’t seem bothered by its coming out first. Although they have shot countless hours of footage, they haven’t yet  wrapped up their work because they’ve been waiting for ONE of our trainees to graduate (something that hasn’t happened for eight years.)  Adagio may not have been enthralled by Pick of the Litter. But Steve and I are still hoping he’ll be the next star. IMG_3245.jpg

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