Full disclosure: I cried a whole lot watching the first two episodes of the Disney+ docu-series Pick of the Litter. Based on the 2018 documentary of the same name and executive produced by Dana Nachman, Don Hardy, Mary Celenza, and Josh & Dan Braun, Pick of the Litter is as heartwarming as it is insightful in tracking the journey of six dogs — Pacino, Tulane, Raffi, Amara, Paco, and Tartan — who are in training to become certified guide dogs through the Guide Dogs for the Blind organization. Along the way, viewers learn not only of the rigorous process a dog must undergo in order to become a guide dog but you also meet every person who plays an integral role in shaping the dog for its life of service.
We’ve seen an uptick over the years on dog-centric content, especially movies. When you think of something that feels like a balm in this otherwise unsure world, it’s titles like Marley & Me, A Dog’s Journey, A Dog’s Purpose, A Dog’s Way Home, and The Art of Racing in the Rain which spring to mind. The notion that a pet is a forever friend is as present in Pick of the Litter as it is in these movies, but it’s also clear in the docu-series just how life-changing a guide dog can be. In this way, Pick of the Litter opens up our minds and hearts to the important work done by these dogs and the Guide Dogs for the Blind organization which has been in operation helping match visually-impaired individuals with highly-trained guide dogs since 1942. So sure, it’s an extremely on-brand bit of original content for Disney+ to pick up for their still-new platform, but even if it’s shrewdly chosen, it also serves an enlightening purpose; it’s truly a balm of a show.
The first Pick of the Litter episode opens with: “800 dogs are born at Guide Dogs for the Blind each year. Only 300 make it through the rigorous training to become guides.” We have no idea of the journey these dogs are about take and its this opening, which hints at this forthcoming journey, where you might begin to choke up. Grab your first of many tissues here. As the first episode goes on and we meet the six dog subjects of Pick of the Litter — Pacino, Tulane, Raffi, Amara, Paco, and Tartan — as well as their temporary owners, formally referred to as the Puppy Raisers, it becomes clear this entire process doesn’t just affect the lives of those eventually paired with a guide dog (although it certainly does have a positive effect that shouldn’t be discounted) but it also affects the raisers, too.
There’s a mix of families and adults here with a variety of experience in helping raise these dogs which will go on to one day be a guide dog to a visually-impaired person. Some of the dogs raised by these families and individuals have gone on to become guide dogs. Other dogs once in the care of a few of these raisers have been “career changed” if they haven’t managed to meet the extremely strict criteria for becoming a guide dog. As you watch, you see there’s a serious amount of bonding going on here and the stakes feel high. There’s serious emotional investment and you can find yourself getting attached to the human drama of it all, too. Grab your second tissue mid-way through Episode 1 as it becomes clear the intensity of instilling in a dog the immensity of getting every command right every time in order to pass an evaluation to go back to Guide Dogs for the Blind for formal training is going to wreck you.
One of the biggest assets of Pick of the Litter is, obviously, its pathos-driven focus on the training of these dogs and their progression through the steps to becoming a guide dog. Even in the span of two episodes, you can see how much pressure is wrapped up on these dogs getting it right 100% of the time. Seeing these dogs and their temporary humans bond and the latter cheering on the former to do well is deeply affecting. As the series expands and you see the community of Puppy Raisers who come together for meetings as well as the evaluators assessing each dog’s skill, it becomes extremely real and you can feel yourself getting sucked further in. By the start of Episode 2, your tissue count should be no less than four.
But, unfortunately, not even the power of doggos doing their darndest to succeed in their training can help paint over some of the structural cracks of this series. Granted, I was only able to watch two episodes but they both move along at such a clip that I was surprised to see where the show had landed with a two-thirds of the series left to go. It’s hard to tell how Pick of the Litter wants to balance itself because it gives enough time to the human subjects to make you think their of interest to the series and an equal amount of time to the dogs; but I still wanted a closer look at it all. By the end of Episode 2, I felt myself wanting just a bit more Puppy Raiser-and-dog-charge content, a closer look at what a day in the life between these two is truly like. One Raiser, a California teen named Kiel, is seeing bringing their dog Pacino to school early in the first episode presumably as a way of getting Pacino to be utterly unfazed by other humans later in life. But what does that day look like for Kiel and Pacino? I wanted to know more! Similarly, another raiser named Marikay was on her 25th dog with Raffi and we see photos from a lifetime spent training and raising potential guide dogs. Why can’t I hear more about her journey deeper into this life, Pick of the Litter? Give me some character development!
Considering Pick of the Litter consists of six approximately 25- to 40-minute episodes, it’s easy to overlook the show’s structural struggles and put all of the focus on the content of the show. Hopefully, the first two episodes I screened were an anomaly is their semi-unevenness and the show finds as much focus as it does heart as the episodes go on. What really matters, I suppose, is Pick of the Litter proving in two episodes it’s a worthy, wonderful watch.
Pick of the Litter arrives on Disney+ on Friday, December 20. For more, check out our roundup of the best TV shows on Disney+ right now.