The King City Lions Club in Oregon welcomed a celebrity to one of their meetings: Potomac, a guide dog in training. Filmmakers were documenting his progress and the training of four other Labradors from Guide Dogs for the Blind, based in San Rafael, California. Potomac, lively and friendly, charmed the Lions, and the club declared him a member and promised to pay for his harness if and when he made the grade.

“The Pick of the Litter,” an 80-minute documentary, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has been showing in theaters nationwide since the fall. The film is a captivating behind-the-scenes look at the long, involved, multi-year process of training five spirited puppies: Potomac, Patriot, Primrose, Poppet and Phil. The stakes are high, and the bonds with the puppies among the various puppy raisers, the field reps and trainers of Guide Dogs and, eventually, the blind owners, are deep and emotional.

Year after year, Lions clubs, including King City, support Guide Dogs. Nearly 60 clubs donated $70,000 to Guide Dogs in the last two years. Lions also cook and serve food at events on campus, and some Lions are puppy raisers for Guide Dogs. “They’re [Lions] pretty amazing. They’re awesome,” says Linda Owen, Potomac’s puppy raiser.

Potomac was invited to the King City meeting because Owen knew longtime member Bill Gerlin from volunteering for Meals on Wheels. The exuberant puppy easily won over the Lions. “No one opposed [the honorary membership]. They’d better not!” says Gerlin. Recalls President Fae Lloyd, “He was a very sweet dog. He was so full of energy.”

Too much energy, as it turned out. Guide Dogs decided Potomac was not a good fit to work with the blind. In the film, a staffer who has closely observed Potomac tries to let down Owen easy. “OK, I’ve seen enough. He told us himself,” the staffer says to Owen. She then turns her attention to Potomac: “OK, mister, it’s civilian life for you.”

Only 300 of the 800 puppies at Guide Dog targeted each year for training ultimately become guide dogs. The others are called “career changers,” a polite way of saying they instead become a dog for those with diabetes or another condition, a breeder or simply a family pet.

Commonly seen working seamlessly in public, guide dogs seem born to lead. But becoming a guide dog is a rigorous process involving many steps of training and tests that must be passed. Dogs that make it are indeed considered the “pick of the litter.” They must not only automatically obey the commands of its owner but also learn “intelligent disobedience”—not heeding a command to move forward when a platform, light pole, or car may lurk.

Over 10 months, puppy raisers help socialize the puppies and expose them to common situations such as restaurants, stores, schools, and even traveling by airplane, since many dogs will need to fly to go home with their owner. The film depicts the attachment the puppy raisers have for their puppies. “Left by myself my mind goes to bad places,” says puppy raiser Adam, an Iraq War veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress. “The dog saved me from myself. I’m able to channel my love.”

Puppy raisers cry when the day comes to relinquish their dog. “It takes a couple days to mourn it,” says a woman who has raised 10 puppies and whose dad is blind. Fond of their charges as well, Guide Dog staff can see the big picture. “It’s the end for me [with the puppy],” says a trainer. “It’s the beginning for them.”

Those puppies that make the grade prove to be life-changing for a blind person. Guide Dog receives about 1,100 applications each year for a dog. “Being chosen is like winning the lottery,” says an overjoyed Ronald Strother, an active young adult who has been blind since he was a toddler. His dog now enables him to take long hikes in the woods. Janet Gearheart also received a dog after not having one for a while. “It was love at first sight,” she exults. Earlier in the film, walking down a street, her cane hits a crack and jolts her. A cane is OK, she says, but nothing beats the “fuzzy nose” of a dog.

Owen is currently raising her fourth puppy, Auburn. Her first made it, but the other two did not. If Auburn graduates, she knows who to call. “Our offer [of a harness] still stands,” says Gerlin.

Digital Content

Patriotic Puppy Day

Lions have been working with Leader Dogs for the Blind for a long time. See how one club helped the puppies show their colors in the February 1998 issue.