If you like dogs, and fun, upbeat documentaries, “Pick of the Litter” might be just the ticket. The 2018 release follows five puppies on a training journey to become seeing-eye service dogs for the blind.
The family friendly movie garnered a 97 percent rating among critics on the website Rotten Tomatoes, which notes the flick has “all the fluffy adorableness audiences expect from a puppy documentary, along with a story that’s as edifying as it is heartwarming.”
But you don’t need to pay to see that film. The Grandin Theatre is showing it Sept. 24, and admission is free.
St. Francis Service Dogs, a Roanoke-based nonprofit, is sponsoring the screening in the hope of recruiting future volunteers. They’re the backbone of the organization’s mission to place highly trained canine helpers with people who are disabled — at no charge.
The dogs are worth upward of $25,000, said Cabell Youell, St. Francis’ executive director. She jokes that “our business model is to prepare something that’s very expensive and give it away.” All of the funds it spends annually are raised through private donations and grants.
St. Francis dogs are in high demand. The organization places about 10 service dogs a year throughout Virginia and parts of West Virginia and North Carolina. Currently, the organization has 20 disabled people on its waiting list. Ninety others are waiting to get on that list.
Recently, I toured the St. Francis dog training facility, an 18-acre former horse farm in the Hollins area. I watched one of its advanced trainers, Debbie Clifton, in action. I also interviewed one of the nonprofit’s volunteer “puppy raisers,” Steve Strauss.
To call the group’s work impressive would be putting it mildly.
St. Francis provides service dogs to individuals with a wide variety of disabilities — just about everything except blindness, which requires a different kind of specialty training. Clients include people who use wheelchairs or have trouble maintaining balance or bending over; folks who suffer from cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy; stroke victims; and children with autism.
Service dogs offer a measure of independence — opening doors, retrieving items such as phones or purses or getting the attention of others when an owner suffers a medical emergency. That description barely scratches the surface of the tasks the dogs can perform.
The training process begins when the puppies are 8 weeks old and lasts two years. St. Francis covers all the food, vet care and other expenses. Dogs in training spend their first year at volunteer “puppy raisers” and during the second year, the dogs undergo advanced training conducted by professionals at the Hollins facility.
Half the dogs “flunk out” of the program and are ultimately placed as pets. Almost exclusively, St. Francis works with retrievers because of their intelligence, work ethic and disposition. Another reason: The general public perceives the breed as nonthreatening and friendly, Youell told me.
The training “is a very human intensive endeavor, the vast majority of which involves volunteers. We absolutely would be frozen without them,” she said.
It begins with “puppy raisers” such as Strauss, a semi-retired real estate developer. He’s owned dogs since his college years and has outlasted two long-lived pets. Raising a service dog puppy for the better part of a year — with some breaks — allows him close interaction with a canine without a long-term commitment.
Giving up a dog at the end of a year can be difficult. But “it’s a lot easier that putting a dog down,” Strauss said. He knows because he’s performed that heart-wrenching task twice.
“Now, I get to train a dog with a purpose instead of just having a pet,” Strauss added. He’s on his third dog as a “puppy raiser.”
A chief duty of puppy raisers “is to help young dogs explore the world and make them brave,” Youell said. “We want them to realize the world is a big, interesting and unscary place.”
Specific tasks are taught by advanced trainers such as Clifton. She teaches the dogs to regard tasks “as a game. It’s fun for them,” Youell said.
Strauss’ current charge is “Mitz,” a 72-pound black Labrador born last October. Mitz’s co-puppy raiser is a guy named Travis who’s an inmate at Bland Correctional Center. Roughly 25 of the lockup’s inmates participate in the St. Francis training program.
Ideally, St. Francis would like to have two dozen puppy raisers like Strauss. There are roughly 10 now, Youell said.
When Strauss needs to travel (which is not infrequent), he can hand Mitz off to one of St. Francis’ volunteer “dog sitters” here in the Roanoke Valley. That’s another category of volunteer the organization is seeking — people who are willing to care for a puppy-in-training for a weekend or one to two weeks at a stretch. St. Francis has about 20 dog sitters. The organization could use 30 to 40, Youell said.
In addition, St. Francis needs more “dog walkers” — people who visit the Hollins facility and exercise puppies in advanced training. There are 10 now. “We could use five or six more,” Youell said.
The group also is looking for volunteers to transport dogs and bathe them. Every dog at the Hollins facility gets a thorough bath at least once per month, sometimes more often.
The dogs the organization places with disabled people typically have an eight- to 10-year working life during which St. Francis offers vet care and other kinds of support.
There’s a lot more to the program than I’m able to outline here. Would you like to learn more? Then come to the movie. It’s a no-obligation affair.
At the very least, you’ll be entertained. And you might get an introduction to an outfit that works hard, with little fanfare, to help fellow humans in need.