Bay Area Guide Dogs star in new Disney+ docuseries

A San Rafael-based nonprofit is the subject of a new docuseries out now on Disney+. Each of the six half-hour episodes of "Pick of the Litter" follows the work done at Guide Dogs for the Blind, which breeds, trains and partners guide dogs with people who need them.

The group's goal is simple: "To give independence to people who are blind or visually impaired," says Guide Dogs for the Blind CEO, Christine Benninger. "We do that through the use of a well-trained service dog."

But achieving that goal is a lot of work. It involves puppy raisers like Cordelia Wolf, who teaches the dogs basic house manners and exposes them to real life scenarios. "We follow protocol about what she can be exposed to," Wolf says. "She's been on the ferry, the smart train."

Then comes the real guide dog training, which takes several months and the cooperation of both the dog and the handler. "It's a teamwork process, where the dog is there to guide them around obstacles," says trainer Jeff Grey. "But it's the individual handler that's leading the team, giving directions, knowing where they're going to be going."

Guide Dogs for the Blind breeds about 900 puppies per year, but only about a third of the dog and handler teams graduate. Graduate Janni Lehrer-Stein says all that work was worth it for her three-year-old black labrador retriever, Shiloh. "Meeting and getting to know and being a partner with Shiloh has completely changed my life," she says, calling him her protector, her travel partner and her companion. "When his harness is on, he takes his job of safeguarding me and helping me navigate the world very seriously. But when his harness is off he is an adorable, cuddly, playful puppy."

The "Pick of the Litter" docuseries comes one year after the release of the successful, feature-length documentary with the same name. Guide Dogs for the Blind is grateful for the recognition, which has helped them get the donations and volunteers they need to continue offering their services free of charge. But Benninger acknowledges the impact is much greater than that. "It also raised visibility around blindness," she says, "so it's not just the poor blind person. It's the amazing teams working together, and everything you can accomplish as someone with a visual impairment working with a guide dog."

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