I recently had the pleasure of watching a near-hour-long documentary, “Dog Man,” about a fascinating person named Dick Russell. This gentleman not only had a very unique personality, but also a profound love for animals, which he trained throughout his life.
The filmmakers include a plethora of interesting interviews with many people who knew Russell, including the owners of the many dogs he trained, fellow trainers who learned a wealth of information from him, his neighbors, his brother L.H. Russel, and others.
Interwoven with the interviews are a bevy of newspaper articles, old photos, television clips featuring Russell showing off his training techniques, and lots of scenes from both his six-week dog obedience training course and his expansive field socialization courses (more on that later).
The film begins by showing Russell interacting with both dogs and their owners as they stand around him in wide circles within parking lots, usually during early dawn hours. Right away, it becomes evident that although Russell is a no-nonsense, straight-shooter type of guy, he also has a shrewd sense of humor that frequently elicits plenty of guffaws. Then the film pulls back a bit to describe Dick’s upbringing.
According to his brother, Russell began teaching himself how to train his own young dogs as a child. They both worked whatever jobs they could get as youths, such as working at the local A & P food stores, paper routes, and the like—“whatever it took to make a buck,” he remarks with a smile.
When his brother returned home from the U.S. Army in 1962, Baton Rouge was in an economic tailspin and jobs were hard to come by. When Russell found a job at the local Ethyl plant, it was as if he’d found a lifeboat in the tumultuous economic waters. But the large plant became yet another example of the further decline of manufacturing jobs in South Louisiana during the mid-1980s when it closed its doors for good.
Up to that point, Russell had become accustomed to working the long regular hours at the plant. However, the closing of the plant caused him to rethink things. Eventually, he embraced his inner entrepreneur and went for what he really wanted to do in life—become a dog trainer.
Baton Rouge veterinarian Dr. Craig Alberty recalls how quickly Russell’s business took off and became super-popular during the 1980s. Russell would teach his six-week dog training course to people in various parking lots scattered around Baton Rouge. Part of his early success was due to his being extremely passionate about and caring deeply for animals.
Another positive aspect of his emerging business was that Russell would guarantee that an owner’s dog would be trained, no matter what. In other words, if a pet parent paid for one of his classes, they were allowed to keep bringing their pet back whenever they could. He didn’t want financial difficulties to ever be a roadblock for owners who wanted help with their pets.
Although Russell passed away from cancer by the time this documentary was completed, he left quite an impressive legacy behind. It’s estimated that by the final years of his life, he’d successfully trained over 30,000 dogs in Southern Louisiana utilizing ground-breaking techniques. Each course was packed with dozens of dogs and their owners from different parts of the country.
One of the things you’ll hear repeatedly from interviewees is that Russell was teaching people how to train their dogs, instead of training the dogs. He emphasized that owners should reward good behavior and obedience through not only treats (he mainly used chopped-up hot dogs) but also petting and verbal praise. Even his philosophy on petting was extraordinary—he stressed that petting shouldn’t simply involve the act of rubbing your hands on your pet, but rather, a feeling of love should begin in one’s heart and emanate through one’s hands.
Another major aspect of Russell’s unique training methodology was his field socialization course. On certain weekend mornings, pet owners who’d already taken his obedience course were free to come out to his five-acre ranch.
There, the dogs were free to mix and mingle with each other without any barriers or restraints, such as leashes. These get-togethers were incredibly effective for dogs since they allowed the canines to develop their social skills and also find their place in the pack—something natural to them.
Incredibly, even some of the most aggressive dogs were able to benefit from these socialization exercises, merely by being around so many other dogs in a foreign (and natural) environment.
I found this 57-minute documentary to be well-paced and structured. As an animal lover myself, I also thought it not only endearing but even learned a bit by watching snippets of Dick’s training. No wonder so many folks say they’d wished they could have taken his courses—I do too.
“Dog Man” is a thoroughly engaging and charming documentary about a man who followed his heart and passion, and in doing so, was able to touch the lives of so many other people in positive ways.
Watch “Dog Man” on Epoch Cinema here.
Director: Richie Adams
Running Time: 57 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Release Date: Oct. 17, 2015
Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.