Legendary dog trainer Dick Russell, documented.
When filmmaker Richie Adams came to Baton Rouge in 2009 to shoot his first feature, a film called Inventing Adam*, the script called for three dogs that could behave on a movie set.
“I needed a dog that could fetch, a dachshund and a Bassett hound,” Adams said. “Everyone told me Dick Russell was the dog guy in Baton Rouge.
“Dick was very helpful and straightforward with no sugarcoating. I called the people he recommended. It worked out brilliantly and we got all the shots we needed for the film.”
A year later, Adams and his wife, Leigh, found they were the proud owners of a rescue Labrador-mix dog named Charles.
Movie directors are a special breed. They learn specialized techniques and are entrusted with vast sums of investment money to direct (human) actors and crew to artfully perform on cue. But how do you direct a dog?
“We’re now dog owners, but neither one of us really knew how to train a dog,” Adams said. “So I guessed I’d better call Dick Russell.
“When I showed up on that first day of the six-week training class, I was amazed that this gruff, 72-year-old man would get down on his hands and knees to teach a class of about fifty people. He was funny. He was engaging, but more than anything, you got that this guy understood dogs.”
At the end of that first class, Adams knew somebody had to tell Russell’s story.
Adams and Charles worked hard, and by the end of the class Charles was a well-heeled dog and Adams had his next film project: a documentary about Baton Rouge’s famed Dog Man.
Adams learned of Russell’s six-year battle with cancer, which made the story even more urgent and compelling.
“I told Dick that he had a fascinating story, and that he had a household name, and asked if he would be interested in telling his story,” Adams said. “He loved the idea so I said, ‘When do we get started,’ and he said, ‘Right now.’”
Adams and Matt LaFont, a young editor, began documenting Russell’s class and life and didn’t stop filming until Russell finally succumbed to cancer in 2011.
“Part of doing a documentary is that you don’t know where the story is going,” Adams said. “You think you’ve got a fascinating subject, you dive in and see where the story takes you.”
The story took Adams and LaFont all the way into the ambulance that took Russell to the hospital for the last time.
“The EMT that took Dick to the hospital was asking him the basic medical questions—“What’s your name? … Do you have insurance? Wait, you’re Richard Russell? Dick Russell, the dog trainer? You trained my dog!”
Such was Dick Russell’s life. It’s been estimated that he helped more than thirty thousand area dog owners train their dogs during his fifty years of work. That’s a sizable chunk of the dog population.
Veterinarian Craig Alberty of Associated Veterinary Services agrees that Russell’s story is worth telling.
“He was an interesting person to say the least,” Alberty said. “Dick had Dick’s personality. That’s my nice way of saying he was sometimes a pain in the you-know-what.”
His interactions with humans aside, Russell’s gentle dog training methods seem natural today, but his techniques were not the norm when he began his classes in 1985.
“A lot of trainers used the choke method,” Alberty said. “Dick Russell was one of the first people who used treats and affection to train a dog. You use treats and affection and then you use just affection to get the dog to do what you want it to do.”
Even after thirty years of knowing Russell, Alberty still sounds incredulous that someone could actually earn a living training dogs.
“Dick gave up a regular job to start dog training and he made a living out it,” Alberty said. “He published many articles about dog training. He was a legend in Baton Rouge.”
Part of Adams’ film includes Russell’s training of Larry Benoit, the man personally chosen by Russell to carry on his gentle training methods. Benoit was forty-three when he took Russell’s beginning training class in 2009.
“Dick worked and trained for fifty years, but he took an interest in a more humane and civil training manner in the 1980s,” Benoit said. “The techniques he developed and taught to me are the best I’ve ever seen.”
Benoit added that Russell’s gentle techniques were effective, but the dogs understood that Russell was a different sort of human.
“By nature dogs read body language,” Benoit said. “Dick had a cool, calm demeanor that even scared little puppies or old veteran dogs recognized. That calm nature was very effective.”
Russell’s manner was also effective with people.
“I saw people crying to Dick many times that they couldn’t do anything with their dog and then he’d work with the dog and show them how to do it in just a couple of minutes,” said Benoit, “I think he handed that technique down to me. It’s not the dog that you have to teach. You have to teach the people. We trained the people to train their dogs.”
Another thing Benoit learned from Russell is how to help deserving people.
“Dick did a lot of things that he didn’t charge for,” Benoit said. “He didn’t charge anyone that was disabled. He didn’t charge for dogs that were disabled either.”
Policemen, emergency medical technicians and others enjoyed deep class discounts under Russell and Benoit maintains that policy. Like Russell, Benoit allows folks who have taken the class to come back for polishing at anytime.
“A lot of people take the first class and take it again for a second time,” Benoit said. “They understand how to work with their dogs better the second time.”
Benoit said Russell looked a long time for the right person to take over his work.
“He said he wanted to retire to his farm near Pride,” Benoit said.
Russell never got that wish, and maybe it’s just as well. He was training dogs and their people when the end was near.
“I’m proud that he was my mentor,” Benoit said.
One last word about Charles — he’s now a confident dog that everyone loves, and he owes it all to the Dog Man.
Details. Details. Details.
Dog Man: The Dick Russell Story was funded by individual contributors who donated a small dollar amount to the project via the popular crowd-sourcing Kickstarter.com. The author of this article was one of the supporters. Adams is planning a late summer release of Dog Man.
* Richie Adams' first feature film, Inventing Adam, is available for purchase locally at Barnes & Noble Citiplace store in Baton Rouge. Larry Benoit, Dog Trainer (225) 791-6743 LarryBenoitDogTrainer.com