Film tells story of local dog trainer Dick Russell
In storytelling, sometimes you choose your subjects, and sometimes your subjects choose you.
The latter happened to Baton Rouge filmmaker Richie Adams two years ago, when he and his wife took their rescue dog, Charles, to local trainer Dick Russell’s beginners obedience class, for decades a rite of passage for many Baton Rouge dog owners. He was enthralled watching Russell, clad in his denim overalls, talking to dozens of people without a microphone, sometimes crawling on his hands and knees to interact with the dogs.
“Even at age 72, he was still doing four classes a week, every six weeks, all year long,” Adams said. “Even at 72, he was still going around the clock. I thought, ‘My God, someone needs to tell this guy’s story.’”
Not wanting to be presumptuous, Adams decided to wait until Charles finished the class before he’d ask. On graduation night, he approached mutual friend Holly Bonner and asked if she thought Russell would mind.
“Not only did she think it was a great idea, she told me Dick was battling cancer,” Adams recalls.
At that moment, Dog Man became a movie that Adams simply had to make.
“We didn’t have time to raise money,” Adams said, “but we were uniquely positioned to answer this call.”
So Adams and his crew began their journey to create “Dog Man: The Dick Russell Story,” a documentary of the life and accomplishments of a man known in Baton Rouge and around the world for his dog-training techniques.
Adams and his three colleagues at River Road Creative are entering the final stretch of making Dog Man, and have until this point financed the project largely out of pocket. They started a Kickstarter campaign, using the popular website to raise funds through public donations.
The campaign ends Tuesday, but River Road’s effort has already easily passed its funding goal of $18,000. It stood Thursday at more than $28,000.
Russell succumbed to prostate cancer in early 2011, giving Adams and his colleagues — Matt LaFont, Andy Lemoine and Katie Rogers — only a little over four months to film Russell’s classes and do interviews.
Adams said Russell gave him complete access, telling him he could shoot anything he wanted.
Adams and LaFont filmed Russell’s classes, typically held in the evenings in shopping center parking lots, as well as his famous socialization classes, where upwards of 50 or 60 dogs would come out to his country home and learn to interact properly with other dogs.
Russell, who trained more than 30,000 during his career, is recognized as the first trainer to offer a lifetime guarantee. He gave discounts for rescue dogs and occasionally let people take the class even though they couldn’t afford to pay him.
Russell’s attitude, Adams said, was: “When you have money, you can come back and pay me. And if you forget, chances are I forgot too. That was pretty much Dick’s way.”
Among the training techniques Russell developed are using “yielding” to get dogs to defer to their owners and accept them as master and the “paper plate recall” method that teaches dogs to sit, stay and return to their owner on command.
One of Russell’s techniques at the socialization class was to have the owners slowly walk in a circle to discourage the dogs from staying with their owners and avoiding potential territory issues. Once the class started, new arrivals were not allowed so they wouldn’t disrupt the group.
Adams said it was amazing to see how the socialization classes would work on dogs enrolled in the obedience class.
“Almost overnight we’d see the switch flip, and the next week we’d see them just chill.”
Adams said Russell’s socialization class would attract dog trainers from around the country who couldn’t believe he would have that many dogs in need of socialization under his supervision at once.
“A lot of these guys would charge big money, and Dick never charged another trainer, ever,” Adams said. “If they wanted to come watch him, he would let them, and he would often put them up in his house.
“They would say, ‘I had to see it myself,’” he said. “They were completely amazed and now they use those methods.”
Through it all, Russell rarely showed the public what he was going through as his cancer progressed.
“I think that’s a testament to who Dick was and the strong man that he was,” Adams said. “No one would have known that. Whenever he showed up, he brought it all. And when he went home, we’d learn later, he’d just collapse.”
One day in early December, the two were shooting Russell’s dog socialization class at Russell’s home on Greenwell Springs Road and they heard the wailing siren of an ambulance. It was coming for Dick, who was at in his house. Nearby,
Adams and LaFont ran with their cameras to the house, and Russell was barely talking and was weaker than they had ever seen him. The paramedic taking his vitals and personal information said, “John Richard Russell … wait, you’re not Dick Russell, are you?”
Russell had trained his dog years before.
“I’ve encountered almost no one who didn’t know who Dick was,” Adams said. “That’s been how it’s gone.”
After arriving at the hospital, Russell was given about two months to live.
Adams had called friends at Raising Cane’s, explaining that Russell might not be around much longer and there were still some shots Adams needed to get. He had been funding the film out of his own pocket up until then, to the tune of $18,000. He had about 250 hours of footage, but needed to rent a large crane to capture some overall shots of the socialization class.
They came just in time. Russell died in early January, about two weeks after the December trip to the hospital.
Adams said Russell’s last few weeks were difficult, and Russell struggled with losing the ability to do the things he always did. Shortly before he died, he had to give up his sheep that he kept around the property because he couldn’t care for them.
He was surrounded by friends, who took shifts while he was in the hospital.
“We became close with Dick,” Adams said. “When you spend that much time with someone, you either like them less or like them more. And in our case, it was definitely a case of liking him more.”
Adams said he and LaFont were able to show Russell parts of a trailer for the film before his death, and Russell was pleased with what he saw.
“We certainly wish he could be there,” Adams said of the film’s eventual release. “I believe he’s watching it from above. He’s been watching us as we’ve been battling to get the story. … That fuels you even more. We want to make something that he’ll be proud of so that keeps us going too.”
As a filmmaker, Adams said, “the toughest thing when we lost him is that there were so many questions we still wanted to ask him and we couldn’t ask him anymore.”
River Road may have lost Russell after only a few months of filming, but the man’s legacy continued to provide fodder for Dog Man.
Russell was inducted into the International Association of Canine Professional’s Hall of Fame the following April. It was there, in San Diego, that Adams learned that Russell’s renown as a trainer, and as a man, went a lot further than Baton Rouge.
“We interviewed nine or 10 people … all of them spoke to the credibility of who Dick was and what he had done in the greater, national dog training community,” Adams said. “We had thought, naïvely, that his footprint was really only in Baton Rouge.”
They went to Orlando and New York, where Babette Haggerty, wife of famous dog trainer Captain Haggerty, told him “Dick Russell was a real dog man,” effectively naming the film.
“You have to follow the story wherever it takes you,” Adams said. “We were always good about being where we needed to be. No matter how busy we were, we got out there.”
Adams said River Road has a few more interviews it has to travel for, requiring trips to Nevada, Iowa, Virginia and Arizona. There will also be lots of work in the editing room before the film is finished at the end of the year.
Adams said that’s why River Road turned to Kickstarter. He and his wife had already put $18,000 into the film out of their own pockets, and that doesn’t include the value of the time River Road has spent working on it. The company shoots commercials, corporate videos and the title sequences for feature films, including “The Big Year,” “Hope Springs” and “Water for Elephants.”
In addition to Raising Cane’s, Zöes restaurant and Pets Plaza have joined the effort, holding fundraising and promotional events for the movie.
Adams said there are several ways he will judge whether the film is a success. The first is whether River Road can create a documentary that does justice to Dick Russell’s story.
“I’ve gotten hundreds of emails from people who are glad I’m doing this and I owe these people a good story,” he said.
As far as distribution, Adams said documentaries rarely get national releases, but that some kind of screening in south Louisiana would be nice. Apart from that, he said a television channel like Animal Planet, A&E, Biography or Discovery would make a good home for Dog Man.
“There are certain projects you are called to do,” he explained. “I don’t know if you can do that many of them. ... It’s not the ideal way, but I’d do it again with the same set of circumstances.”