Documentary Review: Dog Man

Documentary review of Dog Man: The story of legendary dog trainer, Dick Russell.

Frequently, Saturday night is documentary night at the McSquare household. While dog dad works, the pups and I snuggle up to learn a little bit more about our world.

Most recently while searching Amazon Prime, we stumbled upon Dog Man, a 57 minute documentary about a dog trainer from Baton Rouge. Dick Russell.

From beginning to end, you can feel the love that created this tightly edited film. If you're an animal person or in need of some training inspiration and motivation, then this documentary is made for you.

Right away I was intrigued by this trainer. More than one person made the comment that he was really people training. He taught people how to train their own dogs.

Holly Frederick Reynolds, the founder of pet rescue group CAAWS, Capital Area Animal Welfare Society, said, "He's interested in the animals being the best they can be" more so than making money.

In the last thirty years of his life, the filmmakers estimate that he trained over 30,000 dogs in Baton Rouge through his six-week basic obedience course that he taught three times per week. He held these classes in large parking lots with many, many dogs. We're talking 50 puppies or so.

When a pet parent paid for the class, they were allowed to keep coming back whenever they needed help. He didn't want anyone's financial situation to prevent them from training their dog.

He taught positive reinforcement through verbal praise, affection, and treats. He reminded people that dogs don't lie to us. If your dog is telling you that he doesn't remember a command, then he doesn't remember the command. Teach it to him again because all that dog wants to do is please us. He'd tell people that if they practiced what they learned in class for the next 34 days, they'd have a trained dog.

What I found most fascinating was the information about his practice of large field socialization. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, he would invite for free everyone from his puppy obedience classes out to his five acres of pasture where they would turn all of the dogs loose. No matter how many or how few dogs turned out, everyone, people and dogs, would walk around that field allowing the dogs to interact freely and figure out their place in the pack.

When Dick Russell started these free large field socialization classes, many people thought he had lost his mind. His approach was unconventional, but now the "U.S. dog training community considers large field socialization one of the most effective tools in dog training" according to this film.

“I do not teach socialization class. I conduct it. The dogs teach it.”
— Dick Russell

As you watch different footage of these large field socialization classes being conducted, you see what Dick meant. Everyone moves constantly and most dogs are having a great time. There's some footage of one or two dogs getting aggressive and Dick or one of his apprentice trainers pops that dog with a whip. One of the other trainers interviewed mentioned DIck's iron-clad waiver that mentions death multiple times.

One dog owner interviewed had an aggressive dog who got out of line and speaks to how Dick's large field socialization classes helped his dog.

The film includes Interviews from many people who knew Dick Russell:

  • Dog owners, including owners who had challenging dogs
  • Veterinarians
  • Pet rescue organizers & founders
  • Trainers like Chad Mackin, who would drive from Houston to observe Dick Russell's classes.
  • Other dog trainers who worked with Dick Russell over the years
  • His brother L.H. Russell
  • His neighbors

There's also variety in the footage to make the film visually engaging. A good chunk of film is from Dick Russell's later years, including many different scenes from those parking lot puppy obedience classes. These snippets were my favorite because I felt like I was there in the class benefiting from years of wisdom. At one point, he explained this paper plate recall technique that he pioneered. I look forward to trying this technique with Bernie and Lizzie.

The filmmakers also integrated family films and photos, including one photo of his childhood dog Cheyenne, newspaper clippings, old television news stories covering his techniques, a radio interview, and many pictures of his large field socialization class.

Since Dick Russell died before this film was completed, the final scenes of people remembering him and his legacy are emotional. Have tissues nearby. And your pup.

This documentary is well worth watching. Within 57 minutes, the filmmakers capture the impact one person had on his community. They balance bits of biographical information with a deep appreciation for Dick Russell's craft. His ability to know what a dog would do before the dog did it. That's a dog man.

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What's your most inspiring dog trainer story?
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