Lisa Nichol almost gave up on Billy.
She had already begun trying to find a new home for the feist terrier mix, who often seemed like he was talking back — barking at her instead of following commands — and even seemed on the edge of biting.
Nichol was ready to stop putting any more effort into training him, thinking instead of returning Billy to the Humane Society of Northeast Georgia.
Her final hope was Vickey Russell and a 23-acre farm in Murrayville.
“Billy did not like me,” Nichol said. “I finally took him out to Vickey's and I said, ‘Here, you take him. You train him.’ And I think she had him for two or three weeks and the turnaround in this dog was so unbelievable.”
Russell, who owns Blue Dog Academy, had already trained Nichol’s other dog, Lotta, in agility. So, as a last-ditch effort, she figured she might as well hand Billy over, too.
Russell trains dogs at her home in obedience, agility and even sheep herding. She’s trained more than 1,000 dogs in her lifetime and has never gone a moment without one of her own.
Even when she was distracted by big-city dreams that took her to California, her love of dogs brought her back to the farm she now lives on with her six dogs: Zen, Devi, Hap, Mick, Pax and Boy Capel.
“I grew up in the dog business,” Russell said, sitting on a lounge chair as a pack of dogs, some her own and others just visiting for training, hung around nearby. “Then I went to college because I wanted no part of any of that.”
Her father was a dog trainer and handler, and her mother owned a boarding kennel and grooming shop. Wanting to leave the business of dogs behind, Russell found her way to interior design and graduated from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville with a design degree and a masters in industrial and organizational psychology. She made her way to Redondo Beach, California, to join the corporate world.
She always had a dog in tow, no matter what. And when she got tired of the hustle-and-bustle of southern California, she moved to Buckhead in 1998.
She wasn’t happy in corporate — especially in high-traffic California. She joked that she was so unhappy she should have been in therapy.
“It was too many people and not enough nature for me,” Russell said of California. “I was lucky I lived at the beach, so the water and all that was great, but I really love the mountains and I love the earth far more than I ever realized.”
She wanted to get back to her Southern roots, and by 1998 Buckhead had already sprawled too far away from them — Russell was still bound to the nine-to-five and very much living in a city.
She broke off on her own and started her own design agency in Buckhead. She found the solution to her job woes, but still felt the call for land.
She decided to leave Buckhead.
Russell gave her realtor a set of requests for a new place. She wanted a property with water for her dog, Blue. She wanted privacy; she wanted land.
“I had all these criteria but most of it was all based on Blue,” Russell said of her Australian cattle dog and the company’s namesake, who died shortly after the move to Murrayville. “When we came here he went straight down there and started swimming.”
She was sold and so were her dogs.
She moved to Murrayville in 2003 and quickly found a friend in Jane White, a veterinarian at nearby Murrayville Veterinary Clinic.
Ever since the two became friends, Russell said White has been referring clients who need or want to have their dog trained to Blue Dog Academy. Russell said she’s made friends with most of the other veterinarians in Hall County, too.
“This dog business, it's in my blood, it's in my heart, it's in my soul,” Russell said. “I just want every dog to have a forever home.”
It’s why Billy still has a home.
She took everything she has learned in dog training over the years and put it toward training him and the hundreds of other dogs people have brought — or shipped — to her over the years.
“It was a complete transformation,” Nichol said of Billy. “I don't want to use the word miracle, but that's what it felt like. Because I didn't think she could do it … Now we get along quite well, and I even go as far as to say I like him a lot.”
Russell is able to do what she does by teaching dogs one simple thing: communication.
“Every animal, every living thing wants to connect,” Russell said. “They need to feel that I care about them and that I will love them and talk nice to them and give them food and treats. So you have to have a relationship before you can really start training.”
That's why she spends the first few days teaching the dogs she’s training that their name means “look at me.”
She said if a dog won’t look, it won’t listen. Once it’s looking, it will do most things the person tells it to.
“Dogs come here wanting to please us,” Russell said. “They just don't know how. They don't know what we want. And some of us are better communicators at letting them know what we want and what we don't.”
Russell said everything in her life revolves around the dogs in her care. She wakes up around 5:30 a.m. and lets them outside to run around and play. Then she starts teaching. Whether it’s lessons with the dogs who stay with her for a 3-week training camp or private lessons for dogs that come once or twice a week, she spends most of her days teaching.
Once she’s done teaching in the morning, she takes the dogs on a walk. That’s where she said even more training is done. She leads them to a pond on the property and the dogs get to swim and when they get back to the house, she teaches even more.
“I try to teach them real-life skills in a real-life situation,” Russell said. “This is my home. This is not a place where I button up and leave at the end of the day.”
That gives her the opportunity to train each dog through routine tasks and lets her be with them 24 hours a day.
And that’s the way she likes it.
“I like spending my time with the animals more than people,” Russell said, laughing. “I love the people that are attached to animals, but the general population, it's just not my thing.”