While his classmates were bringing in toys and stuffed animals for show and tell, Brandon McMillan was bringing in baby tigers. Learning from his uncle and his father, a Ringling Brothers animal trainer, he began handling wild animals at 5 years old. Becoming a trainer himself seemed like an obvious choice.
“I had so much knowledge that I tried to rebel against it when I was a teenager. But as time went on, I realized it was the best career in the world,” he tells MiLLENNiAL.
In addition to serving as the host of Animal Planet’s Night, a documentary series in which he revealed the strange behaviors of wild animals under the cover of nightfall, Brandon has trained animals for hundreds of commercials and ads as well as hit movies and television series, including The Hangover and 24.
He’s also taken to the waters for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, where he encountered a 2-ton great white shark, an experience that has left him itching for more. “If I never get to see one again,” he says, “I couldn’t think of a worse life.”
While he’s no stranger to dangerous species, his true passion lies in an animal that can be found in almost half of every American household: the dog.
A Species in Danger
In a country where as many shelter animals are euthanized each year as they are adopted, Brandon has made it his duty to call attention to the danger that awaits dogs without homes.
“Usually we hear about animals in peril throughout the world. But here in America our domestic dogs, the ones we look at as cute little animals, they’re in peril. Half those dogs won’t make it out of the shelter,” he explains.
Brandon has dedicated his work to giving stray and abandoned pups a second chance at life. He has even created a working team of 15 rescue dogs for films and commercials, and as the host of CBS’s Lucky Dog, he rescues dogs days away from being euthanized and turns them into loving pets.
“Shelters are full of great dogs,” he tells us. “More than ever now, dog rescuing is becoming trendy. My job is to make it even more trendy. I want to bring a cool factor to it.”
Brandon brings rescue dogs back to his Lucky Dog Ranch where he teaches them to master seven common commands — sit, stay, down, come, off, heel, and no. Here, his background in wild animal training really sets him apart.
Many dog habits come from their wild ancestors: wolves. “If you want to understand your domestic dogs, you have to understand the animal ones,” he suggests.
Not all dogs are immediately cooperative and often it takes time for them to develop trust. No matter how good a shelter’s intentions are, spending time in a concrete cell inflicts psychological damage on a dog that can sometimes be hard to overcome, not to mention, many strays are conditioned to expect sour treatment from humans.
But with patience, compassion, and an extensive knowledge of dog training, Brandon is able to work with even the toughest pup. “I don’t believe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I’ve taught ten year old dogs new tricks,” Brandon says.
So far, he boasts a 100% success rate in placing his dogs.
Home is Where the Bark is
A large part of this success comes from not only well-trained dogs, but also well-trained owners. The family Brandon chooses to match each pup with is determined by their individual pet desires and what he learns about the dog through training. As part of each placement, Brandon also visits the dog’s new family in order to teach them how to properly handle their new pet.
Brandon says some of the most common people who seek new pets are parents who want to teach their children responsibility and those who are looking for something to help them heal after a break up or divorce.
“A dog is like a new beginning,” he explains, “a new chapter in life.”
But one of his most memorable matches was between a German Shepard named Sadie and a woman with Alzheimer’s who was beginning to get lost on walks in her neighborhood. He trained Sadie for three to four months before flying out to her new owner in Florida.
Sadie was trained in urban tracking so that if her owner commanded her to “take me home,” she was able to turn around and lead the way. The woman also carried a pager that if called would make a sound that Sadie was trained to recognize to lead her owner home upon hearing.
Brandon also matches veterans with service dogs through the nonprofit Argus Service Dogs. He created the program with internationally recognized military and law enforcement trainer, Mike Herstik, after training a dog for a young veteran who lost both of his legs when stepping on an IED in Afghanistan,
Through this organization, veterans are matched with and taught to handle service dogs, all of which are rescued and trained to perform several helpful tasks including acting as a cane or crutch, pulling a wheelchair, and retrieving dropped items.
What You Can Do for Our Four-Legged Friends
The first 15 years of Brandon’s career, he says, were dedicated to paying his dues.
“If you’re self-taught, the person you learned from knew nothing,” he asserts, emphasizing the importance of learning under an experienced trainer so as not to make mistakes that inflict damage upon animals. He estimates having trained with a dozen different trainers over the years.
But if you’re not considering a career in dog training, he recommends volunteering at your local animal shelter, because the more quality time dogs receive with humans outside of their cells, the happier they are in general.
And of course one of the biggest differences you can make in the life of a shelter dog is to adopt him. Brandon suggests that every person or family who is considering adopting a dog, look at shelters first, because for every dog that is bought from a breeder, a shelter dog, who can be just as loving a pet, never makes it home.
“I prove it time and again on Lucky Dog, rescue dogs are just as trainable. You can always clean that slate.”
For more information on Brandon McMillan, where to watch Lucky Dog, and tips for training your pup, visit this website.