A Higher Purpose
“Lucky Dog” host Brandon McMillan reflects on his life’s work and offers PPN a
behind-the-scenes look at his mission to help dogs find purpose, family and home.
INSTITUTION OF HIGHER LEARNING—THE CIRCUS
PPN: It’s simple enough to see what you do by watching
your show “Lucky Dog,” or by watching a video of you
on You Tube doing things with any number of different
types of animals. But what exactly do you call yourself?
McMillan: The best name to describe what I do is animal
behaviorist, because I’m not just a dog trainer. Dogs are
just one category of my skillset; I’ve been working with
wild animals my entire life. Big cats, elephants, bears,
snakes—you name it. I’m also a shark conservationist;
I’ve been diving with great whites for half my career. So I
understand behavior, and behavior translates into training. The best dog trainers out there understand behavior
foremost, because they can identify the problem and turn
it into a training technique.
PPN: My guess is that one of the most frequently asked
questions you hear is centered around how you became a
trainer and how one becomes a good dog trainer. Is there
a series of courses or some training program you can take
that certifies you?
McMillan: I have never read a dog training book in my
life, and the first time I ever heard the term “certified”
in relation to training was on the internet. And no, I’m
not certified. I learned by actually doing it; I learned from
other trainers and, most importantly, from just getting out
there and training a lot of dogs.
If you want to become a good dog trainer, there are
two key things. No. 1, you must have a passion for it.
No. 2, learn from a qualified, reputable trainer—
someone who, likewise, has learned from a qualified, reputable
trainer. In times past, we learned from a long lineage [of
trainers]. My lineage backs up to Gunther Geber-Williams
back in the 1950s. He was the most famous German lion
tamer in the world, and for years, he was the unrivaled
star of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He
took my father and uncle under his wing and trained both
of them, then they both taught me everything they knew.
I’m a big fan of keeping the techniques that Gunther
showed my father. Those little tweaks that I make are to
customize them to what I’m doing here, but the meat and
cheese of it, the core training concepts I’ve received, like
the pedestals and double-leash lock offs I use, have been
passed down through lineage that is not going to change
once I pass it on to someone else.
LIFE’S WORK BECOMES TV SHOW
So how did McMillan’s life work become a hit TV show?
Years ago, McMillan was using a 30-by-50-foot patch of
land at a previous location to train and rehabilitate dogs
when he was asked to put his experience and expertise
to use by training one dog to become a service dog for
a double amputee U.S. Army veteran named Tyler. Mc-
Millan and his friend Mike Herstik—a prominent mili-
tary and law enforcement canine trainer—collaborated
to convert Apollo, a promising young Doberman, into a
highly trained companion able to assist the veteran by
performing complex tasks of daily living such as retriev-
ing objects, opening doors and navigating in public.
After training Apollo in Los Angeles, McMillan
delivered him to Tyler at Walter Reed National Mili-
tary Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and offered
some final transitional training. While there, McMil-
lan was inundated with requests from other disabled
veterans for a service dog. Realizing the enormity of
the need, McMillan and Herstik co-founded Argus
Service Dog Foundation, a nonprofit foundation born
of the love of rescuing dogs from certain death and
helping them evolve into animals with a newfound
purpose as service and therapy dogs for individuals
in need—and at no cost.
Meanwhile, for years, McMillan had been train-
ing big cats, bears and other animals for movies and
television, and dogs for numerous celebrities. Then,
about five years ago, McMillan decided to focus his
energy toward the rescue and rehabilitation of dogs
full time on his own, having grown weary of Tinsel
Town. As McMillan put it, “I was so over Hollywood
after being behind the camera for so many years.”
Around the same time, he learned that Litton En-
tertainment was looking for some type of dog training
show to fill out its Saturday morning lineup. The com-
pany asked to see McMillan in action, so he invited
its executives to come to his training facility to learn
about what he did. When Litton visited his dusty
ranch to watch him work, McMillan warned, “You
BY LARUE PALMER
Pet Product News (PPN) recently accepted an invitation to visit the set of the CBS TV show “Lucky Dog” to shadow animal behaviorist, trainer and Emmy Award-winning host Brandon McMillan during the filming of an episode of the
popular show. The PPN team was treated to a rare behind-the-scenes look at Litton
Entertainment’s hit series to see firsthand how McMillan rescues dogs that are considered unadoptable and transform them into well-trained companions or service dogs
for people eager to share their lives with them.
McMillan is a gifted trainer with a commanding presence over the ragtag band of
rescue dogs that reside at his Lucky Dog Ranch in Southern California. During the
course of the dogs’ time at the ranch, where all his training takes place, their purpose is
to successfully complete their training so that they can be placed in their forever home.
The rescue, assessment, training and adoption placement are all documented
during the 30-minute episodes that air on Saturday mornings. The show is shot in real
time without a script, and the unpredictability of the outcome creates an underlying
tension that keeps viewers glued to the screen.
When the PPN team arrived on set, the crew was breaking for lunch, but soon
thereafter, cameras were rolling again. The set was quiet as McMillan worked with
an attentive but sometimes rambunctious flat coat retriever named Dakota, patiently
teaching him how to “retrieve, hold and return” a training dumbbell. Being able to
pick up dropped items for a disabled veteran or elderly companion can be a very
useful skill for a dog to have.
As the PPN team looked on, two camera operators recorded McMillan’s every
move and word as he interacted with Dakota, who seemed to be very eager to prove
himself to McMillan. Everyone else in the room became part of an ad hoc cheering
section for Dakota as he gradually mastered his training objective.
Among the most endearing
dogs at Lucky Dog Ranch that
day was Thumper, whose training session followed Dakota’s.
Some would say that Thumper
is a disabled dog because he
was born with both of his back
legs locked straight without
the ability to bend, but someone needs to inform Thumper
of his disability. He was eager
to please McMillan as he taught
Thumper how to jump up on
the training platform and follow basic commands. The environment was intimate and
unexpectedly emotional as the
PPN crew watched this beautiful dog that had once faced
being euthanized because of
his disability willing his body to cooperate and keep pace with the rest of the dogs at
the ranch. (Thumper was placed in his forever home in San Francisco in September.)
Later, with filming done for the day and the sun slowly setting behind the hills, the
warm atmosphere of the living room at the Lucky Dog Ranch invited easy conversation with McMillan. The secluded hillside compound is also McMillan’s home, and
the dogs mingling and lying about felt at home too.