Brandon McMillan: Training Rescues, Unleashing New Rewards
Entertainment We asked the veteran trainer and producer of the hit show “Lucky Dog” what keeps him going after so many dog years, and about his tips for potential owners considering adoption.
What inspired you to work with rescue dogs?
Brandon McMillan: I trained animals for film and television for 15 years. During that time I worked at a company that had very old-school thinking, where you always go to breeders for dogs—not rescues. We had just lost our Rottweiler and were in the market for another one. I convinced the owner of the company to let me go to the shelter and rescue a Rottie instead of going to a breeder. There was a lot of pushback with that thinking but eventually, after about 20 arguments, he let me do it on one contingency: My job would be on the line if I were wrong.
The next day I went down to the shelter and found a 1-year-old Rottie named Raven. After a few months of training she was sent out on her first job and she knocked it out of the park. In fact, she became one of our best working dogs. Proving it wasn't a fluke, I rescued a dozen or so more over the next few years till eventually our entire pack was rescues—and they were some of the best working dogs in the industry. It's safe to say I got to keep my job after that.
What is the biggest benefit to rescuing a shelter dog?
I can attest from rescuing hundreds of dogs over the years that they know when they've been saved. When a dog is suddenly thrown into a small concrete block cell with jail bars as a front door, it affects them big-time. The longer they spend in that cell, the more it affects them, eventually altering their personality. When you rescue them from a situation like this now you're starting the healing process of what they just went through. Time will heal them, and it all starts with a new home. It's a win-win for both.
What is the most challenging part of training dogs?
No two are alike. Dogs are like a thumbprint, so the method that might work on this dog doesn't necessarily work on the next dog. It's almost like solving a riddle every time. I usually have a game plan when I work with a dog, but that game plan is only good if the dog goes along with the entire plan. Most likely, there will be some pushback on their end and I'll need to instantly change the game plan without pausing for even a second. I need to have a plan B, C and D already lined up, knowing that there's a good chance this animal won't learn off plan A. That's what I love about it: the challenge. I like that it's often not easy, because if it were easy, everyone would do it.
"My job is to teach an animal everything it needs to possibly know living in the domestic world."
You’ve worked with many wild animals in the past. What has been your favorite?
I like working with them all because they all require different methods. Big cats are very fast so I have to make quick decisions when training them. Primates think a lot like us so it's a chess game when I work with them. Bears, believe it or not, are just like working a dog. They're very intelligent and very trainable and they love to learn new things.
But if I have to pick a favorite I'm going to have to go with the great whites. Not that I can train them or anything, but I've dived with them for years and find them to be one of the most fascinating creatures this planet has ever produced. I host a Shark Week show on Discovery every year about great whites, which has allowed me to not only work face to face with them but also study their behavior. What I've come to realize is they're not as scary as people think. I feel the most at peace when I'm face to face with an 18-foot great white.
What is your favorite aspect of being a trainer?
My job is to teach an animal everything it needs to possibly know living in the domestic world. We as humans set rules for our dogs and the dogs are taught to follow our rules and guidelines. I took a lot of different forms of martial arts for a lot of years. What I noticed with every instructor I was a student under was their passion was teaching us everything they knew—from the details of the technique to the muscle memory, locking it into our bodies forever so we'd never forget it. That's the same rule I live by as an animal trainer. I'm a technician that educates animals. It's a rare craft and I absolutely love doing it.
What advice would you give our readers who are thinking of adopting a dog?
Be sure the dog is adequate for your lifestyle. Don't just adopt off aesthetics alone. Sure, we all have an idea of the look we're going for. But make sure that dog is the right size for your home. Make sure their personality complements your lifestyle. Make sure their energy level is right for yours and most importantly make sure you have time for a dog.
I always tell people to take your time, don't make any impulse decisions you might regret a week later because you didn't think all of this through. That's the number one reason dogs are returned to the shelters—because people adopted them on an impulse decision, not thinking everything through.
Where would your dog go if it had a day out on the town? Let us know in the comments below for a chance to win a GPS Pet Tracker from Whistle!