Brandon McMillan Opens Up About Rescuing Strays, Swimming with Sharks and Depression
Photo by Jackie Bryan
The Global Pet Expo show floor features many gems amongst its 3,600-plus booths, and this year, attendees can find Brandon McMillan—a professional dog trainer and behaviorist, and the Emmy-Award winning host of “Lucky Dog” on CBS—at the Pet Product News booth during the three-day show, which is being held at the Orange County Convention Center Feb. 26-28 in Orlando, Fla.
McMillan has worked with all types of animals, but his passion lies with dogs. On “Lucky Dog,” McMillan rescues dogs before they’re euthanized and turns them into well-trained pets and service animals. He is also frequently hired by Hollywood’s A-list celebrities to transform their out of control pooches into well-mannered dogs.
McMillan will be at Pet Product News’ Global Pet Expo booth (3021) on Wednesday, Feb. 26, from 2-4 p.m., where he will sign free copies of his book “Lucky Dog Lessons: Train Your Dog in 7 Days” (while supplies last). The event will give attendees the opportunity to ask their most pressing dog training questions.
PPN caught up with McMillan ahead of the show for his insights on training dogs, launching a podcast and how animals inspire him to keep going.
Pet Product News: You recently launched “The Brandon McMillan Podcast,” a weekly podcast that features animal training and behavior advice, updates on trending animal topics and conversations with guests. What prompted you to create it, and how do you hope it will connect with listeners?
Brandon McMillan: I’ll be doing a lot of interviews with people about animal-related topics, but it’s going to be conversational, not just a Q&A. I was listening to a lot of the animal-related podcasts, and there really aren’t any that I thought my followers would want to hear. I know my audience, so I’m really building this podcast for them.
PPN: Your father and uncle were exotic animal trainers in the entertainment industry, so you grew up surrounded by quite a variety of wild animals. What led you to dog training? How has this background influenced what you do today?
McMillan: Growing up around wild animals was all I ever really knew. So, when I moved to California when I was 19, training wild animals for the movies was the obvious path. But during that journey, I started reading about the statistics of how many dogs are euthanized every year because they can’t find a home. The numbers were staggering, so I decided to switch careers. Instead of going international with my animal conservation, I decided to stay here in America to help the animals that need it. I don’t understand why the 5 o’clock news doesn’t say we have a million dogs a year being euthanized. We know the typical “adopt don’t shop” phrase, but [it should be], “Here’s why you should adopt, because one million dogs will die this year if you don’t.” The number of dogs put down a year was too much, and it was something that I could [help with] instantly. When you live in America, saving dogs in America is much more doable than saving tigers in India. Let’s put it that way.
PPN: It’s been a little more than six years since “Lucky Dog” premiered. Have training needs and/or methods changed much during this time?
McMillan: They’re always changing, but I stick to my core foundation of training because it works. The two main things I look for: What’s the quickest way from point A to point B when training an animal? And No. 2: What’s the most humane way to train? You have to combine these two and figure out a training style. That’s what I’ve done with my training method. My style comes from the lineage of more than a 100 years of animal trainers. I took a little piece of the pie from every mentor that I had. The things I liked, I kept. The things I didn’t, I just got rid of it. Eventually, you just form your own style.
PPN: Tell us about an animal you’ve recently worked with that has an inspiring story.
McMillan: I have a dog right now that I just saved from the freeway. I was heading back from Yosemite and the next thing you know, there’s this little dog running on the shoulder. Cars were going about 75 miles per hour. I’m thinking to myself, “OK, this dog is going to die.” So, I pulled over. I didn’t have any of my gear, my equipment or my crate. One person trying to catch a stray is not recommended because the speed in which they run. [The dog] could turn on a dime, so I knew that the odds were against me catching him. My goal was to flush him off the freeway and get him. But what did he do? Lo and behold, he actually does a football maneuver and goes right around me onto lane number three. He gets creamed right in front of me … I thought he was dead. I run over. I literally stopped traffic. I picked him up and the next thing I know, he comes to. The ER vet said, “He’s all right. I think all four tires literally missed him and the bumper just knocked him out cold.” I called him Lucky.
There are all kinds of inspiring stories. Every dog that I train is inspiring, in my opinion. I trained a blind-deaf dog through taps and touch throughout the body. Wherever I tapped, that was the signal for what I wanted her to do.
PPN: We understand you are an avid surfer and diver. What is the most fascinating underwater creature you have come across?
McMillan: Probably the great white shark or the Humboldt squid. I dive with great whites all over the world, like during [Discovery Channel’s] “Shark Week.” I’m also involved with marine animal conservation, so I see great whites constantly. They aren’t as scary as what people make them out to be. Pop culture makes them out as these mindless killers, but they’re actually highly intelligent predators. Also, the Humboldt squid—those things get about 8 feet long. It looks like an alien. I dove with them at night by the Sea of Cortez about 10 years ago. I had to wear a chain mail suit with them because they’d grab me with their mouth, which is actually a beak, and try to tear me open. That chain suit is why I’m still here today.
PPN: What other hobbies and/or projects are you interested in?
McMillan: I’m an avid Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, which I do five times a week. I’m a secret gardener. In fact, my backyard looks like something out of Better Homes & Gardens. I love drawing and painting as well.
PPN: You inspired a lot of people when you recently shared your history with depression. Most people were not aware of your backstory. In a live Facebook chat in January, you said, “There’s a TV version of me and the real me, and the real me is sitting right in front of you.” How hard was it to share the real you, and why did you feel this was the time to do so?
McMillan: I get really depressed around the holidays, especially New Year’s. I remember when I talked about my journey, about how I got to where I’m at and how I nearly committed suicide. I had thousands and thousands of people who responded saying, “Oh, my God, me too. I had no idea.” And they kind of humanize me. Everyone looks at celebrities, or anyone with celeb status, as if we’re untouchable. Like all those problems are just for everyday people. I let everyone know that depression knows no limit. Celebs suffer from many of the same issues everyone else does. I probably received about 10,000 messages, direct messages, private messages from all over the world. People that never heard of me. They just saw the video. People from Australia, people from London, people from South America, and they were like, “I don’t even know who you are, but I read your story. I saw your video, and you just literally saved my life.” A lot of people were saying that they were going to take their own life. It turned out to be one of the best moments in my life because who knew I’d actually save people’s lives one day. Honestly, since that day, I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders and I can be the real me. I’m not worried about that polished TV personality people assume I am. People like this version of me much better. We’re all broken in our own little ways. Own it and embrace it.
PPN: In your work, have you witnessed scenarios in which the human-animal bond has helped people through depression?
McMillan: Oh, absolutely, when I train service dogs for people, especially the veterans. A lot of them are going through heavy depression or PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. The dog is not only physically working for the handler, but giving them such emotional support that it prevents suicide. I’ve had so many veterans tell me, “If you didn’t give me this dog, I would have taken my own life. My dog saved my life.” And that’s not just for veterans, that’s for everybody. I work with a lot of people coming out of the 12-step program, and they all say the same thing, “You know what? This dog saved my life.”
PPN: Where do you go from here?
McMillan: I want to continue training service dogs. I think it has the biggest impact on anything I’ve ever done, and the dogs are rescued, so it’s a double win. With the response of the depression talks, if people want to hear more, I’d love to tell more. They heard one story. They didn’t hear all of my stories. I’ve always been depressed. I don’t know why. Maybe that’s why I can do what I do with rescues without breaking down into tears every day. It takes a very different kind of personality to stay sane in my industry.