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.
All photos courtesy of Nicolette Jackson-Pownall/NJPphotography.com
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.
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 YouTube 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. McMillan and his friend Mike Herstik—a prominent military 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 retrieving objects, opening doors and navigating in public.
After training Apollo in Los Angeles, McMillan delivered him to Tyler at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and offered some final transitional training. While there, McMillan 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 training 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 Entertainment was looking for some type of dog training show to fill out its Saturday morning lineup. The company 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 might find the whole process kind of boring.” This was based on the fact that, for years, he had pitched the idea to other producers who were uninterested. They watched and filmed him through his entire process from start to finish, including his combing animal shelters trying to identify and rescue the appropriate “lucky dog,” acclimating the dog to its new environment, training it and then placing it in a new home. As it turned out, it was anything but boring.
McMillan: I’m a terminator when I work, so I’m not visualizing what other people see. I’m in the moment when I’m in the act of training. I’m only concerned with what’s right in front of me, and I’m also thinking of what’s going to be happening tomorrow with that dog. But whenever you have a production company approach you, [it means] they see it as a show they intend to turn into a work of art, with music and beautiful lighting and narration behind it. When I watched the finished product, I literally broke down.
PPN: You’ve spoken about the proliferation of dog training shows that all started looking and sounding the same after awhile, and how once “Lucky Dog” was up and running, the show was thrust into a deep field of competition within the same genre, all trying to cash in on the Cesar Millan model of dog training shows. How has “Lucky Dog” managed to separate itself from the pack?
McMillan: Litton Entertainment did a very smart thing. Typically, when production companies start a show, they come up with a concept for a show, and they find someone to host it. But what Litton did was genius; to carve out a block of time on Saturday mornings and produce different 30-minute shows focusing on a variety of topics like a cooking show, a car show or whatever. Then they got the real experts in their respective fields to produce the show, develop the concepts and write the stories. This way, the experts run the show instead of the production company. The secret to the success of “Lucky Dog” is that the production company let the dog trainer produce the dog trainer show.
PPN: “Lucky Dog” seems like the perfect example of art imitating life, because the actual rescuing, the process of training these dogs for service and companionship, and the eventual placement of the dogs in a happy home seem to be what drives the show.
McMillan: Exactly! And that’s the beauty of this show. There is no shortage of stories out there as to why people need a dog; some women have lost their husbands, and some husbands have lost their wives, some mom has lost her son, some sons have autism, some son may have lost his legs in a blast. What I do is provide them with a dog who now has a purpose, and give whoever receives that dog a reason to live.
How Does It Work?
“Lucky Dog Lessons,” McMillan’s highly acclaimed first book, is true to its title, but there’s a lot of back story as to why the training techniques work, and there are even second and third training options should the first option fail to produce the desired result. The dogs McMillan trains must learn the seven Common Commands that will help keep them out of a shelter forever: sit, down, stay, no, off, come and heel. However, when training soon-to-be service dogs, inherent qualities such as temperament and energy level are also critical.
PPN: When we examine the various aspects of training regarding obedience, agility and service, just to name a few, exactly what skills do certain dogs possess that are a benefit to humans?
McMillan: It depends on what the human needs are. For example, if it’s physical assists for someone in a wheelchair or on prosthetics, they’ll likely need assistance picking something up off the ground, having their wheelchair pulled, opening a door or turning on a light, perhaps. Size is one thing because those dogs would need to be a little bit bigger, so something like a Lab or German shepherd or golden retriever that can act like a cane or crutch. Certain breeds like to mouth objects a lot, so those dogs can be trained to turn on lights, retrieve objects or carry them. It all depends, but a service dog cannot be high energy. They need to have a perfect combination of calmness and energy when needed; a dog with a Zen-like temperament.
Thousands of veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and one of their traits is to isolate themselves in their home and become reclusive. Having a dog actually gets them out of the house by having to take the dog on walks, where they often meet and interact with other people who also have dogs. Believe it or not, a lot of people have gotten married this way—after meeting at the dog park.
PPN: Earlier you spoke about training techniques that are handed down through lineage. What types of tools are used here at Lucky Dog Ranch that fall into that
category? With your circus background, why aren’t you using a chair and a whip?
McMillan: Very funny. Circus jokes! We were in the training barn an hour ago. Those pedestals you saw me using were nothing more than a chair and a desk like what you would have for a kid in kindergarten. You can’t train a kid, or a dog for that matter, while they’re running around. Once they’ve been isolated on a platform or pedestal, you have their attention.
By the way, I always say for the record, we humans domesticated and genetically modified these dogs starting with the wolf. We can’t take credit for the wolf’s aggression because they’re wild animals, but other than that, it’s on us now. There are a lot of dogs out there that are aggressive, and there are a lot of breeds that show signs of aggression. Whose fault is that? Dogs didn’t ask to be bred that way. We did it! So, we did that, then we turn our backs on them and dump them off at the shelter? We have a million and a half dogs a year being euthanized because we don’t feel like dealing with the problem—the very problem we started. That’s where I come in and say, “We started this, so let’s make some efforts to fix it.”
“Lucky Dog” airs on CBS on Saturday mornings, part of the CBS Dream Team: It’s Epic! program lineup. Check local listings for times.
Advancing the Cause
The Argus Service Dog Foundation, founded by Brandon McMillan and Mike Herstik, is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and is, in large part, about veterans helping veterans and other disabled populations. Whenever possible, Argus seeks and uses rescued dogs that fit the profile and then pass the evaluation to make them suitable as service dog candidates. To this end, it is the foundation’s plan to establish a vocational program for veterans to recruit and teach other veterans to become certified service dog trainers. As part of this plan, veterans are taught to train service dogs and work closely with disabled veteran brethren who receive them. No costs are passed on to veterans. Visit argusservicedogs.org for more information.