In the pages of his book released late 2016, he spotlights his innovative and practical training tips on how to bring out the best in any dog of any size or temperament. Now in his third season as host of Lucky Dog, he searches animal shelters all over the country on a mission: From hopeless to a home, that’s my mission…one dog at a time.
“All my educational background is from 100-percent experience in the field — no books, no classrooms,” says McMillan, who has trained lions, bears, tigers, reptiles and even insects for such films as The Hangover, We Bought a Zoo, The Jungle Book II, I Am Sam, Buddy, Soul Plane, Red Dragon and television’s 24, Dharma and Greg, Jackass, Wildboyz and Carnivale, plus hundreds of commercials and ads.
Inspired by the story of a 24-year-old soldier named Tyler who lost his legs from an I.E.D. while on duty in Afghanistan, McMillan co-founded the Argus Service Dog Foundation to train assistance dogs for disabled military veterans.
For each episode of “Lucky Dog,” McMillan rescues an untrained, unwanted shelter dog and within a week or so, these dogs undergo a miraculous transformation as they learn to trust McMillan, overcome their behavior problems and master what he calls his 7 Common Commands (Sit, Down, Stay, No, Off, Come and Heel).
“These 7 Common Commands are the ones we use most with our dogs on a daily basis, and they eliminate many commands that are basically the same,” he explains. “For example, NO and LEAVE IT are redundant, but many people teach their dogs both. Same with STAY and WAIT.”
He points out that obedience in a dog is not about the number of commands a dog knows, but about whether you’ve practiced, conditioning your dog to the point of perfection.
“Some of the best-trained dogs I know have only a few commands, but they’re perfect and quick with each,” says McMillan. “The 7 Common Commands are really all you need for your dog to be polite, controlled and safe.”
But the first lesson for any dog is all about trust. “Without this essential element in your relationship with your dog, you cannot be an effective trainer,” he points out. “Dogs I rescue from shelters have been lost, neglected or locked up for reasons they can’t begin to understand. At worst, they’ve been abandoned or physically abused. That’s why I begin every relationship with a new dog I rescue by making sure it’s clear I can be counted on to be predictable, patient and kind.”
He shares the story of Skye, a shy, sensitive white German shepherd who he met when she was about 18 months old at a shelter. When McMillan slowly entered her kennel, Skye was so skittish and scared that she tried to climb straight up the wall.
In his book, McMillan writes: “So the game plan was simple: build trust. I told Skye we’d train when she was ready, and for the next week, I spent hours getting down to her level, sitting with her, feeding her, petting her and giving her affection and attention without asking for anything in return. After a few days, she had a breakthrough. Skye came up to me, kissed my face and looked right at me, steady and ready. I had the green light to start her training.”
McMillan identifies six behavioral approaches to establish trust with a dog:
1. Be calm. Being loud or taking an aggressive stance will send a shy or fearful dog running in the opposite direction. Instead, as McMillan demonstrates on his “Lucky Dog” show, he will avoid direct eye contact, sit down on a floor to give a dog the chance to come to him and remaining calm.
2. Be patient. Establishing trust and a true bond with any dog takes time. Before you can begin to teach commands or solve behavior issues, you have to learn the art of patience. An impatient trainer can actually take a dog back a few steps in his training. Also, waiting for a dog to come to you is a very subtle way of getting him to begin to see you as a leader.
3. Be understanding. You need to acknowledge that dogs want to be part of a pack and need to know where they stand in the family. They also have strong drives for food and for whatever specific jobs they were bred to do. Take time to observe your dog and think about his likes, dislikes and needs.
4. Be consistent. When building trust with a puppy, rescue or a shy or fearful dog, you need to continually demonstrate that you are a consistent, predictable person. So, establish a routine for your dog that gives him an idea of what to expect day to day.
5. Be reassuring. If your dog is afraid of something, show him your care and reassure him in a calm, low tone. As you starting training you may be able to gradually ease his fears through distant exposure in a safe environment.
6. Be a friend. Spend time with your dog. Give treats. Pet and praise. All of these things reinforce the idea that you are someone your dog can count on in good times and bad. They show you can be trusted.
For his television show, McMillan often trains between five and seven dogs each week. Some require more time to train, especially if the dog is very young, very old, unsocialized, traumatized, a little on the slow side or too smart for his own good.
McMillan shares this parting advice to be successful in training dogs:
1. Breed does matter in training. Learn about your dog’s breed before training so you know where his talents and shortcomings may lie.
2. Training is not about dominating. “There is no good way, for example, to force a 500-pound tiger to lie down when you say so,” says McMillan. “Over the years, I’ve continued to live by this philosophy in training animals of all sizes because I believe that the most effective training happens when an animal does what I ask willingly.”
3. Training is a marathon, not a sprint. Setbacks can happen. Just take a break, remind yourself that you love this dog and start again.
4. Let your dog know what he is doing right. “I encourage my dogs during training with an intensifying ‘good, Good, GOOD” as they figure out how to follow a command. Use verbal encouragement.”
5. Train every day. You can’t just train a dog and let that be it. If you don’t keep up, your dog will eventually regress.
“If each of us contributes in some small way — by rescuing a dog, fostering a dog, volunteering to help train a dog, or donating to feed and house one a little while longer — we can save the next Bruno or Skye or Lulu who comes along,” says McMillan.
Brandon McMillian Trivia:
• He was born in a circus and raised all over the world. His parents were animal entertainers.
• He got his first paying job as a six-year-old when he put up flyers on telephone poles that read, “Dog Trainer Availabel” (He admits spelling was not one of his early talents). He trained a Golden retriever to do a “down” and “stay” in a man’s living room as his first gig.
• He jokes that he has been “picking up tiger poop” for as far back as he can remember.
• He has trained dogs for such Hollywood A-list celebrities as Ellen DeGeneres, Justin Timberlake, Dr. Dr, Janet Jackson and Wolfgang Puck.
• He enjoys his recurring role as host of Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. He climbs into a steel cage to interact with Great White Sharks.
Tune in to Hear More
Got dog questions? Curious about sharks? Brandon McMillan makes his third guest appearance on Arden Moore’s Oh Behave Show on Pet Life Radio.
To hear this episode, click here:
By Sarah Zumhofe