What Brandon McMillan Learned about Life by Training Dogs

CBS’ 'Lucky Dog' host Brandon McMillan knows a thing or two about dogs. But he also has a few tricks for humans.

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- Posted on May 4, 2017

Brandon McMillan Lucky Dog

World-renowned animal trainer Brandon McMillan has dedicated his life to finding homes for shelter dogs “one dog at a time.” Each week on his Emmy-winning CBS show Lucky Dog, Brandon rescues dogs from shelters and trains them to become the perfect companion for individuals and families who are looking for a four-legged best friend.

Growing up “in the constant presence of animals” (both his parents and his aunt and uncle were wild-animal trainers for the circus and Hollywood) and over a lifetime of working with animals of all sorts (he once trained cockroaches—yes, cockroaches!—for a music video), Brandon has learned how to get inside the minds of the animals he trains. But spending time with dogs in particular has given Brandon some pretty handy insight into the human world as well.

Here, Brandon shares with Guideposts.org some tips for getting along with all creatures, whether of the four- or two-legged variety:

Be understanding.

One of the first things Brandon takes into account when beginning a training regimen for any new dog is the dog’s background: not only breed (or mixture thereof) but the dog’s life experiences as well. “German Shepherds, for example, are usually very strong personalities, so you can train them like a tough PE coach would. But a King Charles Spaniel tends to have a softer personality, so you have to train them like you’d teach a sensitive kid,” Brandon explains. “So I try to stress breed, personality, age, and background when I come up with a game plan to train a dog.” Taking differences into account can help with people, too. “Just like dogs, we all have a background and personality that works well for certain situations,” Brandon says. “You can’t expect everyone to learn the same way. Some dogs—and some people—can pick something up from being told and others have to learn the hard way. Just like you have to consider all the variables with dogs, you have to do the same with humans.”

Model what you want reciprocated.

Brandon believes in an old dog trainer’s motto that says, “The face you show your dog is the face that’s shown back to you.” As Brandon explains, this means that “if you’re working with an animal who has fear or anxiety, you as the trainer can’t show fear and anxiety, too, or that will only scare the animal more. You have to show confidence for your animal.  They are looking to you for leadership. If you’ve got an anxious animal and an anxiety face, you’ve got trouble.” Brandon also believes this bit of wisdom can also be applied to interactions with humans. “When you’re walking down the street, you may not know the people on the sidewalk, but if you strike up a conversation with a smile, you’ll get a better response than if you have a chip on your shoulder and an attitude,” he says. “When I’m working with a dog for the first time, I try to make my first impression a good one. I want them to know I’m a friendly, safe person, and that I can be trusted. This works with people, too!”

Never Give Up.

Brandon’s book, Lucky Dog Lessons: Train Your Dog in Seven Days, promises that you can train a dog in seven days, but to make that training stick requires conditioning: practicing the same skills over and over without giving up. Brandon himself was “conditioned” to hard work as a boy. “I was raised by a very strong father,” he says. “We had a tough life growing up in the circus, raising animals. We got up at five in the morning no matter what—rain, shine, or snow. No excuses. Then I moved to Hollywood when I was eighteen and began training animals for movies, and that is definitely a never-give-up business. You have deadlines, and sometimes these are 40-50-million-dollar movies, and the directors don’t want to hear excuses, either.” Brandon says that in his everyday life now, working with shelter dogs, he keeps the same never-say-die attitude. “I don’t care how much resistance the dogs put up,” he says. Brandon realizes that untrained dogs have a much higher risk of being abandoned at shelters or not adopted at all, and he refuses to give up. So no matter how untrainable some dogs may seem, Brandon’s determined to teach them so that they can be adopted into a forever home. Simply sticking with it is sometimes the greatest key to success in many areas of life.

Keep the Right Attitude.

One thing Brandon points out repeatedly in his book is how important it is to get the right tone of voice when training your dog. A stern tone of voice is appropriate for some commands, but others require a welcoming, friendly tone. “If your dog is not coming when called,” Brandon says, “never yell at her. If you turn the ‘come’ command into a negative thing, you may prevent your dog from wanting to learn it at all.” Brandon believes attitude is everything for humans, too. “If you’ll notice, in mafia movies, the head guy or godfather never yells, but you can tell by a slight change in his tone of voice when he’s really serious,” he says. “So when I’m training a dog, I don’t yell at him, but I do want him to know he needs to do what I tell him. Sometimes, like with the ‘stay’ command, it may save a dog’s life.” However, this doesn’t mean being domineering. “Who’d you rather play with, the person who dominates you and puts you down, or the person who has fun with you?” Brandon asks. “What works to build trust works on both dogs and humans. We all want to learn from the people we trust more. So spend time building that trust, whether it’s with a dog or with a person.”

“Never Let ‘Em See You Sweat.”

The line was made famous in a commercial for antiperspirant/deodorant, but Brandon says it’s still great advice. “Tamping down frustration, fear, or worry is a mental exercise every good animal trainer has to master,” Brandon explains in his book. “If you show your dog frustration or anxiety or that you don’t know how to handle a situation, you might as well walk away. Your dog will read it in your face. Instead, always approach training with determination and calm. No matter how you feel inside, your face should say, ‘We’re doing this. I’m not quitting, and I don’t want you to quit, either.’”  Not losing your cool, staying calm and determined? Well, that sounds like pretty good advice for working with humans, too.  

 

Emmy-winning star of the CBS show Lucky Dog Brandon McMillan has spent his entire life perfecting the art of dog training. Drawing into his years as a wild animal trainer for film and television, McMillan has created a unique training system he likes to call a “Hybrid System” where he takes all his knowledge and experience of working with wild animals and applies it to the domestic world of dogs. His new book, Lucky Dog Lessons,  shares his training system to transform any dog—from spoiled purebred puppy to shelter-shocked rescue—into a model companion in just seven days.

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