On a hot July day, the Humane Society of Southern Arizona (HSSA) was abuzz in anticipation of their 75th anniversary celebration. As the clouds began to move in, excitement filled the humid air, as in addition to the evening’s upcoming festivities, a very special guest was in the building. None other than Brandon McMillan, dog trainer extraordinaire, and Emmy Award winning host of the popular CBS show, Lucky Dog was signed on as keynote speaker for the event. He made the most of his day in Tucson, touring the facility and putting on training demos at the HSSA including a hands-on training for their New Beginnings Program and the “Training the Trainers” event.
No matter how good a trainer is, they can always learn new tricks, and several Tucson trainers were lucky enough to learn from someone who has honed a unique and innovative approach to dog training. Brandon McMillan focuses on dog training these days, but he got his start working with wild animals. His father and uncle laid the groundwork for this less than conventional life path by finding work cleaning train cars for a circus, and from there, gradually learning about the care and training of animals of all shapes, sizes, and temperaments. This eventually led to a life built around training animals for a different entertainment industry- film and television. Brandon grew up around all manner of wild animals and went on to train and wrangle them for movies such as The Hangover, I am Sam, The Jungle Book II and many other films, television shows and commercials. Eventually, however, he became disillusioned with the industry and its lack of respect for both trainers and animals. He knew he needed a change, so he walked away from it all into an unknown future.
Although something of a gamble, this future turned out to be very bright, not only for Brandon, but for a lot of very lucky shelter dogs. Around this time, Brandon lived near an animal shelter which he frequently passed during walks. He would hear the desperate barking every time and finally, one day, decided to go in. He was so moved by what he saw there and began to consider how his training skills could help these dogs. After betting his uncle that he could make a movie dog out of a shelter dog, and winning, Brandon knew he had what it took to rehab these often broken down dogs, and the seed for Lucky Dog was sewn.
Another door opened for Brandon in the world of altruistic dog training when a veteran friend approached him with a tragic story. Another veteran he knew had been severely injured by an IED detonation. He learned that there was a wait of over five years to receive a service dog. Brandon agreed to train a dog for the disabled vet if someone would donate one. They did and he did, but when he went to deliver the dog, Brandon ended up working with a whole group of vets, inspiring him to cofound Argus Service Dog Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to training and pairing service dogs with disabled vets and others with disabilities.
Brandon brought all of this experience to share with the HSSA for the “Training the Trainers” Event. Several HSSA staff and volunteers, as well as area dog trainers gathered Saturday afternoon to see him in action and try out some of his techniques. To begin, Brandon requested that a shelter dog with little training be brought out, and while waiting, explained some of his approach to training. He believes that in order to train both the dog and the owner, it is important to keep it simple, so everyone can retain it. His seven common commands include sit, stay, down, come, off, heel, and of course, no. As he began to explain the element of control, in lurched Plugsy, a bulky one-year-old male Pitbull. He was sweet as can be, but very excited, and all over the place. Brandon now had the perfect volunteer. He went on to explain that an element of control can be a table on which to elevate the dog, or just a leash, which he considers the most important training tool. Either way control is the first step in his control, train, treat regimen.
With that in mind Brandon began to teach Plugsy some control. Using the leash to keep him from grabbing treats as they were laid down, a volunteer slowly let it slacken. As Plugsy began to understand that it wasn’t just a treat free- for- all, he began to focus instead on what actually got him a treat:- self-control. Most of us have heard that repetition is key to learning, and this is another of Brandon’s training strategies. As a lifelong martial artist, he recommends a similar type of drilling when training dogs. Again, using the treat and leash combo, he coached a volunteer to teach Bella, a very energetic one-year-old boxer mix, the down command, one Brandon considers the best for control.
He showed a variety of other very intuitive tricks for training, such as bracing the leash for leverage around the waist when a dog is pulling, thus allowing a person’s body weight rather than simply upper body strength to control the dog’s movement. Another genius trick used to curb jumping up is to gently grab hold of a dog’s paws when they do, letting go only after they have tried to pull away, realizing that jumping up might not be as fun as they had initially thought. In the short amount of time spent on these demonstrations, there was a perceptible change in the behavior of the dogs. In attendance at the event, Rachel Molyneux, a trainer with Sol Dog Lodge said, “I think the piece that made the biggest impression to me was Brandon’s ability to create behavioral change via simple exercises that resonated with all of the audience, regardless of skill set or experience level. It was a nice reminder to me, as a professional dog trainer, to keep material relatable and easy to practice for the owners we help.” So, training the trainers to train the owners to train the dogs seemed to be the order of the day.
The order of the evening was just as important. On the muggy tail of a monsoon storm the doors opened on the HSSA’s 75th Anniversary Banquet. The night had much in store as people greeted one another and sipped drinks while checking in for the event. Once everyone had found their places and after the opening comments and videos, the silent auction began. During its course there was some great stuff on offer such as a guitar signed by the Rolling Stones, an original Diana Madaras painting, a Mexican vacation package and the coveted exclusive cover of the HSSA’s 2020 cat calendar. The fundraising was off to a great start after this and went on with pledges at various levels from the audience. The first pledge, a whopping $25,000 came from Linda and Tom Grissom who were not only responsible for covering costs associated with bringing Brandon in as keynote speaker, but also instrumental in getting the New Beginnings program off the ground. This exciting program lets Department of Corrections crew members help train shelter dogs and has already proven mutually beneficial.
After numerous other generous donations, it was time for Brandon to take the stage and deliver the keynote speech. He shared his background story, as well as several of his most memorable success stories. One featured a special little terrier mix name Charlotte who had been confiscated by animal control due to severe neglect. She was tied up with no food or water, and one eye and a front leg were badly injured. The leg had gone untreated long enough to heal into a useless encumbrance. At the shelter her eye and leg were removed, Brandon came to spring her, and Charlotte began her rehabilitation, which was ultimately a great success. By the time the little tripod was ready to meet her new family, she was running and playing with the rest of the Lucky Dog pack like it was nothing. Charlotte was adopted by a woman named Avery who already had a special needs dog named George, and it was a perfect fit. At this point in Brandon’s presentation, some surprise guests walked out on stage. Avery and Charlotte were all smiles and licks (respectively). It was clear that the pup was overjoyed to see her rescuer again.
Later on, good old Plugsy was back, along with pals Bella and Ricky, to do a live demonstration with Brandon. Similar to the earlier training at the HSSA, he demonstrated several of his most effective strategies for the audience. As a side note, at the time of this writing all three pups are available for adoption, in case anyone would like a dog who received celebrity training!
Overall, the day and night were a huge success. The numbers don’t lie. 480 animal lovers attended the fundraiser dinner, and at the time of this writing, the gross revenue from the event sits at a lofty $142,000, with plans to allocate $94,000 to the New Beginnings Program, and the remaining $48,000 going to general operations. “It’s always great to see so many passionate supporters of pets under one roof,” says Randy Peterson, HSSA Director of Development, Marketing & Communications, “including so many of our staff and volunteers who took the time to join us in celebrating 75 years and more than 1 million pets helped since 1944.” The success of Brandon’s visit and the HSSA fundraiser was made possible by everyday people, showing that when we get together and commit to affecting change, anything is possible.