A decade ago, 1.5 million dogs were getting euthanized in shelters in America per year. For animal trainer Brandon McMillan, such a statistic screamed “epidemic” but the news just wasn’t reporting on such stories. So he set out to spread the word about what shelter dogs could do if given the chance. He teamed up with Litton Ent. to create the show “Lucky Dog,” where he rescues dogs from shelters, trains them and pairs them with forever homes, often as a service dog.
Six years later, “Lucky Dog” is still going strong, and McMillan, who also wrote a book about training dogs and founded a non-profit that trains dogs to serve disabled veterans, says his mission has remained the same.
“I’m a dog trainer, that’s my profession, but I love telling a good story, and it’s amazing what you can tell with the life of a shelter dog,” McMillan tells Variety. “Here’s a dog that was basically about to be euthanized in the shelter a few weeks ago, and now it’s helping someone who’s in a wheelchair. It just proves what’s broken can always be put back together.”
McMillan reports that the number of dogs put down by shelters every year is now “hovering around a million.” While he admits there is still a long way to go, he is proud to play even a small part in the education of the public that has led to that change.
“These animals don’t have a voice, and somebody has to stand up every once in a while in a crowd and be their voice. And that was me,” he says.
Here, McMillan talks with Variety about how he crafts each episode, why it has been imperative for him to be “100% hands-on,” and why he wants to shed a light on special needs dogs.
Do you structure episodes differently when it comes to training versus sharing the story of the dog or the story of the people with whom it will be homed?
The story is the most important. The training is going to come as icing on the cake, but my job is to make the audience cry, and it’s pretty easy to do when I’m talking about shelter dogs who were basically abused, neglected, dumped — they went through confiscation from animal control. … If I pull a dog and re-home it that same day, it’s a story of survival. Suddenly the dog that was about to be euthanized, I tell its story, and then you meet the human it’s about to go to, and they tell their story, and they were in an accident 15 years ago and I connect the two and train the dog to assist them — it’s two stories of survival and they meet up somewhere in life and become partners.
At this stage in the show, are you still selecting all of the dogs and families yourself, or do producers have strong feelings about what they need?
I’m 100% hands-on. I go to the shelter, I select the dog, and I have a list of probably 1000 people waiting in line to get one of my dogs, at least. I run through that list and I say, “OK now I have an incredible dog, who would be perfect for this dog?” I learn the dog and what the dog will be good at. … I would never let [the producers] make the decisions. That something I was very stern about [when] I created the show with Litton [Ent.]. Basically they came to me and said, “We don’t exactly know the concept, but we want to do a dog show.” And they checked out all kinds of trainers across the country and checked out rescues and didn’t like their format. They met me and I told them what I was doing, and I said, “Listen, this concept is very important to me. My only rule if we do the show together is you don’t step in and have producers making decisions.” I think one of the main reasons why animal shows fail in Hollywood — or why many lifestyle-based reality shows fail in Hollywood — is because producers take over; they’re trying to micromanage something they know nothing about. I’ve seen that time and again. … I worked on a show for Animal Planet a few years ago, and I don’t want to name names, but one of the reasons I think the show went downhill so fast was it got to the point where I wasn’t even making decisions, and I was like, “Well, this is the animal show and suddenly I have these people living in high-rise buildings in New York City telling the animal experts what to do about lions in Africa.”
Have your inspirations or what you find most rewarding about training these dogs changed over time? What are you drawing from today?
I think my bigger inspirations nowadays [and] what I’ve really gotten into and never thought I’d be so into is I love working with special needs dogs. I love the ones that have been heavily abused, I love the ones that are in wheelchairs, they have traumatic injuries. I don’t love the fact that they’ve been through it, but I love working with them because they’re the ones [with which] I think I can prove the concept of “what’s broken can be put back together” the most. These dogs are the first ones to be euthanized in shelters because shelters have to do the math — they basically have to use an algorithm. If a shelter has 100 spaces, they have 100 kennels, and if they get 100 dogs in there and five of them are special needs, they’re going to make decisions quickly on the special needs dogs because they know, through history, statistically, those dogs are not going to get rescued in a short amount of time. And shelters, their job is to quickly get dogs in and get dogs out. If dogs are there for too long a time, they have to euthanize them because they need the space — because 100 dogs there today, there’s 100 dogs stray on the street right now that are getting picked up, and they’ll need those spaces next week.
On a purely personal level, what sixth season stories are some of your favorites?
I did a pitbull this season, and pitbulls are always my favorites to work with because pitbulls, statistically, are the No. 1 dogs to get euthanized in the shelters. And the reason why is, it’s a breed that we’ve been taught to be afraid of our entire lives. But I think numbers and statistics are very important, and every year you have a handful of pitbulls that actually do some damage to somebody fatally — a small handful — and there’s over seven million pitbulls living in the U.S. right now. So 10 to 15 dogs were bad, should we make all seven million evil? No. You can’t throw an entire breed type under the bus because of a handful of injuries. I just don’t believe in that.
I also had a special needs dog that’s airing on Saturday [Oct. 13]. He survived what’s called canine distemper, which is a virus that puppies get and it kills most of them, but the survivors end up with neurological and physical problems. So basically he has a lot of head ticks, and it’s kind of cute when you see him walking — it’s quirky. … And, as I was saying before, these are the dogs that get euthanized first in the shelters. [And] I did an episode where I adopted a bonded pair, so they were siblings but they weren’t blood siblings — it was actually a husky and a chihuahua. They were dumped in the shelter by their family…but I adopted them together because they were so bonded if you separated them, it would have been agony for them. I saw when I took one out of the kennel to play with one by itself, the dog in the kennel was going through agony. So I kept them together and I found them a home together.
Where do you feel viewers fall in terms of being educated about these issues today, when compared with where they were when you started the show?
They are more savvy and more knowledgeable about the statistics of shelter dogs, but the reality is people still need to be trained with an animal. If I had to identify what’s lacking in the animal world, as far as what people need, people need education on training; people need to understand how to fix behavior on the spot — because one of the biggest reasons dogs go to the shelter is because it’s untrained. … But we love our dogs and almost treat them as human in the American culture and the European culture. I always say dogs have gone from the farm to the backyard to the house to the couch to the bed, where are they going to go next?