Animal trainer Brandon McMillan is well known for his work on the CBS show Lucky Dog, but it’s his off-camera work as one of the founders of Argus Service Dog Foundation that has earned this TV personality the title of Dogster Hero.
“These veterans had a part of their life taken from them, and I’m giving it back to them. I’m giving them independence,” says McMillan, who trained dogs for film and television for 15 years before one phone call convinced him to put his skills to a different use.
“A few years back, a buddy of mine called me up, and he asked, ‘Could you train a service dog for a disabled veteran who stepped on an IED in Afghanistan?’ The veteran had lost both legs, and he was learning to walk again on prosthetics,” explains McMillian, who contacted the young veteran named Tyler to assess what a service dog could do for him.
“I talked to him for a while, and I said, ‘Tell me about that day in Afghanistan,’ so he did. He told me the whole story.”
McMillan never asked Tyler what he would need a dog to assist him with. Instead, he asked the young man what his life was like before he was hurt, and what challenges he was facing now that his body had been changed so drastically.
According to McMillan, the former soldier explained that he’d been an avid athlete all his life. He said that curbs and steps were now frustratingly challenging. The loss of independence was difficult for him to accept.
“After that conversation, I knew everything that I could train a dog to do for him. He didn’t even know the possibilities, but I did,” McMillan recalls.
To help the veteran tackle curbs and steps, McMillan had one command in mind.
“I trained the dog to brace,” he explains.
“The brace command is when the dog stiffens up, and you can actually put pressure on the dog’s shoulders and the dog will support you up much like a cane.”
Walking up steps wasn’t the only mobility challenge the veteran faced. According to McMillan, Tyler sometimes used a wheelchair to get around, but found it difficult to get home as he lived on a hillside.
“I taught the dog to pull his wheelchair on command. The dog could also open doors if necessary and turn light switches on and off,” he says, adding that Tyler eventually decided to not have the dog turn the lights on as his helpful companion would inadvertently scratch the wall while flipping the switch.
The dog, a Doberman named Apollo, may not have had a delicate touch when it came to light switches, but he had a knack for a type of retrieving that McMillan says is one of the most technical and advanced commands humans can ever train in a dog.
“Teaching a dog to pick up keys, cell phones, and wallets — that’s a whole new ballgame,” explains McMillan, who notes that this kind of skill is much more advanced than what most dog guardians think of as retrieval training.
“Toys and tennis balls are very fun for a dog to pick up, but keys are very awkward. It’s metal, the dog does not feel comfortable with it.”
When Apollo had mastered the delicate task of fetching keys from the ground, among many other advanced skills, McMillan headed to Washington, to bring the dog to Tyler at Walter Reed Medical Center.
“I was expecting to basically deliver the dog and shake his hand, thank him for his service, and fly back to California,” McMillan remembers. “But when I got to D.C., I was swarmed by hundreds of veterans just like him. They saw what I did for this kid, and they all said, ‘I need a dog like that.’”
McMillan couldn’t stop thinking about those vets, and called up his friend Mike Herstik.
“He trains dogs for law enforcement and military. He’s a very, very good trainer. He’s actually a mentor of mine,” McMillan says. “I told him what I saw, and I broke down. I said we’ve got to do something about this.”
Together the two men began researching nonprofit service dog organizations, and found a void they knew they could fill.
“There are service dogs for the slightly disabled, and there are service dogs for PTSD, but there’s almost none — we couldn’t actually find even one, to be honest — that train dogs for the severely disabled like we do.”
The duo devoted themselves to the creation of the Argus Service Dog Foundation, which is as dedicated to helping dogs as it is to helping people. Many of the dogs who train to serve veterans are pulled from shelters — just like the pets on Lucky Dog.
“We mainly rescue, and the ones who aren’t rescued are donated,” explains McMillan, who carefully profiles shelter dogs for physical, mental, and psychological suitability before bringing them into the program.
McMillan says that, historically, service dogs have been bred for the job, and using rescue dogs instead can be a bit more challenging. While Argus doesn’t buy purpose-bred dogs, the organization will gladly accept donated dogs from breeders.
Whether the dog is donated or rescued, they all end up with the same training. McMillan says he hopes donations will help the organization continue to grow, and plans on having veterans eventually become the trainers.
“Our main goal for this nonprofit is to train veterans to train dogs for veterans. That actually is going to be very easy. Veterans have been through the military, they know how to listen, lead, and be led.”
McMillan is committed to making Argus work for America’s heroes, and that dedication makes him a hero himself.
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About the Author: Heather Marcoux is a freelance writer in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but the addition of a second cat, Specter, and the dog duo of GhostBuster and Marshmallow make her fur family complete. Sixteen paws is definitely enough. Heather is also a wife, a bad cook, and a former TV journalist. Some of her friends have hidden her feed because of an excess of cat pictures. If you don’t mind cat pictures, you can follow her on Twitter; she also posts pet GIFs on Google+.