The time MacLeod spent at the Karen Pryor Academy strengthened his ardent belief in positive reinforcement-based dog training. MacLeod says that negative reinforcement measures such as prong collars and shock collars are not effective training methods – they simply serve to instill fear in the dogs that wear them. “The heartbreaking thing about prong collars and shock collars is that they teach the dogs who are wearing them absolutely nothing. The way I see it, if you reward your dog for doing the right thing and reinforce the right behaviors positively, you establish a pattern of learning through positive experience. That type of training is going to result in your dog growing up to be happier, healthier, and an overall better companion.”
This “SNL” staffer turned dog-trainer has a knack for seeing the bright side, whether of dirty socks or a global pandemic
By Mary-Jo Dionne
With the exception of a couple stopovers at Newark Airport, I’ve not spent significant time in New Jersey. Despite this, there’s one thing I know about those who call the Garden State home: they love their Bruce Springsteen. And who could blame them? This is the guy who, while staying rooted on the Jersey Shore, manages to give wings to the American Dream. No small task in a year like the one we’ve just endured.
So, when I meet with Ken MacLeod, a Hoboken-based Saturday Night Live set-designer turned dog-trainer (we’ll get into all that, I promise) over Zoom, I’m enchanted by the way Springsteen’s influence effortlessly weaves a thread in our conversation. There’s a sense that the music has been a guiding constant in the chapters of a life. And I get that. Over the past year as our collective vernacular has grown to include concepts like “social distancing,” “quarantine,” and “self-isolation,” Springsteen’s anthem “Land of Hope and Dreams”, for example, provides an anchor in the storm. A reminder that we’re not alone: “You’ll need a good companion now. For this part of the ride. Leave behind your sorrows. Let this day be the last. Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine.
And all this darkness past.”
For nearly thirty years, Ken has been a force behind those intricate film and television sets we viewer-types take for granted—as if they manifest from the ether only moments before a director calls: “Action!” From his work as a sketch-up artist on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to his work on the SNL film crew unit, Ken’s contributions make up a sizable chunk of our shared pop culture psyche. But during the shift into COVID-spawned lockdown, Ken was able to pull focus from his fast-paced TV career to allow for a more meaningful emergence of his other passion: Working with dogs. The man who has dedicated much of his professional life to a production schedule that can only be described as nuts was able to take the proverbial look in the mirror. Who he saw staring back was someone more ready to commit to the wellbeing of canine companions and their human counterparts.
Because where some see the glass half-empty, Ken sees it half-full. A pandemic? Yes. An opportunity to be open to the full realization of something new? Absolutely.
Given that many people were adopting dogs during this time (place resounding “yay!” here), and there was a drastic increase in need for resources for first-time dog-guardians, Ken prepared to let My Positive Pup—the platform that allows him to “train people to train their dogs”—take on a life of its own. Sure enough, his once-small dog-training service exploded into a
buzzing enterprise overnight.
But as with any “overnight” success, there is the necessary build-up. As a boy, Ken’s parents weren’t pet-types, so his yearnings for a fuzzy friend would wait. When, 15 years ago, he met his wife, SNL set decorator Kim Kachougian and her beloved sidekick, a Parson Russell Terrier called Mac, it was game over. “I found my best friend,” he laughs. “And I’m not talking about my wife.”
Meeting Mac was about more than just establishing a new vibe with a four-legged dude. “It changed my whole existence,” Ken says. “The connection I had with this dog was just unbelievable.” Mac ended up being in a few commercials—one of the perks of having parents in the biz, I suspect—and Ken found himself doing some training. “Nothing formal,” he says. “But we had this whole ‘communication’ thing.”
When Mac died three years ago, Ken admits: “It destroyed us.” (Been there. Done that. Have t-shirt.) The couple knew they would adopt again one day, and five months later they met their new pal. Originally intended to serve as a therapy dog, it became apparent the fearful new puppy needed to undergo a bit of confidence-building. When it came to bestowing a moniker, they settled on Scooter, taken from the apt intro line of Springsteen’s Tenth Avenue Freeze Out: “Teardrops on the city. Bad Scooter searching for his groove. Seems like the whole world’s walking pretty. And you can’t find the room to move.” From there, Ken became determined to help Scooter find “his groove”. Enter: The not-to-be-taken-lightly decision to embark on the prestigious Karen Pryor Academy certification, designed to teach force-free training and, as stated on the organization’s site: “build a community of positive reinforcement trainers.”
The approach resonated. And while working with dogs isn’t exactly the same as working with a tightly knit film crew, Ken recognizes the parallels—because bringing out the best in others isn’t a responsibility he takes lightly. Tellingly, when we discuss his proudest film-industry accomplishments, he doesn't namedrop experiences working with A-list celebrities. Rather, he is thoughtful and simply says: “My crew,” a well-oiled machine of approximately a dozen colleagues who have evolved into an efficient entity. Ken recognizes they didn’t achieve this by harping on one another’s flaws. “Criticism was never going to get us anywhere,” he explains.
Pan to My Positive Pup, and you’ll find the same philosophy in action. “With Scooter, I think we just counted our 12-millionth click-and-treat the other day,” he laughs. “Reward the behavior you want to see.” For example, when he noticed Scooter’s propensity for running off with his socks—you know, the ones innocently left on the floor the night before—rather than berate him for potentially perceived “bad” behavior, Ken seized it as a teachable moment, and ultimately Scooter learned four commands. “Now when the UPS guy comes and the packages are small,” Ken says, “Scooter will ‘take,’ ‘bring,’ ‘trade,’ and ‘drop’.” And it all started with dirty socks.
Our conversation is occasionally interrupted by a playful Aussie Shepherd in search of snuggles. This is Jersey—named for Springsteen’s Jersey Girl, thank you very much—and, according to Ken, her presence is nothing short of a miracle. “We didn’t think it would ever be possible to get a second dog. But seeing Scooter transform from fearful to now having a baby sister? He’s totally fine now.”
Admittedly, given a career like Ken’s—one that has spanned three decades working with the biggest names in the industry—he’s known his share of success. But it’s the recent compliment from a My Positive Pup client that most touches him. “Before you,” the woman told Ken, “my dog was just living. Now, he’s living engaged.”
Taking a page from his own book, Ken too is living life engaged. After all, he didn’t just have an idea (“Oh, I’d like to work with dogs and their people!”). He made it happen. The chasm between identifying a desire and bringing it to fruition is a gap too vast for many to bridge. I ask him outright for inspiration we can pass along to those who may be looking to take a leap into the unknown. “Listen to more Springsteen,” he tells me. “Faith will be rewarded.” There it is— lyrical insight plucked from Land of Hope and Dreams.
A few days after our chat, I tune in to watch the magic of Ken’s TV world unfold on that weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live. Whether you believe in synchronicity or coincidence, the guest host is—you guessed it—Bruce Springsteen. I am reminded yet again: whether it’s a dog in need of extra guidance, a pandemic on the verge of getting kicked to the curb, or an idea whose time has come, tomorrow there will be sunshine.
by Alina Larson Posted in All Creatures, Jun 25, 2021
As a set designer for Saturday Night Live, New Jersey-based Ken MacLeod was all too familiar with working under pressure. So, when pandemic puppy mania turned Ken’s dog training side gig into a demanding business, he was ready.
Did you have pets growing up?
My family had cats. It wasn’t until I met my fiancée, Kim, 14 years ago that I completely fell in love with dogs. She had a Parson Russell Terrier named Mac.
When did you become interested in set designing?
In college, I originally set out to be a business major. I soon realized that I was unable to express my creativity in the accounting world and needed to make a change. I had always been captivated by film sets and the process behind designing them, so it felt natural to go into film design.
How did you get the job at Saturday Night Live?
Ten years ago, the commercial industry—where I had spent most of my career—began to change. As a result, I found myself looking for other opportunities within the film industry and began doing work in episodic television. At the time, Kim was working at SNL as a set decorator and mentioned that there was an opening for a set designer within one of the three film units. I applied immediately and have been working there for the past seven seasons.
Are the rumors true about how intense the work is at SNL?
Oh, yeah. We work long nights, but it is incredibly rewarding when you see the show air that weekend. Pre-pandemic, we would often shoot in different locations (like supermarkets or high schools), but now we are working in a studio in Brooklyn, designing and building these environments from scratch. The typical schedule starts on Wednesday evening when we get the script and hop on a Zoom call with producers, directors and crew. That night, I start to design the sets, and the next two days are filled with prop shopping, lighting, painting and more.
How did Scooter come into your life?
When Mac passed, Kim and I were devastated. After a few months, we decided it was time to bring a new puppy into our home. We began searching with the intention of making them a therapy dog. Those few months without Mac made me realize the huge role dogs play in our lives and the joy that was missing in mine as a result. It was only right to train our new puppy to be this positive influence for other people in the same way that Mac was for us. In January 2017, we brought Scooter home from Chicago. Scooter was the smallest and most precious dog I had ever seen. But it took only a few weeks to realize that Scooter’s temperament was different from Mac’s and would require different training and attention.
How was he different?
When Scooter was four months old and we began to take him for walks outside, we immediately noticed his fearful nature. For fearful dogs, it’s either fight or flight, and Scooter had no intention of flying. He barked and lunged at other dogs and had difficulty interacting with people as well. After our first few walks, I realized I wanted to be a certified dog trainer to better understand and grapple with Scooter’s needs as a reactive dog.
Why did you choose the Karen Pryor Academy?
After researching several training programs, I was most impressed with Karen Pryor Academy’s force-free positive training method. You had to prove that you and your dog had done the work in order to become certified. I wanted to be taught and tested, so this program was perfect for me. It was intense—four workshops over six months in Binghamton, New York. We had homework—reading and writing, as well as physical work. One was targeting, where you teach your dog to touch something with his nose. You had to show that your dog could do the behavior.
How did Scooter react to the training?
Our first weekend, Scooter had a difficult time adjusting to a classroom environment—and the other dogs in the room didn’t help. It took until the third class for Scooter to be fully comfortable and embrace the different learning techniques we were practicing. I was so proud of how far he had come but nervous for the final exam, as it was off leash and in front of everyone else in the class. The exam consisted of demonstrating a series of behaviors, such as sit, leg weave, stand, spin, paw and target. When the time came, I took off his leash and said, “This is it, buddy.” He nailed it.
Can you share some of the methods you learned and use?
The most effective method I have learned is positive reinforcement. It’s all about rewarding the good behaviors. Like people, dogs are more likely to fully embrace both the learning and you as a trainer through praise. I like to encourage dogs in their good behaviors rather than express frustration when they do not understand what I am asking in a language they don’t speak.
What made you take it a step further and start a training business?
I jumped in right away after I got my certification. Knowing that there were so many other reactive dogs like Scooter, I wanted to help as many families as possible. The business began small, helping my neighbors, friends and family, and has grown into what it is today.
How did the pandemic change your business?
When lockdown first occurred in March 2020, I shifted my main focus from set designing to dog training. All over, families were adopting dogs, increasing the demand for dog training. My Positive Pup transitioned from a small neighborhood business to an almost full-time position. I had the pleasure of working with a variety of families from Vermont to New Jersey, imbuing each family with a sense of positive reinforcement.
There are some 52,000 people in Hoboken, where I live, and there must be 60,000 dogs now! Training became easier, especially for fearful and reactive dogs, because we’ve had far fewer triggers on the streets, like cars, bikes, other dogs and people. If there is any silver lining to 2020, reactive dogs have been introduced to society with more ease than before.
Set design and dog training seem so different. Are there any commonalities?
There’s definitely a correlation between working on SNL and dog training. I started with a handful of stagehands who were excellent team players but new to the world of working on location. I realized that the best way of teaching them the ins and outs of this role was complimenting them on their achievements. They were excited to come to work every day and were eager to learn more. This goes for any training. When you reward with praise and kindness, it results in a positive environment where the trainee’s enthusiasm shines through.
What do people misunderstand about dog training?
Dog training should be about fun and growth. Reward and praise. It’s about the difference between having a dog who is living and a dog who is living engaged. Bringing a dog into your family is a lot of responsibility, but with great love and care it is one of the greatest gifts you can ever experience.
TAKE A LISTEN HERE...
Ken MacLeod is a talented set designer for such iconic shows at Saturday Night Live. He is also on a mission to help bring out positive results in dogs as the founder of My Positive Pup. Tune in to find out more about this New Jersey guy with plenty to woof about..
Ken’s high-profile career as a film and television set designer spans over thirty years. He’s spent the last decade designing some of Saturday Night Live's most well known sets. He’s extremely passionate about his work, but additionally, Ken has always had a profound passion for and love of dogs.
In 2018, Ken took the distinguished Karen Pryor Academy dog certification course in order to better his communication with his own dog, Scooter. Having found the knowledge he garnered during the course so rewarding and helpful within he and Scooter’s human/doggie relationship, Ken decided he had no option but to teach others what he had learned and started taking clients!
As with many people, the onset of COVID-19 offered Ken a lot of time for introspection. During lockdown, Ken was able to shift his focus from his fast-paced TV career to working with dogs—something he finds truly fulfilling. So many people were adopting dogs during this time, and there was a drastic increase in the need for training classes for first-time dog-owners, as well as training for dogs experiencing behavioral issues brought about by the lockdown. Ken's small dog-training service exploded into a buzzing business overnight.
Ken is still working at SNL, but he can hardly keep up with the growth of My Positive Pup. He does virtual classes as well as safely distanced outside training sessions. He is booked for weeks in advance with a waiting list.
"Oh Behave " Theme Song Written & Produced by Mark Winter
© Copyright Song-O-Saurus Music (ASCAP)
TAKE A LISTEN HERE... https://open.spotify.com/episode/3xMffkZV4vbB4jqjz9muGV
Join Niki Tudge as she chats with Ken MacLeod.
Ken MacLeod is an Emmy-honored set designer, a positive reinforcement dog trainer, and a major Bruce Springsteen fan.
Throughout Ken's long career in the film industry, he designed sets for many iconic commercials, and worked on several television shows, such as Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and his decade-long residence at Saturday Night Live. Working alongside Hollywood's top talent, his love of animals has always been his primary passion. Ken graduated from the Karen Pryor Academy intending to learn skills to train his reactive puppy, Scooter. After graduating the course, Ken saw such incredible results with Scooter via positive reinforcement training that he was inspired to begin taking on clients and teaching others the methods he had learned and developed that so benefited his pup. MyPositivePup.com was founded 3 years ago. Ken, still working at Saturday Night Live, and can hardly keep up with the growth of his new business venture.
You can follow Ken and Scooter's story at @mypositivepup on Instagram.