Accomplished production designer Ken MacLeod finds new fulfillment through his flourishing dog training business.
STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY KEN MACLEOD
As Ken MacLeod settles onto the stool in his wood shop, there is a distinct air of optimistic ease in his voice. He carries himself with effortless confidence, yet his comportment is also gracious, calm, and composed. “One of the most important lessons that I’ve ever learned is that it’s always best to approach life with an attitude of positivity,” says MacLeod. “That philosophy has served me well, both in my work as a production designer and in my work as a dog trainer.”
MacLeod is a part-time resident of the Green Mountain State who splits his time between his home in Tinmouth, Vermont and his home in Hoboken, New Jersey. Over the past several decades, he has built an established name for himself as a versatile and talented set designer. Throughout the course of his career, MacLeod’s masterfully-conceived sets have appeared in dozens of nationally-broadcast television commercials. They have also served as the backdrops for memorable scenes in high-profile major network television shows, such as NBC’s enduring sketch comedy institution Saturday Night Live (SNL).
MacLeod joined SNL’s production staff in 2014 at the beginning of their 40th season. He has since served as the head production designer for one of their three film production units for the past seven years. His handiwork has played a prominent role in many of the past decade’s most notable pre-filmed SNL sketches and commercial spoofs, such as 2021’s uproarious “Murder Show” song parody. Starring Kate McKinnon, Melissa Villaseñor, Ego Nwodim, Chloe Fineman, and guest star Nick Jonas, the sketch is widely regarded as a standout highlight of SNL’s 46th season.
Working in the hectic field of television film production, MacLeod is constantly confronted with high-stakes situations. According to MacLeod, he has managed to effectively navigate the frantic pressure of his work schedule through a combination of tireless effort, unbreakable focus, and positive thinking. “Working as a set designer for a show like Saturday Night Live is not for the faint of heart,” says MacLeod. “During the season, we get our scripts on Wednesday night. Once we get the scripts, we jump on a call with the directors and writers so that we can understand the scripts better. After the meeting is finished, things kick into high gear on my end. I usually stay up all night designing, because the people who build the sets need to have the drawings ready at the workshop by 7AM on Thursday mornings.”
MacLeod says that while the sets are being built, the design team goes to the stage, where the corresponding scene will be filmed. “We spend several hours
brainstorming about the props and lighting setup that we’re going to need and setting plans in place. Once the set arrives at the stage, it has to be painted and furnished. The painters work all night to make that happen. After the set is painted and the lighting and props are set, the cast comes in to shoot on Friday. When it’s all said and done, everyone is pushed to the point of exhaustion. From my personal experience, things tend to run more smoothly when everyone treats each other positively. Even in the most stressful situations, you’re always going to get the best results when you go out of your way to encourage the people around you and make them feel good about themselves.”
Halfway through his tenure at SNL, MacLeod seized an opportunity to apply the same positive ideology toward his emergent passion for dog training. When MacLeod’s family dog, a beloved Jack Russell Terrier, Mac, passed away in early 2017, it rattled him and his wife, Kimberly Kachougian, to the core. “Mac was such an incredible dog. He was like the greatest friend you could ever have.” When they were ready to adopt another dog, they spent several months researching different breeds and options. They eventually came across an adorable Kooikerhondje named Scooter, who quickly won over their hearts.
MacLeod says that although Scooter has always been a wonderful dog, he and Kim began to notice that he was exhibiting reactive behavior towards other dogs when he was about six months old. “He started acting very fearfully and aggressively. I knew that something had to change. I didn’t want Scooter living his whole life afraid of other dogs.” MacLeod then made the decision to enroll at a six-month intensive dog training certification program at the Karen Pryor Academy. “It was a very intense training program, but it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Their program is entirely based on positive reinforcement, so that completely aligned with my philosophy.”
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.”
According to MacLeod, the same principle of positive reinforcement can also have spectacular results when applied to everyday interactions with friends and coworkers. “When I first came on board at SNL, we did a lot of filming at different locations. Many of the people who I worked with in my early years had little to no experience working outside of a staged set at Rockefeller Center. They were out of their element, and many of them were very nervous.”
Whenever someone MacLeod was working with on one of the on-location shoots did something wrong, he never criticized them or reprimanded them. He only praised them for what they had done right. By doing so, he was able to create a healthy and strong team that effectively learned from their mistakes. “When you use positive reinforcement with your dogs, you end up with a wonderful dog that adores you,” says MacLeod. “When you use positive reinforcement with your work team, you end up with a crew that stands behind you. I’m not afraid of my dog biting me behind my back, and I’m not afraid of my production team biting me behind my back either.”
After completing his training at Karen Pryor Academy, MacLeod decided that he wanted to share his newfound knowledge with dog owners in Hoboken, New Jersey. In 2018, he founded his dog training business, My Positive Pup, and began working with a small circle of clients as a positive reinforcement dog trainer. “After seeing what my dog, Scooter, went through, I never wanted to see other dogs or dog owners struggle through that same experience.” MacLeod says that his dog training work has always been motivated by passion instead of profit. “It’s not about the money. It’s about working with people to make a positive difference in their dogs’ lives – and also in their own lives, as well. When people come to see the power of positivity, it reframes their entire perspective towards life and human connection. In the world we’re living in today, connection is more important than ever. I want to help people connect with their dogs in the best and most meaningful way possible.”
In the years that followed, word of MacLeod’s dog training services continued to grow. He added Certified Professional Dog Trainer Liana Marley Marie to the My Positive Pup team, and began widening his clientele base to include dog owners who lived near his Southern Vermont home in Tinmouth. This led to the foundation of My Positive Pup Vermont, an offshoot of the original Hoboken-based company. Over the course of the COVID Pandemic, MacLeod expanded his range of training services to include remote online video conference training sessions. “During the beginning of the COVID pandemic, I got inundated with phone calls from people who wanted to sign up for dog training sessions. Sadly, we couldn’t visit them at their houses, or even meet them outside. I started doing FaceTime training sessions using my dog, Scooter, as my ‘demo dog.’ It was great to be able to connect with people and help them overcome their biggest training challenges.”
Today, MacLeod artfully balances his time between his production design work for SNL and his dog training business. As he looks towards the future, MacLeod is encouraged by what he refers to as a “perceptible shift” towards positive reinforcement-based dog training methods. He urges all dog owners to remain open to learning new things and emphasizes that consistency and patience are key parts of the training process. “It’s amazing to see that people are beginning to understand the power of positivity. It brings a smile to my face every time an owner who I work with experiences a moment of connection with their dog. Their eyes light up when they understand that progress has been made. Still, it’s also important to realize that things don’t change overnight. Training your dog requires hard work. It also requires the emotional strength to keep going even when it gets difficult. I tell all of my clients that no one became a great guitarist or skier by only picking up a guitar once or only going skiing once a season. Training a dog is a process that lasts for the dog’s entire life. Our dogs are constantly learning from us, and we are constantly learning from them, as well. If you make an effort to see the training process as a positive experience and remember to have fun with it, you’ll be surprised how much progress you can make one day at a time.”
ALL THE DETAILS
Ken’s Training Tips
Ken MacLeod’s dog training program is entirely centered around positive reinforcement.
In line with his deeply-held philosophy of positivity-based training, MacLeod has graciously offered to share several crucial tips and tricks for owners looking to build a positive and trusting relationship with their favorite canine pals. By implementing these techniques on a consistent basis and working with a certified and skilled trainer, you can help your furry friends advance towards positive progression one day – and one treat – at a time.
Keep Four Paws on the Floor
How to keep your dog from jumping up on people at inopportune times
Having trouble keeping your dog from jumping up on your family and friends?
MacLeod recommends the following approach:
“Instead of scolding your dog and pushing them onto the ground every time they jump up, it’s best to reward them for the correct behavior pattern. If you establish a routine of positive reinforcement when a dog keeps their paws on the ground instead of jumping during training sessions, they will learn faster than if you punish and scold the behavior you are seeking to help them unlearn.”
Live and Let Live
How to teach your dog to be comfortable when they are not the center of attention:
For owners of dogs who love to be the life of the party, it can be hard to judge when to pay attention to them and when to leave them alone. Although positive reinforcement and loving attention are crucial parts of the training process, Ken cautions that too much of a good thing can have a negative impact on a dog’s development.
“I sometimes tell people ‘Please, ignore my dog!’ I’m not kidding when I say that. We all love to give attention to our dogs, but I promise you that your dog will not need therapy if you ignore them for a little while. Every dog is different. Some dogs love attention. Others – especially those with past traumatic experiences – tend to be more reactive and fearful. My dog, Scooter, struggled with those reactive issues early on. By teaching him that it was alright to be occasionally ignored, he learned a healthy behavior pattern that led to a more enjoyable relationship with his owners.”
Making Their Crate Their Castle
How to turn your dog’s crate into an inviting nest that they love to spend time in:
“When you first get a dog, you should start feeding them meals inside of their crate. You should also leave toys and treats inside of the crate, as well. You should make the crate into the greatest place on the planet for them! Imagine if you walked into a restaurant for the first time, and the host came up to you and told you, ‘Hey! Dinner is on us this evening, and here’s some money just for coming in.’ If they repeated that behavior several times, I guarantee that you would go back to eat at that restaurant again and again. It’s the same thing with dogs. At a primal level, they are motivated by an instinctual drive to find safe shelter, avoid hazards, and secure a source of food. If you make sure that they know they are safe and taken care of inside of their crate, it becomes their ‘house.’ Once that understanding of safety and trust is established, you can then train them to spend time in their ‘house’ when you have people come over to visit. From there, you can continue to build that trust to the point that the dog will automatically go (out of their own will) to their crate whenever they are commanded.”