Tomorrow There Will Be Sunshine
This SNL staffer turned dog-trainer has a knack for seeing the bright side, whether of dirty socks or a global pandemic
This SNL staffer turned dog-trainer has a knack for seeing the bright side, whether of dirty socks or a global pandemic.
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 sizeable 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 pettypes, 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 behaviour 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” behaviour, 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.