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Training Bo, the 'First Dog'

Dog trainer Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz talks about training the Obamas' dog.
By Pamela Babcock
WebMD Pet Health Feature
Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S

Editor’s note: Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz, 52, died on Jan. 12, 2011.

In the Washington, D.C. area -- a place of shifting political alliances, sudden attacks, and sometimes, bad behaviors -- Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz teaches loyalty, friendliness, and constant good conduct.

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Unfortunately, her work is limited to training dogs. But her success may yet have an effect on the capital's human affairs.

Her biggest assignment brought joy to the White House. Sylvia-Stasiewicz trained a Portuguese water dog puppy that in April 2009 made his debut as Bo, the first dog to President Obama and his family. The dog was a gift from the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, and his wife, Vicki.

It has been a whirlwind year for Sylvia-Stasiewicz. She runs a training and boarding business on five acres in Fauquier County, Va., holds classes in the D.C. area, and has written her first book, The Love That Dog Training Program.

In an interview with WebMD, Sylvia-Stasiewicz discussed her experience with Bo prior to his becoming the first puppy.

You’ve trained dogs for more than 20 years. What made you decide to become a trainer?

I was always involved with dogs -- sporting events and showing dogs -- and I started training so I could make money to support my hobby and to cover the entrance fees for these shows.

And then I started making a name for myself. I would drop my kids off at school in the morning, go to see clients, then pick the kids up and go to see more clients.

I train dogs from a mother’s point of view. I use positive reinforcement and punishment in terms of taking things away -- privileges or a reward.

Bo’s original owners could no longer keep him. You had already trained two of the Kennedys' Porties. One day, Vicki Kennedy asked you to evaluate a dog named Charlie to see if he would be a good fit for a family with children. Did you know he was being considered for the White House?

No, Vicki was very casual about it. She said, 'I’ve got this puppy that’s going to need to be re-homed. I’d like you to evaluate him -- keep him with you, work with him, and let me know if he’d work with a family with children.'

I said, 'Sure, I’ll do that; no problem.'

You had recently chipped your tooth and had a scheduled dentist appointment. So you took the puppy, who was just under 5 months old, to your former husband’s dental office?

[The puppy] was totally unfazed and not nervous at all. As soon as I opened the kennel door, he popped his head out. He had this beautiful face and these beautiful curls.

He laid down while my tooth was being fixed. I thought the drilling might bother him, but he was just so easy. And I was thinking, 'This is the calm before the storm.'

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