Training Bo, the 'First Dog'

Dog trainer Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz talks about training the Obamas' dog.

From the WebMD Archives

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.

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.'

What was it like training the First Pooch?

In general, the dog that you see now who is very calm, that’s who you saw [when I was training him].

But he had his moments as a puppy. He popped over a baby gate one day to see Maude, my 17-year-old African gray parrot. He barked a little bit at her. But she liked him right away. He was very gentle.

How was Bo with your other animals?

He had his moments where he would be a crazy puppy, but they were short-lived and there was no damage. He got along well with Brieo, my Ibizan hound; with Saxon, my late Giant Schnauzer, and with all of the visitor dogs.

Were there any housebreaking issues?

None. He was very clear about when he had to go out.

You found out a month later he was potentially headed to the White House?

Vicki [Kennedy] called and wanted the evaluation. I said, 'He’s phenomenal. He comes when he’s called, he sits, he downs, he rolls over, has a really good memory, is very receptive to food, and [is] good with other animals and people.' I said he has his puppy moments. But when he grows up, he will be a very laid-back adult dog and I think he would be great for a family with children.

And then what happened?

She said, “Dawn, let’s just keep this between us ... he’s being considered for the First Family.” Everybody knew the Obamas were looking for a dog.


So you took him to the White House so the President, Michelle, Malia, and Sasha could meet him?

I took him to the private meeting to let them get to know him. I got a little teary-eyed. I knew in my heart -- they didn’t say anything definite right then, because it was a private matter between the family. But just the way he was adored and the way he was behaving, I knew this was it. I cried on the way home because I knew my time was limited with him.

Have you ever come across a dog that was impossible to train?

I’ve run across more people who were difficult to change than I have dogs that were impossible to train. I don’t pay any attention to my dogs when I come home. I change my clothes, empty my treat pockets, get into my doggie clothes, and then gather the leashes and start taking the dogs out. And then the fun begins!

What one tip would you like to give to every new dog owner?

Do your homework and be prepared. When considering a specific breed, visit adult dogs of that breed to see what they’re like. Everyone can fall in love with a puppy. But it’s the adult dog that you’re going to end up living with.

WebMD Pet Health Feature Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S on September 20, 2010



Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz, dog trainer; author, The Love that Dog Training Program; founder, Merit Puppy Training.

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