Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz, 52, who trained dogs for the late senator Edward M. Kennedy and trained first dog Bo (known to her as Charlie) before he went to live in the White House, died Jan. 12 in Virginia. According to The Washington Post , she had been leading dog training classes days before her death. After being admitted to the hospital, for reasons that were not stated in the obituary, she went into a coma and died of respiratory distress.
A champion of positive-reinforcement training methods, many of which she detailed in her book, The Love That Dog Training Program, Sylvia-Stasiewicz will be missed by all of those who have been touched by her message of loving and respecting dogs, and teaching them as we would our children.
Bark interviewed Sylvia-Stasiewicz shortly before she died. That interview, which appears below and will appear in shorter form in our February issue, was apparently her last. Dawn’s family has requested that tax-deductible contributions be made to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) Foundation  to further her work in researching, developing and promoting best practices in positive reinforcement dog training. Dawn’s mentor and APDT Founder, Dr. Ian Dunbar, is presiding over the fund.
Details on a memorial and opportunities to pay tribute can be found at lovethatdogbook.com .
We spoke with Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz in December to talk about her book, The Love That Dog Training Program (written with Larry Kay), which was also one of our best picks in 2010. She has trained—employing positive reinforcement techniques—many dogs in the Virginia/DC area, including those of the late Senator Kennedy, as well as preparing Bo for his White House posting.
One thing I notice by reading the very many dog memoirs that have become so popular is that few people who write those books train their dogs, which is shocking to me. So could you tell us why it is important to train your dog?
Since most of The Bark’s readers already care well for their dogs, I’m probably singing (or howling) to the choir, so my thoughts will reinforce your readers’ own. Training opens up communication; it’s a language that helps our dog understand us, and vice versa. With any valued companion, good communication bonds us, helps us socialize in the world together, opens up a lifetime of experiences and possibilities. The danger of not communicating includes safety to others and to our dog. If (God forbid) we become physically unable to care for our dog and our dog needs to be rehomed, untrained dogs have a much higher rate of being euthanized. I believe we have a moral obligation to train our dogs.
Why doesn’t aversive training (like Cesar Millan’s methods) work? Could you make a case for positive reinforcement? Why does it take more time than traditional methods?
Both methods will train a dog, but there are dangers and disadvantages in using aversive techniques that outweigh its benefits. Focusing on a dog’s mistakes means he must figure out by trial and error what behaviors won’t get him punished—dogs aren’t good at that kind of reasoning. Failure-oriented training also diminishes a dog’s spirit, typically leaving him fearful. Aversive methods are dangerous because they suppress problems that can flare up without warning—often triggered by an exuberant child, innocent dog or helpful friend. Children should never copy a grownup’s aversive methods, because there is no guarantee that the dog will regard the child with the same authority as an adult. Aversive methods grew out of unscientific, trial and error attempts to dominate, control and coerce a dog, and were based on the naïve and mistaken myth that dog pack psychology required an alpha bully boss—my, how far we’ve come. My book discusses the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior’s position paper against aversive methods and the Michael Vick dog-fighting case (the 47 dogs that a federal court ruled were beyond redemption and were scheduled to be euthanized, but are now being rehabilitated only with positive reinforcement methods by Best Friends Animal Society).
Positive reinforcement methods take longer in the beginning. But once your dog catches on that training is a fun time to be with you—a pack leader that directs play and gives good rewards, while ignoring most mistakes—he will be motivated to learn and feel like a spirited genius.
Could you explain the concepts of positive versus negative?
In behavioral psychology, positive means to give something (a reward or a punishment) and negative means to take away something (not give a reward or punishment). It’s like the carrot and the stick: giving a carrot is a positive reward; hitting with a stick is positive punishment; not giving a carrot is a negative reward; not giving a stick is negative punishment. These charts will help explain it.
As you noted, “good leaders don’t have to act like bullies to command respect.” How difficult is this concept to teach to your clients?
Most people get it, especially when they’re given a choice and see demonstrations. Dogs love to follow leaders who provide food, shelter and safety; leaders they see as benevolent and fair. Good pack leaders provide social experiences and lots of fun.
What are your top three goals in training the perfect family dog?
My top three are socialization, real-life rewards and hand-feeding.
Socialization starts by introducing the human world to your dog in a way that she can understand. Your dog needs to have the secure feeling that being around people and other dogs is a pleasant and safe experience that can also be fun and rewarding. When a dog believes that that is life’s reality, everything else falls into place.
Real Life Rewards means that your dog sits for everything. She sits before eating, getting a treat or playing with a toy, before walking through a door, greeting another dog, to get in and out of places and distracting situations. She learns that “sit” happens before something good, so “sit” becomes her way of asking “please.” For the real life rewards system to gain consistency, all family members need to be involved.
Hand-feeding teaches your dog that all good things come from you. Start hand-feeding on day one (unless your adopted dog has food aggression and may bite you). Hand-feeding will teach your dog to be calm when someone reaches into his bowl. Hand-feed in different parts of your house and your dog will learn that your rules apply everywhere. Hand-feeding also helps diminish guarding of food, toys and contraband; it also teaches bite inhibition.
In training Bo Obama, how did you also train the President and his family in the proper ways to keep the training up? Do you still do any brush-up training with Bo?
In training any family, we always work with the whole family, including the extended family, so that everyone learns the same language to communicate with the dog. There’s always brushing up and fine-tuning to do. Training never ends, it just gets easier.
What was the hardest thing you had to train Bo Obama to do? I would think that a “substitution trade” was extremely difficult.
Actually, substitution trades with Bo were a piece of cake (not literally). With most dogs, substitution trades are easy if you anticipate and have valuable things to trade ready (I like stuffed Kongs). Be prepared—not a day goes by when I have a dog in for training and I’m preparing for situations that may come up.
Why do you recommend a five-week training program?
Five weeks give you the basics for everything you’ll need to know without being too overwhelming for dog owners. Since positive reinforcement makes training fun and playful, most dogs aren’t overwhelmed with learning new skills—it’s dog owners’ follow-through that I’ve designed the program to help. It takes about 30 days to make a new habit or undo an old habit, and five weeks is just over that threshold. In those five weeks you will get to know your dog, “read” his posture and learn to anticipate his next moves. Some owners and dogs may learn a little slower, while others a little faster.
Why and when do you advocate hand-feeding a dog?
As I discussed before, start hand-feeding on Day One. Hand-feeding is powerful because it puts you in charge of a resource (food) that the dog can’t live without, and since you “own” the food, your dog will view the relationship with you as the dominant and benevolent force. We’re reaching inside the dog’s primal survival mind to teach her that it’s okay for hands to be in her dog bowl and she appreciates what you provide. If a dog bites during hand-feeding, then be cautious; my book’s chapter on behavior problems will help. Be aware that given the wrong circumstances any dog will bite, so hand-feeding gives you an advantage in preventing and correcting this safety issue.
And what about tethering—when your dog is tied to you? Why do you think this is effective strategy? Can it work with older dogs, not just puppies?
Tethering brings you and your dog together. You become deeply aware of each other as you share each other’s world. It’s a bonding experience; you both take responsibility for anticipating each other’s moves. It’s almost like you become your dog’s muse: you inspire him. On my recent talk in Seattle, I had the hotel dog tethered to me during the whole presentation, and the dog volunteered all kinds of behaviors: sits, giving attention, looking for what’s next—he got lots of praise and some rewards.
In formal heel work, what is the best way to train a dog who is a forward-motion, pull-at-all-cost dog—like our German Wirehaired Pointer—to walk somewhat at your side? I noticed that Bo still hasn’t seemed to master this, at least in the press video I have seen.
In the Barbara Walters Thanksgiving TV Special with President and Mrs. Obama, it was apparent that Bo was well-behaved and prepared for the event, as we should all be with our dogs when meeting visitors. Perhaps your German Wirehaired Pointer needs to walk more often to help [her] understand how to walk on a leash. If we’re training only while we need to take a walk, we’re not going to teach effectively. Tethering and leash walk training can include many turns, stops and starts, variable pace and standing as still as a tree to keep your dog focused on you. Most dogs get excited in moments, and that’s part of their beauty and joy, so we need to prepare.
What’s the Slot Machine and Jackpot psychology in training?
Dogs love gambling as much as humans love casinos. Guessing and working for an uncertain payoff is a game. Positive reinforcement’s beauty is about working to win the game. Once your dog learns a skill, begin withdrawing treats for doing that skill correctly—that’s the slot machine—and now your dog will try harder to win the game he used to win all the time. When his skill improves, such as lying down more quickly on cue, then reward him with extra treats—that’s the jackpot. But don’t start using gambling psychology when teaching a new skill until your dog performs consistently what you’re asking; otherwise the rewards will just seem too random and frustrating.
What do you think are the hardest things for people to learn about dog training?
Dog training doesn’t have to be mean, ugly or painful. Patience and positive reinforcement should be enough to get training started successfully.
Most behavior problems are created by humans. For example, since dogs don’t generalize well, we need to be consistent when showing a hand signal. We need to gradually generalize our cues to new locations—starting by simply taking one step to the side, then gradually building up variety. We reward our dog for “bad” behavior by rewarding it accidentally, such as petting a dog when we want her to stop barking.
Comparing our dog’s progress against other dogs’ abilities will make our dog lose an unfair game. Every dog learns at his own rate. My program gives building blocks and suggested time frames. If your dog goes faster or slower, that’s all good. Patience is a virtue. Slow and steady wins the race.
Photo: Evan Sklar