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).