The Ultimate Adventure Companion
After all the fuss over the Obamas’ choice of a dog—Portuguese water spaniel Bo, who was introduced in April of 2009—we were curious to see how the first family would train the little guy. Assistance Dogs of the West’s Sue Barns and I reached Bo’s trainer, Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz, in northern Virginia, where she runs Merit Puppy Training. Sylvia-Stasiewicz, 51, specializes in training pets in family situations. She’s worked with Senator Ted Kennedy’s dogs, Splash, Sunny, and, most recently, Cappy, who’s Bo’s littermate. She won’t talk about the Obamas or the White House dog specifically, other than to say, “It’s still a home; dogs are still dogs; and kids are still kids.” Here’s our conversation.
What’s your basic training methodology?
I use positive reinforcement for the whole family. It works, it’s easy, and the kids can get involved.
Clicker training. I sometimes hand clickers to students, but I understand it’s just something else in their hands. They’re still trying to get coordinated with a leash and hand signals. If they want one, they get one; if not, I don’t push it. I’m all about getting family working together with the dog.
Name some fun learning drills a family can do together with a dog.
There are all kind of things you can do in the framework of everyday life so you’re not out drilling the dog for an hour. We structure it so every interaction with the dog is both fun and a training scenario.
Retrieving: Even non-retrieving breeds can learn how to retrieve. And it happens really easily without a whole lot of effort. The dog runs out and grabs it and brings it to you and you say, “Good dog, have a cookie.” He’s going to start retrieving more and more. It’ll become a habit for him. Once you get that going, you can play hide-and-seek. You put the dog in a sit-stay, go hide his toy, and tell him to go find it. If he brings it back, you stuff it with food for him.
There are all kinds of things you can do. My daughter used a cash register with our border collie. She would hide a treat in there and train the dog to hit the buttons to get the treat.
What problems do you run into with kids and dogs?
There has to be supervision by parents all the time. Because I’m a professional trainer, my children watch me and naturally learn to interact with dogs. This never included any rough-and-tumble games that might lead the dog to overstep his bounds. Many times people don’t understand this. They let kids tumble with the dogs, and the kids don’t really know any better. We want parents to teach their kids that once a young dog or an untrained dog goes over the edge, it’s hard to bring him back. So you have to put that control in when you’re playing. I don’t recommend tug-of-war in the early stages of training, especially with kids, until you have complete control over the commands of the dog.
A famous trainer, Jon Rogerson, said, “expose your dog to everything. Find out what he likes, then control it, control the dog, and control the game.” That’s my philosophy; that’s what I like to live by; and that’s what I want families to learn. Later on you can play games like tug, but only when you’re in control of it. When you’re in control of the environment and the resources, that creates a very good relationship.