Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz, trainer of Bo, the Obamas' White House dog, dies at 52

By T. Rees Shapiro
Friday, January 14, 2011; 10:13 PM

Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz, 52, a dog trainer whose well-behaved subjects lived among Washington's political elite, including the families of the late senator Edward M. Kennedy and President Obama, died Jan. 12 at Fauquier Hospital.

She was leading dog training classes days before her death. After being admitted to the hospital, she went into a coma and died of respiratory distress, her friends said.

Ms. Sylvia-Stasiewicz started training Bo, the Obama family Portuguese water dog, at the suggestion of Vicki Kennedy, the wife of the late Massachusetts Democratic senator. The Kennedy family had sent its three dogs, Splash, Sunny and Cappy, to be trained by her and had been pleased with the results.

"She had a wonderful presence," Vicki Kennedy said Friday in an interview. "They would instantly look up to her."

Ms. Sylvia-Stasiewicz worked with the Obama family dog for months before she found out who its intended owners were. Kennedy had only requested that Ms. Sylvia-Stasiewicz observe whether the dog would be suitable for a very busy family with two young daughters.

"I trained and lived with him as he were one of my own," she told the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star in 2009. "He's sweet and cuddly, and he pays attention to you."

Bo was an attentive student who never disappointed Ms. Sylvia-Stasiewicz by messing up the carpet.

"I had not one accident ever," Ms. Sylvia-Stasiewicz said of Bo and Cappy. "It's been years since I had one like that - a bladder you would kill for."

Dawn Susan Sylvia was born on Feb. 16, 1958, in Rhode Island. She moved to the Washington area in her early 20s and married Paul Stasiewicz, an Alexandria dentist.

At one point, she had three infant children, five dogs, two ferrets, four Siamese cats, several rabbits and hamsters, and one snake. She also owned two talking parrots, Jules and Maude.

In her 2010 book, "The Love That Dog Training Program," written with Larry Kay, Ms. Sylvia-Stasiewicz wrote about how Bo had taken a particular liking to Maude.

The African grey would crawl down from her perch, stick her beak through the wire door of her cage and squawk: "Gimme a kiss, arrh. That's nice!"

Then the bird would toss a bite of kibble to Bo, who would happily gobble up the reward.

Ms. Sylvia-Stasiewicz started her training career in 1995. She had a pet boarding and training facility at her home in Hume, Va., where she had lived for several years, and taught weekly classes in the District.

She emphasized positive reinforcement and used hand signals and food.

"She could take a dog that was just going crazy all over the place," Kay said, "And, I kid you not, in five seconds, she would have the dog sit, stay, come, down - doing whole routines."

Kay said the key was that "love was always at the heart of Dawn's gentle training methods."

Animals provided Ms. Sylvia-Stasiewicz with comfort through a turbulent personal life, friends said. She and her husband divorced in the mid-1990s, and she was charged in connection with a number of alcohol-related incidents.

Some of her troubles stemmed from a night in 2006 when her two daughters had traveled to a gritty neighborhood in Southeast Washington to purchase drugs, according to police reports.

After the deal was over, the girls were caught in the middle of a fight and fled the scene. Ms. Sylvia-Stasiewicz's oldest daughter, Courtlandt, was killed when the car she was in crashed into a utility pole. She was 18.

Survivors include a son, Blaise, and a daughter, Paige, both of Alexandria. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

Friends said Ms. Sylvia-Stasiewicz never recovered from the death of her daughter, but training dogs offered her an outlet for her emotions.

"A dog is a living, breathing creation of God that desires love and security," she wrote in her book. "A dog also feels pain, just as we do, and it is our job to minimize that pain."


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