July 5, 2012
Dog ‘Guru’ Justin Silver puts owners on tight leash [SLIDE SHOW]
When it comes to canines going to the dogs, trainer Justin Silver has seen it all: the pooch whose owner treated it like a baby, complete with diaper changes; the bulldog named Beefy who refused to take a walk unless he was schlepped down the street on a skateboard; the modeling agency owner who brought her fierce terrier mix to work every day, where it tried to attack everyone in sight. When Silver asked her how many times the mutt had bitten people, she replied, “Are you counting blood bites and non-blood bites?”
Training humans, as well as hounds, how to behave in an urban setting is Silver’s focus on CBS’ “Dogs in the City,” which will air its final episode on July 11 (previous episodes are available at CBS.com). It’s the latest take on how-to-fix-Fido shows, following the success of National Geographic’s “The Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan” and Animal Planet’s “It’s Me or the Dog” with Victoria Stilwell. Silver’s angle is that he’s a guru for the more than 1 million dogs in New York City (there are 78 million dogs in the country) — and that owners are often to blame for canine malfeasance. “A dog’s behavior is shaped by the people in its life,” said Silver, who was raised with Shih Tzus in a Jewish home in Queens. “You’re always communicating to your animals, whether it’s directly or inadvertently, through your behavior.”
During a media event on a faux residential street at the CBS back lot in Studio City, the 30-something Silver came off as much like a Manhattan hipster as a canine maven, doling out advice on everything from doggie depression to how to use visual commands to retrain a bulldog who was going deaf. “Go ahead, write your name on the tree,” Silver, who is also a stand-up comic, joked as a Chihuahua relieved itself in front of a fake house. “Nobody lives here anyway.”
In an interview, he said he’s not entirely comfortable with the moniker he’s been given on the show: “I’d be a real moron if I walked down the street saying, ‘Hi, I’m The Dog Guru.” Even so, he’s spent thousands of hours training hundreds of dogs over the past decade, prescribing a range of techniques to train any particular pooch.
“The biggest mistake people make is they think dogs come pre-programmed — like, ‘My dog should come knowing what the word “sit” means,’ ” Silver said. “I’ll ask, ‘What do you do to teach it to sit?’ And they go, ‘I tell it, “sit!” ’ ” Silver said, laughing. The other big doggie no-no: “telling your pet what you don’t want it to do, rather than what you do,” he said.
On the show, Silver helps fiances who were about to nix their engagement because their canine-blended family doesn’t get along.
Then there’s Elli, the owner of the modeling agency who brings her snarling terrier, Charlotte, to work — never mind that bite scars aren’t great for modeling careers. Silver tells her point-blank that the dog doesn’t belong in the office: “I do call people on their s—-,” he told me. When Elli insists, Silver explains that Charlotte feels stressed because the dog feels like she has to protect Elli, hence her penchant for threatening anyone who walks through the door. Elli needs to take on the “guardian” role, rising from her desk to greet visitors who enter the office, as well as keeping Charlotte tethered and rewarding the dog for saying put. Silver empathizes with Charlotte in an on-camera tête-à-tête: “You think I don’t know what it’s like to have a co-dependent mother?”
Silver was raised as a fussed-over only child by his mother and grandmother after his parents divorced when he was 2, which, he said, taught him about “unconditional love — and also how not to spoil dogs.” He has a tattoo that he describes as “a symbol” of his family: “two intersecting M’s that represent his grandparents, Murray and Martha Heller, Holocaust survivors who met when Murray smuggled food into Martha’s work camp. Martha used to be terrified of dogs, because “the Nazis used to sic them on her,” but melted when she met Silver’s gentle pit bulls, he said; now she even cooks for them.
Silver’s journey to doggie mavenship began about 10 years ago, when he was working as a fitness trainer (for humans) as well as a comedian, but would come home from work at 4 a.m. “feeling a bit empty,” he said. “Nothing was on except these depressing animal commercials, and the next thing I knew, I had two rescue dogs and two rescue cats.” He started rehabilitating shelter dogs, learning every training technique possible in order to prepare them for adoption. By 2011, he was running his own training and pet-care company — and that’s when CBS came calling. One of his clients had referred him to producers looking for a personality for their new dog show, and Silver proved so charismatic that they picked him.
“Whatever part of me that’s this neurotic Jewish New Yorker calms down when I’m working with animals; I get incredibly focused, like it’s a meditation,” he said. “I’m always talking about setting the tone, that you’ve got to give calm to get calm, but at the same time I’m thinking, I really should apply my own techniques to my own life.”
The final episode of “Dogs in the City” airs on July 11 at 8 p.m. The show also can be viewed at CBS.com.