By Lee Gabay
I want to start a dating App where they match you with people based upon your Amazon purchases. You’ll know everything you have in common with that person,” grins Justin Silver from the stage of a New York City comedy club. Like most comedians, Justin is keenly observant of human nature’s funny nuances and absurdities. But what sets him apart from his stand-up peers is how he honed his craft—by speaking to dogs.
For the past 15 years, Justin has been New York’s celebrated dog whisperer. From starting out as the fun-loving guy in the park to operating his own dog services company, the TV star and author has a knack for bonding with dogs through humorous negotiations and deep understanding.
Justin believes that dogs essentially want to give and receive love. They go about seeking approval in a handful of charming or challenging ways. He attributes the ability to “listen with your eyes” as essential to training. Basics such as surveying the surroundings and observing responses are fundamental elements of owner/dog communication.
WORKING WITH ANIMALS
One of the more challenging aspects of working with animals is training those who care for them,” shares Justin. “Dog owners with the best intentions often spend too much time telling their dogs what they don’t want rather than simply saying what they need.”
Justin’s emphasis on affirmative language with both animals and humans has led to many achievements related to his passions for pets and performance. He starred in CBS’s reality show, Dogs in The City, authored the training book The Language of Dogs and founded Funny For Fido, a comedy fundraiser which supports previously homeless or abused shelter animals.
This fall, Justin shares his laughter (and bite) hosting the popular Neuroticia Podcast. Justin can also be seen alongside Zoe Kravitz in TV’s anticipated reboot of the film High-Fidelity. But perhaps most importantly, Justin can be seen on the streets of New York, helping canines.
In his early years, Justin struggled at school. He had difficulties finding the right words to express himself and would often act out accordingly. Raised by a fashion designer mother and Holocaust survivor grandmother, his adolescence had some built-in challenges. Yet through understanding the life obstacles of these two exceptional women, he developed a bond and sensitivity toward those most vulnerable. His life experiences instilled an empathy and awareness that naturally drew him to animals. As his mother often reminds him, working with animals is his way to fix himself.
Though Justin had a dog growing up, the species officially became his passion in 2006. That year, he met Chiquita, a five-month-old pitbull/border collie mix who was found tied to a telephone pole before she landed in a Bronx shelter. Chiquita’s rough start in life had turned her confidence into pushiness and protectiveness into aggression. The qualities that made her so much fun were overshadowed by related traits that made her difficult. “I wanted her to live as stress-free as possible and found ways to be nurturing while firmly setting limits.” Chiquita’s patterns were reprogrammed, and eventually Justin knew they were on their way when she would look to him for instructions instead of reacting as she once did.
Justin’s ethos is to treat animals as he would want to be treated. He always reminds his clients that dogs are animals, not accessories. “Each dog is unique and wonderful in their own way and humans must assist in socializing them, but should not try to change their personalities.”
The numerous life lessons that Justin has learned from his years as a dog trainer have given him an outline for the discipline and approach needed for his own work and well-being. Choosing a career path without linear benchmarks, Justin turned these uncertainties into performance opportunities by keeping busy with a number of projects as an actor, commercial voiceover artist, Podcast host and most notably stand-up comedian.
Though he is well regarded for teaching dogs proper etiquette, he is also known as someone who likes to push social boundaries through his work in comedy. “The job of a trainer is to find the truth, while my other job as a comedian is to speak the truth.” For Justin, the two worlds mesh seamlessly. “Comedy and dog training are both two-way dialogues. It’s about reading the room. If you lose your audience you have to find a way to get them back.”
While navigating these fields, Justin noticed that animal rescue workers tended to have hearts bigger than their homes and they always seemed overloaded and underfunded. Seeing a real need, Justin reached out to his friends in comedy and began his Funny for Fido fundraiser. An all-star list of performers have lent their talents to the benefit over the past decade, including Amy Schumer, Colin Quinn, Jim Gaffigan and most recently Jerry Seinfeld. This year they raised close to $16,000 for Dogs Deserve Better, a sanctuary for dogs living at the once notorious Michael Vick Virginia estate. The yard where dogs were forced to fight is now Freedom Yard where they spend their days peacefully.
SPEAKING THEIR LANGUAGE
Justin’s concern for the underdog goes well beyond just dogs. He often visits New York City public schools in areas most affected by crime and poverty. He recently volunteered as a comedic acting coach with the students from Unstoppable, a musical performed by children growing up in the foster care and shelter system.
The building blocks of his work revolve around playfulness and whether they be on two or four legs, Justin treats challenges with dignity and resolve and sees laughter as part of healing. “Comedy leads to growth, learning, trust and forgiveness. Regardless of the species, joyful actions don’t lie.”
Justin strongly recognizes the importance of giving voice to those who are not heard or, in the case of dogs, to those that cannot speak. His innate ability to serve those in need has been his livelihood as well as his calling—and he always offers a hand.
For more information on Justin Silver, visit iamjustinsilver.com.
AN OFF-THE-CUFF Q&A
If you could invite three people to dinner—living, dead, fictional, or real—who would they be?
My Grandmother, my pitbull Pacino, and the wizard who brought them back to life.
If you could read one book over and over for the rest of your life, what would it be?
The Six Pillars Of Self Esteem by Nathaniel Branden.
If you could eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
If you could travel to any time period (backward or forward) where would you go?
That magical time before social media…remember?
If you could commission any artist (living or dead) to create art for you, who would you choose?
What would you like to be known for?
Vulnerable performances that made people laugh and cry while helping out a few critters and people along the way.
What do you think is the greatest invention in your lifetime?
The laptop I’m typing this answer on.
What is one life lesson you will never forget?
To keep the focus on yourself instead of comparing yourself to the people around you. Something I need to remind myself of daily…
What’s your personal heaven?
Performing with my best friends in front of a crowd that gets it. Then hopping in my Jeep with an adoring woman riding shotgun, dogs smiling out the back window, and music blasting on our way to a camp site.
What, in your opinion, is a fundamental characteristic of a good person?
Honesty and a desire to add value. Everyone is flawed and everyone has gifts. An honest person can admit their flaws, apologize when they are wrong and get on with the business of sharing their gifts with the world.
Do you believe in luck?
Of course! I’m in the entertainment business… I mean, Hello!
What was the best part of your day today?
An impromptu picnic with my close friends and their foster pit bulls on the pier after a workout.