Pia Silvani on training dogs — and humans

SOCIAL NETWORK: Pia Silvani, director of behavior and training at the Asheville Humane Society, says that during the COVID-19 pandemic, many dogs weren't socialized with other dogs or people. Photo courtesy of Silvani

Pia Silvani grew up with dogs and as a child learned that she loved teaching good behavior with positive reinforcement. After an early career as a personal trainer and an aerobics dance instructor, she began teaching dogs (and their humans) instead.

In the early 1990s, Silvani opened a dog training center in New Jersey and wrote numerous training manuals for others who work in animal welfare. Her specialty is working with aggressive dogs that have been undersocialized.

In 2013, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals began behavioral rehabilitation for dogs in New Jersey, and four years later, Silvani came to Western North Carolina to direct the behavioral rehabilitation program at the ASPCA’s newly built facility in Weaverville. She rehabilitated dogs that had been victims of animal cruelty, such as hoarding and puppy mills, through socialization and training. She and the Weaverville facility’s other trainers were highlighted in a 2016 documentary produced by the ASPCA called “Second Chance Dogs,” which can be viewed on YouTube.

Silvani is now the director of behavior and training at the Asheville Humane Society, where she and a team of trainers teach canine manners and “puppy kindergarten” classes. The goal, she says, is to improve dog behavior — and owners’ confidence in leading their dogs — to prevent as many dogs from entering the shelter as possible.

Silvani spoke with Xpress about her love of dogs, teaching good manners and the issues facing shelter dogs post-pandemic.

This article has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.

Xpress: Where did your love of dogs come from?

Pia Silvani: I always had dogs as pets. My grandfather bred a variety of dogs, and he showed dogs. And then my dad did a lot of rescuing of dogs. The thing that I enjoyed most about dogs when I was a child was training them. I  used treats very early on, and I enjoyed positive reinforcement work.

Why did training appeal to you? 

I liked well-mannered dogs. That probably came from growing up in Sweden. We were taught to be very polite to people, and I thought that that should carry over. Why are your dogs any different? I think dogs need to learn to be polite to people and other dogs, too.

My mentors were animal behaviorists and veterinary behaviorists. I loved the behavior part of it — rehabilitating dogs that were not only fearful but aggressive. It takes patience. My goal is not to become best friends with the dogs but to sit back and observe and build confidence. Because the dogs that are exhibiting fear lack confidence. The dogs that can be aggressive are also lacking confidence. … After a period of time, dogs learn to trust and then you can start to do some rehabilitation work with them once they build that trust.

You’ve been training dogs professionally for three decades. Are there any noticeable differences in dog behavior today versus 30 years ago?

The types of dogs that we’re seeing in the shelter environment, especially post-pandemic, are very different than they were years ago. They lack socialization. Many of them are aggressive to other dogs because they haven’t been exposed to other dogs. They can be fearful and aggressive toward people because they haven’t been exposed to people.

Also, a lot of people, especially in the South, do not spay and neuter their pets. They’re having litters of puppies, and they’re not socializing them. The first fear period that dogs go through is between eight and 10 weeks, and in the first 12 weeks of a dog’s life, things are imprinted. So, if the dogs are never exposed to things [during those early weeks], then they’re going to have issues as they get older.

Have many of the dogs at the Asheville Humane Society shelter not been socialized? 

We do get dogs [at the shelter] that just can’t be around other dogs. Now, it doesn’t mean that they’re not adoptable. But there are many people that are looking for a second dog, a friend for their dog. So [the dogs who can’t be around other dogs] will sit longer.

And we get dogs that have what we call “stranger danger” issues. They’re nervous with strangers. That takes time. When you think about it, the poor dogs here are brought into this facility and then they’re around all strangers.

What’s a common behavioral modification that you teach? 

What I discourage people from doing is just allowing every dog to go up to a strange dog to greet [them] when they’re on a leash. People do it all the time … [sometimes] the dog starts to have these negative experiences when they’re on leash. The owner [allows] strange dogs to come up to them when they’re on leash, and they don’t have the ability to flee if they’re overwhelmed or if they’re unsure. And people tend to tightly lead the dogs when they’re doing intros, which then adds tension. What happens is the dogs become either frustrated that they don’t want to greet [the other dog] and then they become defensive. Or some dogs become frustrated because they want to get to see every dog, and they can’t understand why they can’t get to see every dog. So, you get this level of arousal and frustration and then sometimes aggression.

That makes so much sense. 

People think if you’re going to socialize a dog, they have to touch each other, which is not true! … There are a lot of dogs that just don’t want to be greeted by other dogs, but people force them [to interact]. … If you think about it with people, I don’t go up and touch every human being I see. I think we need to respect dogs and their space equally as much.

Do you think dogs have as complex reasons for their behavior as humans do? 

I wouldn’t say as complex. It just depends. Environment has a lot to do with it. Genetics has a lot to do with it. It’s nature-nurture. … A lot of times people think that a dog knows “right”’ from “wrong.” They really don’t. Dogs know “safe and rewarding,” and they know “dangerous” or “not rewarding.” Dogs do things that are safe and rewarding. So whatever they’re doing, it’s being reinforced somewhere. When people say, “My dog is barking at people passing by,” well, the barking is being reinforced. If something is reinforced, then you get an increase in behavior.

I think a lot of people believe “this is just the way my dog is, and he won’t change.” 

Think of the dog more as a human being, and not a dog. [Ask yourself] Would you accept that behavior from a child, for example, parkouring off of people? No, you wouldn’t want your child jumping on a human being. Teach the dog some manners. Expose the dog to things. Socialize the dog. Get them into puppy class.

Is it hard to turn off your dog trainer brain when you’re in public? Do you find yourself going to breweries or hiking trails and seeing poor dog behavior that you know you can correct? 

[laughs] That’s pretty funny. Yeah, I do. You just want to hand out your card and say, “Take him to class!”


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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