On a lovely day in Oakland, Calif., Willow, my shy, four-year-old Shepherd mix, and I sit on a brightly painted wooden platform listening to the jaunty accordion music playing in the background. A small standing sign reads École Canine, Temescal Creek; painted on it is a white dog balancing a ball on her muzzle. The plain plank fence that separates those of us attending Canine Circus School (CCS) from the “real” world holds few hints of the wonders that await on this side of the threshold.
"Helloooo everyone!" A friendly voice sings out; it belongs to Francis Metcalf, the smiling ringmaster, who—with his green fedora and brightly colored bait bag—resembles a character out of a 19th-century lithograph. No, indeed: this is definitely not going to be one of those old-school obedience workouts. This is circus school, where dogs are taught to “rule the world, one person at a time.”
Francis and his wife, Norma Wood Metcalf, met while working at the San Francisco SPCA; he was a service-dog trainer and she was the volunteer services manager. Together, they brought CCS to life five years ago, filling this little corner of Oakland with bright colors, music and many wagging tails. They’re an impressive team. Francis puts his more than 20 years of training experience to work, while Norma manages everything from initial client contacts to documenting their daily adventures for social media.
Canine Circus School started as a crazy idea: Metcalf who says that his training style was always described as “circus-y” by his colleagues, set out to create classes he would want to take himself. As he says, “You have obedience training, dog sports and dog beauty pageants. I didn’t hang out with those kids in high school.” Veering away from the traditional approaches, the couple decided to focus on things that most other classes left out. Together, he and Norma built what they felt was missing in the San Francisco Bay Area: an art school for dogs. Or, as Francis says, “A place for the freaks and geeks in the dog world.”
Why circus-style training? “Life is a circus, and circus training is more realistic than regular obedience training,” says Francis. Learning to communicate with your dog amidst the chaos of daily life is a valuable skill, so effective communication is the backbone of all other skills taught here. Another core belief is that dog training should be fun.
He brings some serious training cred to the venture. Recalling his early dogtraining days in Rockport, Maine, he noted, “I was in the sixth grade when I started training dogs. Before that, I had a job working with Andre the Seal [a basketball-playing harbor seal]. I was the bucket boy: I would collect tips from the crowd in Rockport Harbor. Andre’s trainer, Harry Goodridge, lived next door.”
After a short stint in art school, he took off for Europe, where he studied Mondio and French Ring sports, which he describes as a “sort of a track-and-field police dog” activity. Over the course of his career, he’s trained dogs to do a multitude of tasks, among them, hunt truffles, assist the hearingimpaired, serve as law-enforcement K9s and perform in films.
All of this experience has made Metcalf exceptionally well versed in the ways of training a dog to do, well, pretty much anything. He explains, “Someone says, ‘I want my dog to be able to flip on the light switch,’ or whatever. And the trainer dreams up, step by step, how to deconstruct that set of behaviors and put them back in a way the dog understands—a behavior chain. You take something like using the nose to flip something up. You break it down into its smallest components and find just the basic motions. It’s called successive approximation.”