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.”
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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.”
Each six-week course in the circus school curriculum builds upon foundational skills learned in Circus 1, which is open to all dogs and concentrates on developing the handler-dog focus via basic, real-world obedience; socialization, or teaching dogs to work in proximity; and simple tricks. (Dogs 25 pounds and under have their own beginner course, Small Dog Circus 1.) In Circus 1.5, the dogs work at a distance from their handlers and their trick repertoire is expanded. Circus 2 is the advanced trick class, with agility, stunts, synchronized routines with other dogs, and useful behaviors on the syllabus. Balls, cones, pedestals, chairs, stools, hoops and a prop best described as an oversized hamster wheel all come into play.
No matter what the level, CCS classes differentiate themselves from traditional training classes right away. Metcalf doesn’t delve into learning-theory jargon. “When you engage the handlers’ analytical brain while they are trying to learn the physical skills involved in dog training, you inhibit them,” he says. Instead, he developed a teaching method that is very master-to-apprentice and down-to-earth.
Their “I show you, you try it” technique, combined with positive motivation and attention to the biomechanics of creating behaviors in dogs, results in an environment where everyone, from beginner to pro, can teach their dogs complex and difficult routines.
This was immediately apparent in the first session. Our group tackled a few basic behaviors (sit, stay), then, using them almost like steps in a dance, we worked our way to what became a warm-up drill, to which was added a spin and the beginnings of “sit pretty.”
Creative and artsy, however, does not mean slack. On the contrary—flow and camaraderie are important, so the rhythm is fast-paced, much like a martial arts class or a series of yoga-like sun-salutations (fun-salutations!). Working at this tempo requires handlers to set other thoughts aside and get into the groove with their dogs. Metcalf’s sing-song narration—“ One … and two … and spin those dogs!”—serves not only as a compass, but also, as a reason to pay close attention to what he sneaks in between the commands. Laughter is a common side effect.
The Metcalfs build relationships with their canine students, and Francis often gives them nicknames, which he incorporates into his play-by-plays: “Team Willow, aka Golden Eyes! From the box, around the cone, spin, sit pretty and bow …!” Team is a word you hear often in class, along with observations on the importance of timely praise and reward. “It’s all about trying,” Francis says. “The fun of trying is what drives the dog on.” Participants are also reminded of the training benefits of hungry dogs and high-value treats (lunchmeat and hot dogs are high on that list).
Dog tricks are wildly entertaining, but what’s at work underneath has another, deeper purpose. “Imagine if there was a school that taught people how to do life better; that’s what we do for dogs.” Every trick they teach is also somehow therapeutic, from developing coordination to helping dogs feel good psychologically. Take, for example, the left and right spin, which he describes as a “behavioral sorbet.”
More than just a cute trick, the spin is also a tool to access the dog’s confidence in relation to both the handler and the environment. It has an impressive list of therapeutic qualities, including habituation to other dogs; a spine warm-up; a way to determine whether a dog favors his right or his left; a cue to separate exercises so the dog knows he has moved on to another behavior (the behavioral sorbet); a way to build coordination between a dog’s front and back feet; and, most importantly in some cases, a way to help dogs become comfortable with their handlers leaning over them, which they might otherwise consider a threatening position. “This way, the dog isn’t feeling fear or intimidation during the learning process,” Francis notes.
For each course, they pull from an arsenal of tricks and exercises designed to build the dog’s trust in the handler and the handler’s trust in the dog. Whether they’re shy, older, out of shape, outgoing souls or bundles of energy begging for a challenge, dogs find circus class to be a genuinely welcoming place where people and canines from all walks of life can feel safe. Norma describes a dog’s progress in class as a “twinkle in the eyes” that gets bigger and bigger. “Seeing the bond between the handler and the dog grow … it’s a really beautiful thing,” she says.
According to the Metcalfs, the key to the success and appeal of Canine Circus School is “not so much what we teach, it’s how we teach it.” Dog professionals and people from all over the world have come to California to take their classes, and they attend the couple’s seminars in Chile, Spain and New York. And good ideas spread—a couple of the Metcalfs’ colleagues in Los Angeles and Arizona are developing classes inspired by their school.
But the real magic behind Canine Circus School is that it enhances the thread of mutual love and trust, a bond that grows stronger with each move dogs and their people make together. The proof is in the puppy: soft eyes, ears forward and an expression that can only be described as a smile, as though the dog is saying, “I’m ready! What’s next?”