OAKLAND (CBS SF) — It’s official: the circus has gone to the dogs – at least as far as Francis Metcalf is concerned.
Metcalf is the self-styled ringmaster of Oakland’s California Canine Circus School, a reward-based dog training course that encourages all dogs, and their two-legged sidekicks, to run off to the circus, or at least dream about it.
Tricks like ‘around the cone’, spin, bow and sit pretty are all executed by the dogs and their handlers, under Metcalf’s watchful eye.
“We just got the idea of calling it canine circus school because something like the circus, it’s sort of an open platform,” explained Metcalf.
“It includes many archetypes. You could have the strong man. The lithe acrobat, the clown, the happy clown, the sad clown. So all these archetypes can fit in and we wanted to be a place where freaks and geeks were comfortable.”
The players, of course, are the stars of the show. Scrappy mutts with names like Squink, Collin, Max, Lana, Roxi and Bemo spend two hours on Sunday mornings in Metcalf’s backyard. In another life, Metcalf trained police and search dogs before getting tired of what he calls the ‘authoritarian based stuff’ in traditional dog training. So all of his classes are fun but the intent is serious.
“We kind of break down resistance by getting people to flow with their dogs,” explained Metcalf.” It also builds their awareness. To be a good dog handler you have to have to almost 360 awareness, so that if you’re on a trail and you’re hiking and horses are coming or if a deer is there, you catch it before there is a problem.”
That means peace of mind for owners like Ted McKinney. His German Shepherd mix Max loves the tricks, and McKinney appreciates Max’s newfound recall skills and leash manners.
“The number one thing that he does is stays out of trouble,” said McKinney “So we practice a lot with him.”
The old adage about practice makes perfect does apply here. The tricks are repeated. Rewards, like small bits of dog cookies, are given freely. Metcalf has trained hundreds of dogs, and says with a willing owner, even the oldest dogs can always learn a circus trick or two.
“From the heart perspective the dog and the owner are learning to communicate with each other. And there is sort of a special joy communicating with another species,” said Metcalf.