Canine Circus School in Oakland Makes Dog Clowns into Ringmasters
What happens when you enroll your dog in circus school? You learn party tricks, build a bond, have a whole lot of fun, and also go through some rigorous behavioral training. My Scottish terrier, Jasper, has been clowning around at Canine Circus School in Oakland: training under ring-leader Francis Metcalf; Master of Hounds for almost a year now.
“Canine Circus School is a way to bring the confidence and control of working dogs and blend it with the creativity that the circus offers.”
My Scottish terrier, Jasper, is now a little over a year old but he joined at just 4 months old. While I’m not a clown workin’ on a circus act, I did come to Canine Circus School with a shortlist of training goals. Mainly, I knew my dog was a little brat and I needed to know how to handle him. I also wanted to have fun while training my puppy! Metcalf is obviously an expert – At first, I relied heavily on him to teach me what is possible for my pup.
What is possible in dog training? Nearly anything you can dream up.“Canine Circus School is a way to bring the confidence and control of working dogs and blend it with the creativity that the circus offers. Circus is an open archetype that allows for a rainbow of non-conformity. You can be a freak or a strongman, an acrobat or a bearded lady. It doesn’t matter, all are welcome. The traditional circus started when out of work Calvary masters found new purpose in teaching riding tricks to the general public. Likewise, Canine Circus School brings the confidence and rigor of the European working dog competitions known as ringsport to the general dog population in a non-militaristic way,” says Metcalf.
I first walked into Canine Circus School(CCS) when my Scottish Terrier, Jasper, was 4 months old after a friend recommended I talk to Metcalf about training with him. The first training session is one I’ll never forget. You enter the yard of Canine Circus School to find a circus ring, brightly colored boxes, stacks of props and a massive fake guillotine. Metcalf let me know I could just let him free and that he wanted to spend some time observing Jasper to learn about his personality.
Eventually, Jasper found himself inside the circus’ garage. We both followed him and Metcalf told me “oh, that’s OK… he probably wants to listen to the phonograph.” He walked in behind Jasper and turned on some early 1900s jazz music for Jasper to listen to. Then, he let me know more about Jasper’s personality. Paraphrasing, I remember him saying that Jasper is an alpha dog who will go do his own thing but always come back to check-in. He said it’ll be important for us to work on his recall and make sure we teach him how to properly greet other pups so that he doesn’t get himself in any trouble with his outgoing alpha-y nature. I was pretty skeptical at first. How could this person know so much after less than 30 minutes with my pup? Could be his over 30 years of experience…
The Bay Area has a lot of characters in it but Metcalf is a person who’s one of those people that makes the Bay Area such a unique place. Having met him, it helped me realize that the Bay Area is still a place where creativity can thrive – not just in traditional art but in any field. His passion for dog training has taken him all over the world. “I grew up in Maine, but I have lived in lots of places before I came to the Bay Area in 2002. The experience that really sparked my imagination about animal training was watching my neighbor train an orphaned harbor seal he named Andre. Andre did tricks for tourists in rock port harbor. I was that free-range long-haired and barefoot child of the 70s and I passed around a bucket to tourists. The 80s came and I transformed into a little punk and eventually got myself a pit bull. We were inseparable and eventually, I went off to art school in Chicago where I got serious about training dogs. It was pre-internet and I was looking in the back of a paper and saw a tiny ad that read French working dog trial. I packed up my pit and skateboard and went to the suburbs to check it out. What I saw was nothing short of amazing; dogs were scaling walls, soaring over huge jumps, and biting knights in puffy linen suits.”
“My goal is always to create an epic dog that is inspiring to people.”
“Today the Belgian Malinois is trending but back then they were unheard of. Soon I had a puffy suit and Malinois puppy of my own and I headed off to LA to become a dog trainer. I heard of a French baker that lived in Griffith park who was a Ringsport master and begged him to train me. He refused because he had 2 toddlers and had recently sold his bakery to be a full-time dad. I pleaded and he agreed. Under his tutelage, I started winning national championships. That led me to train in France and become an expert in working dogs. I got contracts with police, customs, and homeland security. I moved from LA to NYC and then back to New England. I was consumed with competition and realized it was turning into an unhealthy obsession.”
“I missed my creative roots and decided to come to the Bay Area to pursue them. Canine Circus School was a way to bring the confidence and control of working dogs to and blend it with the creativity that the circus offers.”
“My goal is always to create an epic dog that is inspiring to people. A realized creature that people can go anywhere and do anything. My friend asked if my dog could make tea for a video. I said yes and marched right into a house the dog has never been to and asked my dog to make tea and he did. It’s not magic, it’s learning to deconstruct behavior. Once your dog has matured and you have made him strong and under control, it’s time for the fun to start,” says Metcalf.
Here is what we learned during the first year of circus training:
Before we get into what he learned, I feel the need to acknowledge that there are multiple factors that go into training a dog. The most important of which is: How much time and energy will YOU as the trainer put into it? Then, you have the knowledge base of your trainer and how you and your pup jive with them. Do you all trust each other? Then, it’s knowing your dog and building a bond. It was with this combination of things that I got as far as I’ve gotten. But in all honesty, I think I could have gotten even farther this year had I put in even more work.
Jumping through a hoop!
I didn’t feel like any of my friends would believe me that I’d been going to Circus School with Jasper if we didn’t eventually learn this iconic trick. However, to be completely honest, this was for sure not the first skill Jasper learned.
For the first 3 months, we were just workin’ on the basics as Jasper got a little more mature. Metcalf teaches what he calls “scaffolded steps”: a process where you learn one thing which will in turn lead to another harder and more complicated trick. In my one-on-one session, Metcalf tracks our progress and then gives us some additional homework to work on until we meet again. “We build the handler’s coordination and understanding of dog training with easy drills. You learn by doing and not by being told what to do and in a way that’s suitable for any type of dog,” says Metcalf in this Instagram post recalling training Jasper on the hoop.
“Every trainer should use their creativity, it really separates the foot soldiers from the generals.”
To get to the hoop-jumping trick we had to learn some other basics first and much of the training was at home – learning by doing. Jasper and I would practice a particular circuit in which I’d have Jasper go up on a small coffee table I have outside, off the table, on the table, sit, wait… then I would walk background and have him come to me for a treat. Jasper’s attention span was that of a nat some days but for the most part, we tried to work on our homework every day.
Eventually, we could go from one box to the other with a hoop in the middle.
Behavioral Training & Recall
Working on behavioral issues might be less flashy than jumping through a hoop but it’s probably more important. Going on hikes with Jasper is pretty rough sometimes because he pulls on the leash and gets frustrated easily.
The most surprisingly simple thing that Metcalf suggested and we implemented was putting Jasper on a longer 15’ leash. For Jasper, it relieved his frustration on a leash almost immediately and also allowed us to more effectively work on his recall while out and about.
Now, Jasper’s recall is so much better as well now that the frustration is curbed on a leash (for the most part).
At Canine Circus School, don’t expect a cookie cutter type of training. Especially one-on-one, Metcalf will tailor training to your dog’s specific abilities. Jasper is pretty top-heavy with a big head and most of his weight in his chest. Standing on two hind legs has taken him some time because his center of gravity is different than that of other pups.
We are still working on this one. Jasper bounces back a bit as he stands to get his treat. We have combined standing with a twirl that he learned earlier on in training and we call this a dance. As his legs get stronger, he will likely be a little more graceful.
The Shaped Retrieve
We just started learning “the shaped retrieve” a couple of weeks ago so it’s still a work in progress. In this skill, Jasper is learning to take an object and place it in a small box. Eventually, Metcalf and I will increase the difficulty of this trick by having Jasper pick up something already on the ground and put it into a smaller space (something like a coin in a piggy bank). Or maybe Jasper will make me some tea someday?!
Is Canine Circus School right for your pup?
A Resounding – Yes! Round of applause – for all the pups.
Metcalf’s circus school isn’t just for bouncy, silly, overly excited alpha puppies like Jasper – it’s for all dogs. Just like any good circus, no one has turned away from being different. Every shape, breed, size, age, and ability are welcome at the circus.
While the CCS group class uses a reward based methodology Metcalf’s one on one lesson use what he calls a “Full feedback” approach. Metcalf explains, “CCS uses a positive methodology because that’s what works best for teaching and performing tricks but I consider myself a full feedback trainer. Dog training is highly politicized, with trainers making camps. There’s an old saying that goes “the only thing 2 dog trainers can agree on is what the 3rd one is doing wrong”. This is especially true in the age of the internet. The fact is that all camps are right sometimes. Full Feedback means you use the right tool for the job,” says Metcalf.
“You might think every dog can be trained this one way until you have developed enough experience to see otherwise. An all-positive trainer who concentrates on stopping behaviors will not have as much success with that tool as they would teaching tricks. A trainer like Cesar Milan who only uses dominance will have no luck training tricks but can help with some social behaviors. A trainer that only uses informational corrections will not be able to teach tricks or help with social problems but they can teach obedience very well. So I have tried to perfect each training tool and teach people the proper use of each tool rather than siloing myself into a camp. Thus I give Full Feedback.”
After a year of training, it’s the bond and the trust I’ve built between Jasper and myself that I am the happiest about. It makes sense to me that bringing Jasper into an “art school for dogs” would resonate with me more than traditional training. I have grown personally through the experience. I have more confidence in my training abilities and I am proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish with Metcalf’s help. “Often it takes a few lessons with a talented trainer/teacher and you will start to see how you can do it all yourself. CCS is designed to teach you how to fish rather than give you a fish,” says Metcalf.
I can attest that there is absolutely no experience needed. I would say that the success has been largely due to how much time I was willing to put in after I’d learn a new trick during training. Because of the work I’ve put in during training and outside of training, Jasper knows the above and also 10+ other tricks and commands.
Next up for Jasper? Keep up with his training and, when he’s ready, join one of the Canine Circus School group classes. The fun never stops with dog training, just like the circus itself. Metcalf does regular group classes, zoom sessions and phone sessions, too.
Lastly, I did ask Metcalf where were some of his favorite trainers, Bay Area dog-friendly spots & a couple of other questions to inspire you:
Best Place to Take Your Dog in The Bay Area:
“A monoculture of dogs is boring. For that reason, I like Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley. It’s such a nice mix of kites, birders, dogs, model airplanes sailboats, and views. Plus it has a sundial rock garden and was built on a trash heap. A real mixture of nature, dogs, and technology both ancient and modern. It always leaves me with a fresh enlightened feeling. If your dog is social there is an off-leash place if he’s not so social you can find plenty of room to walk him on a leash. The wolfhound bar on San Pablo in Oakland is real nice. They allow dogs and have a room dedicated to Joe Strummer,” says Metcalf.
How can you get started at home if you can’t afford training?
Metcalf suggests, “I like Pam Reid’s book ‘Excel-erated Learning’. Also, the classic, ‘don’t shoot the dog’ by Karen Pryor. Contrary to what the internet might tell you, socialization is about quality, not quantity. The pup should feel good and not be too stressed. If you wanna teach something you’re gonna need good timing good motivation and lots of consistency. Most of all keep it simple, positive experiences increase a behavior negative experiences decrease it.”
Who and What inspires you?
“The things that inspire me are the little things in life: Imaginary kiosks that sell spinning tops, chess in the park, and wise old sea captains. Bowl back mandolins hanging from walls and conductors’ hats. Belle epoch street gangs and brass knuckles. As for trainers I admire: Frank Inn the trainer of Benji (and Lassie) was really cool. He was almost buried alive and woke from the dead in the morgue. As he recovered he trained Benji to do some amazing behaviors. One of Benji’s behaviors I specialize in. It’s called the Rope Hoist where the dog pulls a basket attached to a rope up to a roof mouth over paw. For years I asked every learned trainer I could how to train that one. Nobody knew, then one day I was watching a squirrel at the bird feeder and I figured it out. Now I can teach anybody how to do it. I’ve got it worked out to a science. Trainers from all over the world have hired me to teach them how to train this amazing behavior,” states Metcalf.
“Another one of my training heroes is a man named Primo Orlandini, known to French trainers as “the Magician” he had a very light touch and competed at very high levels all the way into his 90s, but he was just a humble shoemaker from a small town called Nancy. Those trainers are both dead and I never met them but I model myself on them nonetheless. Omar Von Muller is a living trainer and friend who was very influential to me. When I was younger a watched Omar train in awe. I remember one day he was making kites for his kids and realized how much creativity and training ability are aligned. Every trainer should use their creativity, it really separates the foot soldiers from the generals,” advises Metcalf.
note: consider all photos by Metcalf unless otherwise noted