Dogs learn more than just tricks at Canine Circus School

Francis Metcalf, ringmaster of Oakland's Canine Circus School, focuses on the art and play of dog training.

A bygone world of whimsy and magic lies beyond the gate to Oakland’s Canine Circus School for dogs.

The musical voices of Francis and Norma Metcalf greet their four-legged students as they walk through a trellis engulfed in greenery and emerge to the crinkling sound of a record playing. The Metcalfs have curated their backyard with unusual trinkets, archeological artifacts and colorful collectibles, turning the space into part sculpture garden, part creative playground for man’s best friend.

Francis, who studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, opened the art school for dogs six years ago. Designed to offer a playful alternative to the traditional “sit, stay, down” dogma, the training dogs receive here focuses on using tricks.

Francis traces his influences for the school back to his own childhood in Rockport, Maine, where he watched his neighbor Harry Goodridge train Andre the Seal. The two became the stuff of legends, and left a big impression on Francis. “They got me thinking about the magic of training animals,” he recalls.

“In obedience training there are lots of ‘No don’t do this, don’t do that, do this, do that, be a good little dog.’ And there was never a lot of problem solving,” says Francis, who has worked training competition dogs as well as hearing dogs for the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “There wasn’t a lot of teaching people how to train their dogs,” he continued.

His training might be “circusy,” as his colleagues say, but he uses tricks as a way to help both performance dogs and dogs with behavioral issues heal from the inside out.

“I’ve always been interested in performance and tricks and magic and art,” says Francis. “The world of dogs needed an art school.”

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