When not one, not two, but three separate acquaintances simultaneously enroll their extremely divergent pooches in a circus dog-training program previously talked up by two sets of neighbors, there’s only one logical explanation: Circus training is hip.
Once you walk through the bulldog-emblazoned gates at Friends of the Family Dog Training, everything will become clear: This is not where dogs come to learn to sit, stay, and roll over. Oh, no. At this imaginative break in normalcy, Francis Metcalf and Norma Wood Metcalf have created a decidedly out-of-the-box academy where dogs are taught to walk backward, balance balls on their noses, and weave through their handler’s legs. This is where dogs learn to literally jump through hoops.
It’s a magical outdoor space, an expanded backyard that comprises two side-by-side Victorian homes, decorated with a light-up vintage d-o-g marquee, a wall of rustic mirrors, and a series of red pedestals just waiting for canine compatriots. As soon as the bell rings signaling the beginning of class, dogs of all sizes and breeds (from huge Husky to pint-sized Boston terrier) rush to their respective podiums and the hot-dog treat-giving commences. While the handlers cue their companions to spin in a circle, ring master Metcalf offers simple, supportive tips: “Feed that meter.” “Focus on your channel; don’t let them channel surf.” “The dog does what you reinforce, not what you want.”
All this wisdom is the product of 20 years in the business, training dogs as truffle hunters, elite competitors, guides for the hearing-impaired, and as circus performers. “I was searching for a way to bring more creativity into dog training and to teach people a lot of stuff that I felt they weren’t getting in the traditional formats,” says Metcalf, who started the business with his wife in 2010.
With a background in both French and Mondio ring sport, which Metcalf describes as “sort of a track-and-field police dog sport,” he puts the emphasis on fun, not on perfecting tricks or lessons. “Life is a circus,” he says, “and circus training is more realistic than just regular discipline-based, boring obedience training.” During the one-hour class, dogs bow, walk on their back feet, and circle cones to the boisterous calls of their owners (and in response to the surely delectable hot dog treats). One especially attentive and enthusiastic “student” even does a magic trick by retrieving a specific card from a full deck.
Says Metcalf, “We really feel like the environment shapes behavior and that if you can train in a beautiful and inspiring place that you will do beautiful and inspiring training.” The space truly is unusual, placed in a residential neighborhood on the border of Emeryville, boasting not only the fenced-in training run but also an on-site clubhouse with a comfy couch, custom-designed bar (made from a miner’s bed that Norma fell in love with at Urban Ore and later dismantled), and a heavy wooden coffee table where clients can warm up and visit during breaks. The cozy indoor venue is named St. Roch’s, in honor of the patron saint of dog trainers. “As a saint he was saved by a dog,” explains Metcalf, “and I think all of our people who come here, somewhere in the back of their head, feel like they were saved by dogs, too.”
Along with running the academy, the Metcalfs also travel overseas to share their unique training style with others in the field. “We put on a course in Chile,” Metcalf says. “We were at a veterinary college and it was part of a college course. We’re going to Spain in February to do a circus school there. It’s a week long; it’s like an intensive.”
As world travelers and entrepreneurs, it may seem like the couple has already reached the bounds of their creativity, but the duo is set to expand their vision to include a big top of its own. Up next? You guessed it; circus school is hoping to venture into offering bona fide performances where guests can come and enjoy a full show starring a bevy of four-legged friends. No word on exactly when you can buy a front-row seat, but with a track record of tail-wagging success, no doubt this dog will have its day.
Ready to enroll in the $260 six-week course? Sign up at bayareadogtrainer.wordpress.com/friends-of-the-family-dog-training.