Under the towering eucalyptus trees of Temescal Creek Park, a sturdy wood-planked fence frames a curve in the pavement. Every day, joggers and dog-walkers shuffle alongside, crossing the border of North Oakland and Emeryville. But the ones who turn their heads at just the right moment catch a scene flickering through the slits between boards – as if from an old-fashioned zoetrope – that transports them to another world entirely.
Here, there the dogs and people form a different scene: smoke roils from the chimney of a squat plastered building with ornate round windows. A rooster crows. A bark echoes. A man proportioned like Popeye’s archnemesis Bluto stumbles around kicking a barrel. Suddenly, a streak of muscle and fur launches toward the figure and sinks its teeth into his calf, shaking him from head to toe.
This is St. Roch’s, named for the Christian patron of pestilential illness, the falsely imprisoned, and dog trainers. The real Rocco was born in Montpellier, contracted plague in Rome, retreated to a sylvan cave where a dog licked his wounds and brought him bread, and finally died in a French prison in 1327. But the man who lives here, Francis Metcalf, is alive and well and has a 65-pound Belgian Malinois attached to the leg of his padded Bluto suit.
Metcalf, along with his wife, Norma, created Friends of the Family – a dog club modeled after traditional French and Belgian dog training guilds. They fashioned St. Roch’s as their headquarters, built from one part antique canine memorabilia, one part Westminster-Dog-Show-style paraphernalia, and three parts European pub.
“In the United States, dog trainers follow a doctor’s office model,” Metcalf says. St. Roch’s – which includes gardens, dog runs, an agility course, a chicken coop, sculptures, and a small fountain – is his remedy the problem-focused and service-based approach.
“I wanted to created a community center, a resource hub,” Metcalf says of the property. “In France, there are no professional dog trainers. It’s just part of the culture.”
Indeed, France is where Metcalf learned many of his tricks. He is steeped in the art of French and Belgian ring sport, or mondioring, which grew from training techniques of the 19th century – a time when dogs were still widely used for work and protection. Mondioring tests a dog’s obedience and agility. At the highest level, it involves protection and attack drills, where handlers teach dogs to guard, bite, and release on verbal command.
Though Metcalf is a pioneering competitor and has won several international titles, he believes in the value of mondioring as a foundation for a broader relationship with dogs – one that seamlessly blends work, sport, and simply good company.
After working with French ring-sport greats like Dan Maison (a ‘68er who told him “Americans know nothing. They think dog training is like Vietman), Metcalf dreamt of emulating European clubs he says grew “organically.” Where playgrounds for children and women cooking dinner accompany the “young bucks running around with the dogs,” Metcalf explains, competition and expertise yield to a sense of camaraderie.
“With dog sports in America, it’s intense and hard and you have to be completely dedicated. I wanted to change that – to take care of myself and other people, and the dogs, too.” And for that, Metcalf says he needed to build himself “a temple, a castle.”
Some of St. Roch’s guests are less than polite about the building’s fine furnishings. Logan, a 155-pound giant Alaskan malamute, can’t stop slobbering on the bearskin rug. But that’s all right with Metcalf, because he and Logan’s owners, Angie and Maggie Kim, are schooling him for the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen test, and – luckily – drooling is allowed.
In a private training session, Metcalf runs Logan through a battery of exercises, from rolling over to wearing a muzzle to staying put while his owners disappear. Most of the exercises involve repetitive drills followed by treats doled out from the hotdog holster Metcalf keeps buckled around his waist.
Metcalf is serious, but that doesn’t mean his methods have to be. He alternates balancing a muzzle on Logan’s snout with offering him a big red Dubé juggling ball –with which Metcalf has some skills of his own. Logan is learning to balance the ball at the same time as the muzzle, which associates muzzling (an activity that can cause dogs the feeling of extreme helplessness) with a fun game – and provides his owners an opportunity to show him off.
Whether it’s training dogs for the Alameda police department’s K-9 unit or teaching a blind Akita to play the piano, Metcalf believes training and tricks are all part-and-parcel of a dog’s public relations strategy. For some dogs, PR management is a necessity (“It’s because he’s so big, and we’re so small,” says petite Maggie Kim), but it can enrich any animal relationship.
“People would never believe what their dogs are capable of,” Metcalf says. “But it’s worth finding out.”
Clients like Bill Smoot agree. He and his shepherd-mix, Athena, have been training in mondioring with Metcalf for nearly a year, though Smoot doesn’t intend to ever compete.
“She’s just really smart,” he says of Athena, “so we thought we should educate her. It was either this or ballet lessons.”
Metcalf, dressed in the $1,500 silk and linen costume d’attaque that bulks him up to super hero-sized proportions, plays the part of the decoy – the “bad guy” whom dogs are trained to attack. On Smoot’s command, Athena lunges at Metcalf, growling as Metcalf goads her on.
Though the display is a fearsome one, Metcalf points out that, to Athena, it’s all in good fun.
“Decoying is all about losing to the dog, making the dog feel confident. When you’re playing the decoy, you’re like a walking tennis ball. Protection work taps into the core of who a dog is as a creature. I’m interested in honoring that,” Metcalf says.
He adds that “ring sport is called ring sport for the same reason you refer to a circus ring: it’s a place to show your skills.”
To that end, Metcalf plays his part well. With muttonchops, rosy cheeks, and a handlebar mustache, he’s the very image of a clown. Barrels, chairs, extra people and even pet chickens become all the props he needs to put dogs through their paces. He says his impromptu style is guided by a sense of the animals need in each moment and – more importantly – a love for what he does.
Metcalf is in the process of opening St. Roch’s to more easily foster that love and understanding in others. By creating additional classes and group sessions in everything from mondioring to circus arts, he hopes to make his pad a place where anyone, from amateurs to professionals, can have a (preferably Belgian) beer and see the dogs.
“The root of the word ‘amateur,’” he notes, “isn’t based on money or status. It’s based on love.”
For Metcalf, training is not just about good behavior. Whether it’s a dog, a chicken, or a fish (and Francis has trained them all), the goal is to reawaken people’s ability to dream, and to imagine what animals may be capable of.
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