Circus has gone to the dogs (and they're a hit!)

Sofia flies through a hoop during a performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

Sofia flies through a hoop during a performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

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Most people go to the circus to see the clowns, the trapeze artists or the exotic animals.

But how many people go to the circus to see the dogs?

When Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey come to the Knoxville Civic Coliseum Feb. 21-24, animal trainer and performer Cathy Carden promises that the dogs will steal the show.

The dogs that audiences will see perform have a far more interesting story than your normal house pup: Most of the dogs Carden integrates into her act have been rescued from shelters.

Consider the star of the dog act, Sophia. No one knows exactly what type of breed she is. Carden believes Sophia is some type of labradoodle mix. However, the dog's breed didn't matter as much to Carden as the face Sophia had been on death row.

Trainer Cathy Carden jumps rope with one of her canine pals.

Trainer Cathy Carden jumps rope with one of her canine pals.

"When I found her she had just been taken off death row and moved to the care center," said Carden. "We connected instantly."

Soon Sophia was becoming the center of the entire dog act.

"Sophia does everything; she's the star. She can learn new stuff in a matter of minutes," said Carden. "She's too smart. I have to remember that she can't do everything."

Carden has 14 dogs total, 10 of which perform while the rest are still in training. Training is a tedious process: The dogs have to become familiar with each other before they can perform together.

The trainer first familiarizes the dogs with each other by taking them on a leash by the other dogs' pens and letting them see each other on a regular basis. Then, the dogs begin to learn how to perform. They start by learning how to sit on a seat next to the other dogs and how to do smaller jumps, then they build from there.

The dogs always respond perfectly, said Carden.

"I've never had a dog that didn't adjust well," she says. "I think because dogs, especially ones from the shelter, they appreciate the attention because they've never had that attention."

Carden began training dogs to perform as a hobby when she became pregnant with her first child in the winter of 2008. The dogs began performing in the summer of 2009 and were an instant hit.

"I have 3 horses, 2 Shetland ponies, 3 elephants, 14 dogs, two kids and a husband," says Carden. "But the dogs steal the show because everyone can relate (and) because most people who have a dog love their dog."

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