March 23, 2008 — One thing Debbie Dunham has learned in the past 21 years is that it's not the dogs who need training — it's the owners.
And another thing: "You have to know how to speak to the dogs," she says. "And you have to know how to listen."
Dunham is a determined young woman with a ready smile and contagious energy. Caring for dogs, puppies, canines of any stripe comes as naturally to her as breathing.
She is candid about her skills. "I love what I do," she says. "When you're really good at something, you know that's what you're supposed to be doing. I was born with this knowledge, and after 21 years, I must be right."
And she has learned how to judge their owners, a skill learned through experience. "You have to look at the owners and determine what they will do for upkeep," she says. "Lots of people just have a dog, but they don't know what grooming entails. It's more than just trimming, cutting nails, cleaning ears. We have a doggie spa day."
"When the dogs leave after a groom," she says, "it's not just what they look like when they go out the door, it's what they'll look like in a month or two. It's an art."
For all of that, Dunham didn't come to her calling right out of the starting gate. "I was going to school in St. Petersburg, Florida, studying electrical engineering and computer science," she says, "but I decided it was too cold. I needed to move farther south. So my mom and her boyfriend and I moved here in 1985, where my brother Dean was living. I'd really wanted to move to Hawaii, but I had my cat and it was a 90-day quarantine, so I moved here for a cat."
The saga continues: "Dean had a Rottweiler pup and I knew he would need a trainer," Dunham says, "so I called Elroy Moorhead at LEM Kennels. I told him I couldn't pay for the training, and asked if I could do kennel work instead."
That ambitious bit of serendipity led Dunham to her calling. "I owe everything to Elroy," she says. "He is one of the smartest dog trainers I know. People say girls can't train dogs, but Elroy taught me and I also read a lot, so I have lots of knowledge.
"I worked for Elroy in the morning, and for Phyllis Pruden's shop in the afternoon," Dunham says, "where she taught me grooming." Eventually, Moorhead moved to St. Croix. Then, after about seven years, Pruden became ill and had to move off-island, and Dunham bought her business.
She offers full grooming as well as training. "I'm booked six to eight weeks in advance for grooming, and new clients are hard to get in," she says. "I give gift certificates to the Humane Society, so I have to work them in somehow."
She conducts eight-week training classes in Charlotte Amalie at Vendors Plaza at 7 p.m. Mondays, after the area is closed. She will take about eight dogs ranging from Mary Gleason's five-pound poodle to Courtney and Ron Gabrielson's 80-pound Rottweiller. "It's a family thing," Dunham says. "Kids come too, everybody learns. The owners have to do the work — I'm here to assist.
"We have all sorts of dogs, including pit bulls," she says. "They get a bad rap, but they are very smart. All dogs have teeth, and all dogs can bite. It's what the human does. I'm here to spread knowledge of how to better care for your dogs. It's a trust thing. It's all about how you pass energy off to them."
She loves her Savan shop. "I moved here from Havensight," she says. "My neighbors are wonderful, and it's cool and comfortable." Her three dogs — Murphy, an American bull dog, Jewel, a beagle, and Justice, a pit bull — keep her busy after hours.
She has just one employee, Nathan Williams. "He's great," Dunham says. "He's from here and he's in love with the idea of caring for the dogs. It's got to be in your heart, and he has a good heart."
As she talks, Dunham keeps coming back to what she feels is her mission on this planet. "They call me Debbie the Dog Lady," she says. "I love it. After 21 years, I think it's a pretty cool title."
Her next training class will start after Carnival. Dunham's phone is 774-1981. Email email@example.com.
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.