We’re excited to introduce you to the always interesting and insightful Debbie Spence. We hope you’ll enjoy our conversation with Debbie below.
Debbie, thanks for joining us, excited to have you contributing your stories and insights. Can you share a customer success story with us?
Although I already had a full-time job I loved, I started my dog agility business simply to help some friends get involved in the sport. Now, just over 25 years later, I’m still teaching agility and love it as much, if not more, as I did then.
Great, appreciate you sharing that with us. Before we ask you to share more of your insights, can you take a moment to introduce yourself and how you got to where you are today to our readers
I found out about dog agility in the late 80’s and started agility training in 1989. Dog agility had only been around since 1985, and little was known about how to train our dogs to perform the various obstacles. My first agility dog – a Border Collie – was taught obedience using aversive methods (I didn’t know any better and just did what I was told by my instructors), so she wasn’t too keen on agility because we didn’t have a strong, positive relationship on which to build the trust that’s needed for dog agility.
Despite her not liking agility, and despite making an almost-one-hour trip to train once a week in the Dallas area, I persevered. My second dog – a rescue Border Collie who was 7 years old when I got him – loved doing agility with me. He wasn’t particularly fast, and he didn’t want to work away from me. We had a strong bond, though, and that made doing agility fun with him.
Along came my third Border Collie, a wild & crazy boy. He wasn’t in training yet, and I was still driving almost an hour to train every Sunday afternoon. A group of mostly obedience friends were interested in trying agility, so I encouraged them to sign up for a class where I was training. Unfortunately, the club then found a permanent place to train and moved their classes to weeknights instead of Sunday afternoons. None of my friends would be able to make it, nor would I.
I decided to offer to teach two Saturday classes at the new training facility, and my friends signed up. At the conclusion of the session, they all wanted to keep doing agility, but none of them wanted to make that long drive. They encouraged me to find someplace closer to home and set up my own training. And that’s what I did.
My first training site in Keller was found by putting an ad in the local paper explaining what I needed and what I was willing to pay. I found something perfect almost immediately. I had to finish putting up some fencing, purchased a shed to keep things in, rented a port-a-potty, and I got started. All my agility obstacles except tunnels were homemade, but they worked just fine.
PAWSitive Agility Working School (PAWS) was started in November 1996, and I started teaching weekend classes. Word spread, and my phone started ringing off the hook.
As I neared the end of my first year, the owner of the property announced he was going to sell it, so I had to find another place to move to. Unfortunately, that place was in someone’s backyard (again found through an ad in the local newspaper), and things didn’t go so well there. I immediately started looking for yet another location, and I was able to move my training in less than a year to property behind the Masonic Lodge in Keller. I had to apply for a Special Use Permit because I needed a port-a-potty, and that means going before the Planning & Zoning Committee and then City Council. Although P&Z was against me, City Council approved my request for the SUP. All went well for the first two years, after which I had to apply for another SUP. It was granted, but it was suggested that they couldn’t approve it a third time, so I needed to find another location for my agility school.
During this time, I went from teaching weekend classes to weeknight classes, as this allowed me to travel on weekends to agility trials. I also added a couple instructors to help me. We’d split the class in two, work our group for half a class, and then switch groups. That way everyone in class had a chance to work on all the equipment and with both instructors.
As we neared the end of our 4 years behind the Masonic Lodge, my husband & I started looking for homes with property and moved in January 2002 to a mobile home on five acres in New Fairview/Rhome. Shortly before that move, I quit my full-time job as an executive assistant and started teaching agility full-time. It took six months to get the property ready for me to commence teaching, as we had to have fencing put up, as well as lights. In July 2002 we had a grand opening celebration, and things have continued to progress ever since. I did lose a few students who didn’t feel they could make the drive to New Fairview, but referrals continued to come in.
In November 2021, PAWS celebrated its 25th anniversary with an agility trial. Even some of my former students came to help celebrate with me. As I’ve always done, I continue to teach every single agility class held at PAWS. I have 5 agility instructors who help me, and I have 2 other instructors, one who teaches basic obedience and one who teaches puppy agility for pups less than a year old. My classes are full, and my business continues to come from referrals and people finding me via Google and Facebook. When COVID first hit, my class attendance dropped just a bit but, because we train outdoors, it was just a matter of a couple months before most everyone returned to training. I refer to my students as “agility addicts” because they truly love coming to class and hate it when we have to cancel due to weather.
After 25 years of teaching agility, I can say that I love it just as much now as I did then. . .possibly even more. That’s because agility is an ever-changing sport, and I love learning and teaching the new things that come along if I believe they will enhance the relationship between the owner & dog.
At age 66, I’m still competing with 3 dogs – 2 Border Collies and a Sheltie. I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life.
We’d love to hear about how you keep in touch with clients.
Almost all my new business inquiries come from referrals or internet or Facebook searches for dog agility. The inquiries usually come in the form of an e-mail or phone call. My preferred means of communication is via e-mail. I will return phone calls, but I found in the past that phone calls take an exorbitant amount of my time because “dog people” like to talk and talk and talk (and I’m no different). I can provide the needed information more succinctly in an e-mail, and I respond to each & every e-mail personally. I don’t send a “stock” e-mail.
In my years before starting PAWS, I was in customer service and took classes on how to provide the best customer service possible. I feel that experience has helped me in communicating with my customers. I believe they can “feel” my interest and desire to help from my e-mail communication with them. If I feel I’m unable to provide what they need, I’m happy to refer them elsewhere.
Once the potential customer comes to either their first class or an evaluation with me, I feel confident they’ll love training at PAWS. I encourage questions, and I encourage my customers to e-mail or text me if they have questions or concerns outside of class. I make myself completely accessible to my customers, and they appreciate that.
I currently have customers who travel a long distance to train at PAWS even though they have other, closer options. I’m located a little over 30 miles northwest of Fort Worth, but I have customers who come to PAWS for weekly classes from south Fort Worth, Mansfield, Arlington, Burleson, Weatherford, Azle, Denton, Aubrey, Dallas, Wichita Falls, and other areas around the metroplex. Several have trained with me for over 20 years, including most of my instructors. I support my customers, and they in turn support me. It’s a win-win situation.
Any fun sales or marketing stories?
I was competing at an agility trial. Because I always stay till the end to watch my students who aren’t yet at the level I’m at, the facility was pretty empty. A woman came over and asked me if I’d record her run on her phone. I was surprised at her poor handling, but I’m not one to approach anyone and tell them they should come train with me. In fact, I’d just told a friend that I’d never done such a thing.
When I finished recording this woman, I found I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I asked her where she trained and gave her my business card in case she might want to drive to my place (with was about 90 minutes away from where she lived) for a private lesson. I didn’t hear from her, but I saw her every now and then at trials, and I’m guessing she watched me run my dogs. Her handling was still quite bad. Finally, at the end of one trial, she came over to me and asked for another business card. She’d decided she wanted to come take a lesson. That one lesson turned into classes with not just one but two dogs. . .and then a third dog.
- Website: http://www.pawsagility.com/
- Facebook: PAWSitive Agility Working School