East Hillside dog groomer remains open in rough economy

Behind the glass windows of Designer Dogs, amongst the sound of the electric hair clippers and the constantly ringing phone for appointments, a graceful woman with short blond hair and an embracing smile is busy grooming a white Havanese puppy. After giving the Havanese puppy a haircut and a bath, she puts a green hair bow on its head. She then places the puppy in a dog crate in one corner of the room and focuses her attention on cutting the nails of a white Maltese dog.

Despite having arthritis in her hands and her back, Debra Skowlund, the owner of Designer Dogs, keeps working.

“What else am I gonna do,” Skowlund said. “I am too young to retire and I still need to have an income.”

Grooming dogs is not a new venture for Skowlund, who has been in this business for over 29 years.

“It has been a dream job for me because it is something I like to do every day,” Skowlund said.

Debra Skowlund

Skowlund enjoys her work because she thinks that pet grooming is a real service to animals.

“It is always fulfilling to take a dog that has been neglected and make it healthy and beautiful,” Skowlund said.

A true dog lover, Skowlund is a member of the American Kennel Club and Irish Setter Club of America. She also serves as the Secretary for Twin Ports Dog Training Club.

She has participated in the American Kennel Club Dog Show multiple times and won several categories such as obedience, rally, and tracking.

Skowlund has also done obedience training for show dogs and dogs in animal foster care.

A native of Superior, Wis., Skowlund went to the University of Wisconsin, Superior (UWS) for a degree in Psychology.

“I took all the major Psychology courses the program had to offer,” Skowlund said.

But after attending UWS for two years, Skowlund did not continue her education and went to work full-time.

Skowlund worked as an office assistant at a publications company in Duluth. It was the last office job she quit before she had a baby boy.

“My child was starting kindergarten so I needed flexible hours and weekends to take care of my family,” Skowlund said. “It was hard because very few employers understand that.”

Then in 1983, Skowlund opened Designer Dogs with her business partner Vicky Fulda.

Despite the fact that the economy has struggled for the last few years, Skowlund’s business hasn’t been affected.

“Our clients still need our services,” Skowlund said. “That doesn’t change with the economy because the dogs still need to be groomed.”

It is a challenge to run a small business in Duluth for about three decades. Skowlund said that running a small business is always a challenge, in this economy and in the previous ones.

“The prices have to be kept reasonable but at the same time, being able to pay my own bills is a challenge,” Skowlund said.

Skowlund said that those who are interested in opening small businesses should talk to people that are already in the same business.

“Make sure there is a market and there is a need,” Skowlund said. “If you are providing a service that’s not needed, you are not going to be busy.”

Skowlund said that it is encouraging that people appreciate her job.

“The ones that appreciate it the most are the people who try to do our work at home,” Skowlund said. “Once they have tried our job at home, they become our best customers.”

Dhara Love, a student at Cosmetology Careers Unlimited, is the owner of a 10-month-old Pomeranian named Kirby. Love brought Kirby to Designer Dogs for his first grooming session.

“Kirby was scared but Deb was not rough with him,” Love said. “She handled him very sweetly.”

“Sometimes, it is tough for four women to work in a small place under the same roof,” said Deborah Livengood, one of the three other female employees at Designer Dogs.

“But at the end of the day, it is all right,” Livengood said.

Skowlund’s work has taken her to Canada and more than 20 U.S. states.

Despite traveling all over the country, Skowlund never thought of leaving the Twin Ports region and settling somewhere else.

“This is home,” Skowlund said. “This is where my family and friends live.”

Skowlund proudly owns an Irish Setter named Reddy. Irish setters are Skowlund’s favorite dog breed and she has always kept this breed.

In addition, Skowlund keeps a small black dog named Frego in the shop. Frego runs around the place wiggling its tail in a friendly manner.

Currently, Skowlund is preparing Reddy for the 2012 American Kennel Club Dog Show which will be held on July 13 at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

And for the foreseeable future, Skowlund plans to “just keep on grooming dogs.”

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