No Time To Pause For Little Paws Playhouse

By Molly Rosbach Yakima Herald-Republic, Wash.

When Debbie Seaward-Raney first opened her own doggie day care in 2002, no one believed she would succeed.

Even several years into the business, when it was growing steadily as the pet-pampering trend took off, people remained skeptical.

Another business owner, upon inquiring about her line of work, laughed when she told him about Little Paws Playhouse. He said, 'Don't quit your day job,'" Seaward-Raney remembers.

But she's the one laughing now, as Little Paws is expanding to include Little Paws K9 Academy, with a new building to house an array of dog-training services.

"It's been a very good business for me," said Seaward-Raney, who was in middle management at a large manufacturing company before she took the leap into entrepreneurship.

Seaward-Raney started Little Paws in a "tiny little building" that she leased on 49th Avenue and Tieton Drive, then expanded in 2006, buying a larger building on Gordon Road off North First Street.

There, Little Paws went beyond doggie day care -- which lets owners drop off their pets during the day and know they'll be entertained -- by adding overnight boarding, as well as grooming and cat boarding.

Dog training was her next logical move. She paid for two of her employees to complete an online program at $4,000 a pop, and now has a third going through the program who will get her certification this fall.

"Big investment, but I think the payoff will really be wonderful," she said. "They have learned so much and they're so fantastic with the dogs and the customers."

The new facility will allow Little Paws to do "boarder training," where the dogs stay for a night or week at a time depending on what kind of training their owners want for them. The business will also offer puppy classes, basic training classes, some specialty courses, and the "Canine Good Citizen" class, which provides a certification that can help dog owners take dogs into more social situations.

Other entrepreneurs are riding the pet-business wave, too. Elsewhere in the Yakima Valley, Acme Canine Center in Union Gap offers training, including leadership, obedience and agility classes, as well as the K9 Good Citizen course. Acme provides doggie day care, too. K9 Country Club, Pomona Pet Services and Barnyard Barking all offer day care as well as overnight boarding.

Little Paws, as the pioneer, has gone from 20 to 30-some dogs at a time for day care. The Gordon Road location also has 24 overnight boarding kennels and 10 "cat condos" for overnight boarding.

Business is booming because people really love their pets, she says.

"From what I understand, the pet industry is the fastest-growing industry out there," she said. "Everybody that brings their dog in loves their dog. Dogs are their kids. It's definitely that type of person we have as a client."

But her journey has not been without challenges.

In the beginning, she struggled to get a bank to finance her idea, back before pet pampering had reached the point of elaborate doggie funerals and an airline exclusively for pets and their owners.

In the day-to-day work, which included learning everything about running a business as she went, Seaward-Raney says her biggest challenge has been taking things too personally.

"Everything falls on my shoulders and I am a soft-hearted person, so I carry that, probably more than you should when you have a business," she said. "If a dog gets hurt, or we get kennel cough and the dogs are sick, that weighs on me very heavily."

In its success, Little Paws has beaten the odds: An estimated 80 percent of all businesses fail within the first few years, says strategic management Prof. Bill Provaznik at Central Washington University.

"Most of the time, people have an idea, and they think it's different, but it's not really that different from other things we already have," Provaznik explained. "They have a hard time attracting customers or getting their attention to make people stop doing what they're doing now and start taking the product or service they're offering. ... Some people say that to make a person change their behavior, you have to offer 10 times more value than whatever they're doing now."

And there are still hurdles for women in business.

In his experience with small businesses, Provaznik said, unfortunately, people tend to associate the word "entrepreneur" with men, and that unconscious bias means women have an extra step to overcome to prove they're capable.

But Seaward-Raney isn't slowing down. She's excited to offer the dog-training programs and hopes to grow fast enough to send a fourth trainer to school for certification.

"If we can grow out of this space in a couple years, that would be fantastic," she said. "I'm always wanting to keep growing."

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