September 21, 2009 11:45 AM

Chicken-catching country singer Kevin Skinner may have captured the top prize on America’s Got Talent Wednesday night, but it was dog trainer Pam Martin who captured our hearts. The 54-year-old from Garland, Texas, is known for her work with small-breed dogs, and competed with her terrier-border collie mix Viva this season. Though she was eliminated on August 26, Martin tells PEOPLE Pets she’s “looking forward to the future. This experience is definitely going to make me a better person – and a better dog trainer.”

Like many contestants before her, Martin was encouraged to audition for America’s Got Talent by friends. “Everybody loves dogs, so my family and friends really wanted me to try out,” she says. She went to the Houston, Texas, auditions – “It was huge!” she says with a laugh – and the rest is history. “When they told me I was going to Las Vegas, I couldn’t believe it,” Martin shares. “It took a day or two to sink in.”

Throughout the process, Martin kept to herself. “I didn’t know if I would do well or not, so I didn’t want to reveal too much to family and friends,” she shares. But when she took to the stage with Viva, she won tons of adoring fans. “The crowd tells you immediately if they like you, and I was very fortunate to have a good response from both the judges and the crowd.”

Martin reports that neither she nor Viva suffered from any kind of stage fright. “I thought my dog would have problems with the lights and the crowd, but she did well. We do other performances together, and I think those prepared her for this type of thing.” Her pooch traveled well, too, “so that part was exciting for us,” Martin shares.

Since leaving the show, Martin has been touched by the support from AGT fans. “I’ve gotten fan mail, signed autographs,” she shares. “I’ve had a lot of friends tell me they had viewing parties while I was gone, which I didn’t even realize. It’s been very touching.” She hopes that her experience on the show will bring her more exposure – and allow her to keep doing what she loves. “My dogs like being in the spotlight, and most importantly, they love being with me,” she says. “I’m just grateful to America’s Got Talent for allowing me to share that passion.”

Meet more Hollywood dogs on PEOPLE Pets:
America’s Got Talent’s Tony Hoard Ready for ‘New Adventure’ with Dog Rory
Mischa Barton: My Dogs Keep Me Grounded

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