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Meet Hillary Aiges of The Speckled Hearts Project

Today we’d like to introduce you to Hillary Aiges.

Hi Hillary, please kick things off for us with an introduction to yourself and your story.
My story is a long and colorful tapestry. I was a professional ballerina in New York City from age 8-25. I then tried to find my way into something else that would inspire me and ended up as an agent for artists and founded a boutique marketing agency in Soho. I did that for a long time but at some point, I found a dog on a chain in a parking lot and everything changed. I dove into rescue in the years that followed. Every lost dog on highways and byways found me. I was a single mom and suddenly found myself with a pack of four dogs, plus my two kids and my business. It was a crazy time!

The kids finished college and I was ready for a new place to hang my hat and made my way to Austin. I volunteered with a prominent shelter and after some time, I’d accumulated over 5000 hours of time working with difficult shelter dogs. I started pulling the longest stay dogs out of the shelter as a foster. Some of these dogs had been there over four years and yet, I was able to place them in their forever homes within two weeks. So I just kept going. One dog after another. My home was a revolving door for forgotten shelter dogs. Eventually, I was asked to build an advocacy program for the shelter, and I enlisted the volunteers and taught them how to be effective advocates. I taught each person how to do social media, how to create bios, how to speak to adopters and before long, we’d moved 500 dogs out of the shelter.

My life took a turn when I took in one of the more difficult dogs in the shelter. I fell in love and after fostering him for two years, and eventually adopted him. It was based on my experience with him that I discovered how hard it is for pet parents to get help, both financially and people who were truly able to help them. It was because of this experience that I founded The Speckled Hearts Project. It is a program that offers scholarships to dogs who have extreme behavior challenges. Everything is free, including private swim and agility lessons, equipment, supplements and of course, training plans. The program is entirely virtual and has had applicants from all over the country and even Australia! It has a 100% success rate and is the only program of its kind. The only criteria is that the dog is super naughty, and the owners/fosters are deeply devoted.

I’ve just opened the program up to shelter dogs. After all, that’s at the center of my heart. The program is entirely force-free and looks to the dog to lead the direction of the work. So far, dogs that had been chalked up as hopeless are thriving. So it’s very important for people who love their canine companions and don’t know where to turn.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
I don’t even know what a smooth road is! Anything that you feel passionately about is going to be full of challenges. Even if it’s just the questions, you ask yourself. Starting a business is full of worry. For me, I wondered if anyone would believe in or understand what I was trying to do. But as the saying goes, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ And they did. Because we love our animals…they are family. And social media is super confusing when you don’t know what you’re looking for. And my program is entirely based on crowd-sourced fundraising. What was totally unexpected was how much people immediately began to contribute. In the end, they wanted every animal to succeed. People want to experience hope and joy, and this was something they could believe in.

In my heart, I KNEW this was a critically important project. It’s only after the steps of putting one foot in front of the other and looking back a little that I see it growing and evolving. So whatever the struggles were, it was worth it.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know?
My business is more of a scholarship program. I specialize in helping forgotten and misunderstood dogs and their owners, fosters and advocates. It came to me in a dream after losing my dog. I wanted to honor his life because he was the most challenging dog I’d ever known. So I wanted to pay it forward and help other people who didn’t know where to turn to get help from someone who really understands the nuances of living with a super difficult pet. I have spent years building my professional career, but this work has been extremely creative, respecting and honoring each human-canine team and meeting them exactly where they are.

Some of the dogs in this program were recommended for euthanasia. Their families said no. Now, they are showing everyone how extraordinary they are and it is the single greatest accomplishment I’ve had. It’s the first program of its kind and has a 100% success rate. So yes, I’m proud. Very proud.

How do you think about happiness?
I am at my happiest when I’m spending time with a dog that needs someone to see beyond what people think they are. I love pulling a dog that’s fallen between the cracks and pulling them out and into their best life. I also love to travel, go antiquing and spend any kind of time in nature. But saving lives, there’s really nothing better than that.

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