The Little Guild: Saving Animals, One Life at a Time

By Richard Schlesinger | info@mainstreetmag.com

At the beginning of 2017, Justin Vagliano’s varied career took a surprising turn. He had known about The Little Guild in West Cornwall, CT, for years through his wife, Dr. Katie Vagliano, a vet at Millerton Veterinary Practice. And when he heard about their search for a new Executive Director, he decided to put his experience as a businessman and entrepreneur to work to solidify the foundation of the venerable animal shelter and begin charting its new future.

Justin recently sat down with award-winning CBS News Correspondent Richard Schlesinger, an animal enthusiast and member of The Little Guild’s Advisory Council, to discuss the state of the organization today and hear about some recent developments.

Richard: The Little Guild is a very well-known and very popular or-ganization in our area. How many dogs and cats on average do you have in the shelter?

Justin: It varies really at any given time. We have space for 25 cats and 16 dogs, and we keep an open dog run for the Town of Cornwall Animal Control.

There is no average length of stay, right? You have some that stay for a long time here.

We have some that get adopted in a matter of days or weeks. I would say our target is to get animals into a home within a month. Our longest resident right now is a great dog named Zeke, who’s been here for over a year and a half. He’s been working with our new trainer and is one of our best examples of the socialization work that we can do with animals to desensitize them. We expect he will be adopted soon.

Where do you get most of your animals?

We get them from a mix of places – from Animal Control offices, from owner surrenders – which can happen for a whole variety of reasons. People also find stray cats and dogs and bring them to us. Then, if we have space available, we will sometimes bring dogs from out-of-state, usually from down South where there is a significant need for help.

I think a lot of people think that there are a lot of sad stories in shelters, but it’s a happy place on balance.

It sure is.

What is it like when you have a dog who’s been there for longer than you think he or she should be finally goes home. What is that day like?

It really is special. Everyone at The Guild can get very emotional about that. Everybody who’s involved at The Guild and who touches these animals really develops a bond with them, and they want to see them succeed. When that day comes, it is very emotional and there are many times where tears of joy are shed to see that this animal now has a chance at what we call a forever home.

Talk to me about Linus, who as we sit here now is your latest success story.

Linus came to us about three months ago, surrendered by a family. The backstory was a little unclear, but he came to us emaciated, fully malnour-ished, suffering from seizures, and couldn’t walk. Some of the family decided to bring Linus to us, which is a very positive part of the story. Somebody made the decision to get help. When he arrived, he had to be carried just from the back of their car into The Little Guild van.

He couldn’t make it on his own?

No. We wrapped him in blankets and brought him to one of the great local vets we use when we need extra care. He was given some medicine for the seizures, and IV fl uids. Really what he needed was nutrition. We quickly identified a terrific foster home, where he further rebounded and started to thrive. He’s now in a forever home and will be a terrific companion.

To watch a dog go from I guess near death, emaciated, couldn’t walk, to where he’s ready to go home to some lucky adopter, that has to make your day worthwhile, to put it lightly.

It sure does. We have a number of amazing stories, and those success sto-ries really do make it so gratifying. It’s what carries me, the rest of the staff, the volunteers, through some of the harder cases. They’re doing it for the welfare of these animals, also knowing that there’s a positive impact on the families that they’ll end up with.

What do you do to help animals with problems become more adoptable?

It depends on the problems. There can be medical problems that we can take care of. We now have an in-house vet at the shelter, Dr. Ferris Gorra, who comes once a week and cares for all the animals in The Guild. If it’s more behavioral or socialization train-ing, then we do a number of things.

A couple of hours out of everybody’s day is spent either walking or playing with a purpose, with some specific training mixed in to those times; sit, stay, come, gentle handling of food, gentle handling of toys, those types of things with the dogs. With the cats it’s also socialization – getting the cats out of their cages and with other cats or people. Just that time outside of the cages makes a huge difference. We also work on crate training and are big believers in slow introductions for these animals into new homes, and a crate is a great tool for the dogs.

And we have a great dog trainer named Shelly Cote who comes regu-larly to train the staff and volunteers on how to work with the dogs. Sometimes we do controlled socializa-tion with other dogs, putting them in situations that they might not be comfortable with and using tech-niques to help them get comfortable in those situations. Shelly also now runs dog-walking classes for volun-teers, which has been a big success.

Has Shelly worked with dogs and gotten them to a position where they can be adopted?

Yes, absolutely, and she even makes the commitment beyond that. She can be available for consultation by phone to adopters to give them guidance when they might need some extra answers.

You’re still available for people after adopting if they have problems with their animals?

We are, we’ve made a big effort on that front. Sometimes adopters might not feel comfortable calling us with questions, but when we proactively reach out to them, we’ve found that that’s been a big help to them, and to the animals because it helps keep them in the homes. Sometimes there are things that we can suggest that simply make the animals more comfortable, too.

I think another misperception of a shelter is that you just take in these animals, hold them there until somebody happens by, adopt them out, and then move on to the next one. You’re involved in this process deeply.

We sure are, and I think it’s something that makes The Little Guild special in the world of shelters. A number of rescues and shelters are fully foster-based – and there are positives to that, they’re in homes – but they don’t have a dedicated facility where they can run focused programs for the animals. We believe in that rehabilitation.

You mentioned that you have some socialization for cats, do you work with them daily?

We do. About two-thirds of our adoptions are cats. We have a schedule where the cats get out on a rotation so that they can socialize with other cats. Some cats by nature are more inde-pendent animals, certainly than dogs. But they still need exposure to other animals. We have three different cat rooms, and in each cat room each cat has its own cage and then we let them out on a schedule everyday. The staff and volunteers also spend dedicated time hanging out, playing with them, giving them human exposure.

Do they respond to that?

They do, yes. They can become overly withdrawn without socialization. Making sure that they have that expo-sure to both people and other animals is very positive. You can really see the results with that work and it makes a difference when they go home.

I know that there are a lot of feral cats, at least in the Cornwall area, and I assume in the surrounding towns.

Almost everywhere, really.

That must be a challenge for you because they reproduce quickly.

Yes, feral cats are wild cats and the vast majority have not been spayed or neutered, so we’re starting this year to re-establish a TNR program (Trap, Neuter, and Release) where we take the animals in, get them fixed, and return them to their natural environment. Then we also want to re-establish a program where we create habitats for them. We’re not trying to bring all of them into homes, because most of them don’t want that. But there are some things that we can do to improve their lives, especially in the winter, and to help control the population.

Let’s talk about your community outreach to different organizations because I know that one of the great things about animals is that when people help them, the animals get help and the people get help. People are better for it I think – I know that’s the case in our home.

Sure. We’ve had a relationship with the Susan B. Anthony Project, based in Torrington, CT, which helps survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, and we’re just starting a similar one with Women’s Support Services which serves our neighboring region. We offer short-term boarding for the cats and dogs of the people in their care. Some people will put off getting help for themselves because they don’t know what to do with their animals.

It can literally save lives.

There’s documented data that shows there’s a link between abuse of animals and abuse of people, and vice-versa. The more we can help in that process, both to help the person get help and the animal to be safe, is a huge positive.

You take care of the animal so that the person can take care of them-selves for a while.

Yes, and there are other organizations. We’d like to do the same when people are looking to get help with substance abuse. There are some great programs for that care, but again, people some-times won’t get help for themselves because they’re not sure what to do with their animals while in treatment.

Lest anybody reading this doubt the strength of the bond between humans and animals, I covered several hurricanes in my career and met people who were staring down the eye of a hurricane and would not go to a shelter because, at the time, shelters wouldn’t allow dogs and cats. They would ride out huge hurricanes in beach houses be-cause they were concerned for their animals.

Amazing.

People would be wrong to under-estimate the bond between humans and animal.

No doubt about it, yes.

You mentioned the Susan B. Anthony project, you mentioned Women’s Support Services. Are there other organizations you’re looking to become involved with?

I’d really like to put something together with a substance abuse program. And Shelly Cote has her own organization called Mutts Mending Military, which is another program that we are developing a relationship with. Shelly trains dogs to be Emotional Support Animals and sometimes PTSD Service Dogs. She is working with very committed owners and we’re helping to find a good match with animals that can support them. This helps us too, because some of our dogs need the extra attention that, say, a working couple simply cannot give. So, these placements can be hugely beneficial for both sides. Those I would say are the main ones that we’re looking at right now.

It’s such a great idea that you can help the animals and you can help the people at the same time. It’s sort of a win-win for mammals.

Absolutely. One of the other things that we have done for a few years is something we call the Pittie Party. We might be able to expand it this year depending on the amount of funding that we can get. We offer free vaccines and a quick exam with a veterinarian for every animal that comes to us. There’s zero cost to the owners.

You need volunteers?

Always! We survive on volunteers really. We have a staff of full-time and part-time employees, and we rely on volunteers as well for a whole range of things. From socializing with the animals, to cleaning up after them, to helping us with the significant laundry. We can also use help with carpentry, plumbing, office work, marketing, events. We do events throughout the year and we definitely rely on volunteer help for those.

Again, this isn’t a one-way street. I mean, the volunteers aren’t just helping the animals. You’ve seen relationships develop between the volunteers and the animals?

For sure. Many of our volunteers, if they didn’t come to us as an adopter, they often end up as adopters. They also might end up as a foster. Fosters are another critical part of what we do.

How diabolical of you, you get these volunteers in thinking that they’re just going to walk a dog and they end up taking them home. Very clever marketing on your part.

Hah! I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve had at The Guild with people that say, “I can’t stay here too long or I might actually leave with an animal.”

Well, it happened to us. You have any ideas for the future for expanding your services?

We do yes, and I do. We have, I would say, a number of ideas on how we could help more.

For that, of course, you need money.

We do, yes. We made the specific ef-fort to significantly tighten all of our expenses last year, in order to balance our budget. To reinstate some programs and/or add new ones, we need to increase our support.

Your background is a business man so you are keeping a close eye on where those donations are spent and how they are spent.

Absolutely, we have a very close eye on everything.

How does somebody donate?

To donate funds, they can either do-nate through our website – we have a new website at littleguild.org. You can donate as a one-time gift, or you can donate as a recurring monthly gift.

There are other ways to donate financially, like through Planned Giving, where you can gift assets either during your lifetime or after your lifetime, utilizing various structures.

Then, we talked about the volunteer time. Giving time as a volunteer is a huge contribution, and is always something that we need. Also giving as a foster or an adopter. People that have the ability and desire to bring a cat or dog into their home is a wonderful gift to these animals.

And to the people too. Thank you, Justin.

Thank you, Richard.

To learn more about The Little Guild, to donate, or to volunteer, please call them at (860) 672-6346, or visit them online at www.littleguild.org.

2018-03-02T13:57:16+00:00 March 2nd, 2018|