Meet Dodger, my cross-country travel companion. (Photo: Andrea Singer)
“You did what?!?”
My wife, Tracey, had just informed me that on my Los Angeles-to-New York connecting flight later that week, en route to an assignment in Italy, I’d been volunteered (by her) for another assignment: ferrying a dog rescued from a kill shelter in L.A. to its new home in New York. I wasn’t taking the news well. While I’m quite fond of our own dog, a spunky Chihuahua named Chelsea, I’m not exactly what one would call a dog person. So I wasn’t keen on spending what was supposed to be the relaxing first leg of my flight to Italy babysitting a jittery rescue dog I didn’t know — especially when I was waking up at 3 a.m. to make the 6 a.m. flight.
And I certainly wasn’t happy about being signed up for such a task without my knowledge. So on this evening, just two days before my trip, Tracey and I were having a marital spat straight out of a classic sitcom. And my scheming wife certainly had some “’splainin” to do.
“Well, you said it was OK!” Tracey responded. Yes, she did bring up the topic the previous evening. At the time, I was knee-deep in planning for my overseas assignment and not interested in discussing the topic, so I tried to end the conversation with, “OK … maybe.” That was my first mistake: I should know by now that when discussing “Things the Wife Wants Done But the Husband Doesn’t Want to Do,” the Wife Translator automatically changes the word “maybe” to “yes.”
So seconds after I’d issued my dismissive “maybe,” my wife reached out to a group called Waggytail Rescue, a New York-based rescue organization. The group runs a program they call “Waggy West,” where they take small dogs out of high-kill shelters in the Los Angeles area and place them in homes in New York City, where there’s a high demand for small, N.Y.C.-apartment-sized pooches. Waggytail enlists volunteers, or “chaperones,” who are already planning business or pleasure flights from L.A. to N.Y.C. to escort the pups to their new homes. Waggytail covers the additional cost of the dog’s flight (typically around $125 on major domestic carriers), provides the pet carrier, and will drop off the pooch at your home the night before your trip. Then you and your furry travel buddy head off to New York, where there’s a volunteer waiting for you at the airport to retrieve the dog and whisk him/her to a new family.
My wife, an extreme animal lover, couldn’t resist the chance to get that warm feeling one gets when they get someone else to do good for others. So she volunteered me to take a dog along.
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“He already has a foster home waiting for him in New York!” my wife pleaded, sensing (correctly) that I was about to tell her to call Waggytail and cancel. She knew that would work. As uncomfortable as I was at the prospect of taking a dog I didn’t know on a five-hour flight, I would be even more uncomfortable with the thought of disappointing little Timmy in Queens (that’s the name I’d given the imaginary boy whose family would be fostering Dodger). At this point, it was clear I was trapped: Bailing out now would be the ultimate jerk move.
Twisting the guilt knife even further, my wife added, “It’s OK if you say no.” Knowing that in the Husband Translator that means “It most certainly is not OK if you say no,” I officially relented.
“Great!” Tracey said, doing me the courtesy of sounding relieved at having won a battle whose outcome we both knew was predetermined. “He really is the sweetest dog, and your trip will be so easy.”
She turned out to be half right.
The night before the trip, a volunteer came over and dropped off my travel buddy: a 1-year-old Chihuahua mix named Dodger. He was a little nervous to spend the evening at our home but, as the night wore on, he started bonding with my wife and Chelsea the Chihuahua. As for Dodger and I, we kept a cordial but respectful distance.
“He is such a sweet dog!” my wife exclaimed after Dodger got onto the couch and curled up on her lap as we watched TV. I started to wonder if my wife and Chelsea had cooked up this whole scheme just to trick me out of my longstanding opposition to us adopting another dog (“If you don’t want to fly Dodger cross-country, why don’t we just keep him here…”). Nice try; I called American Airlines and informed them I’d be bringing a small dog as my carry-on on the LAX-to-JFK flight the next day.
Dodger, the night before the big flight. (Photo: Tracey Steinberg)
At 4 a.m. the next morning, Dodger and I left to begin our long journey. On the Uber ride to the airport, Dodger’s nerves started to get the best of him and he started to whimper. I pleaded with him to quiet down, which he did after a while. But then I noticed a scraping noise coming from the pet carrier. It was as if he’d gotten hold of one of the Velcro flaps that covered one of the mesh ventilation openings and had started playing with it. “Oh, well,” I thought. “As long as he’s not whimpering…”
As I found out four hours later, Dodger had gotten ahold of something, alright, but it darned sure wasn’t Velcro.
When we arrived at LAX, we checked in and I took him on a little walk before he went into the pet carrier for the flight. Almost from the minute the plane took off, Dodger started whimpering again, this time much louder than in the car ride. He ignored my pleas to stop and, after about an hour or two, the whimpering escalated to an occasional bark. Passengers started to notice, and I immediately regretted all the mean thoughts I’d had in the past about parents and crying babies. “It’s not my fault!” I felt like telling my fellow passengers. “Ya see, my wife thinks ‘maybe’ means ‘yes’…”
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Dodger’s whimpering/barking got louder and I got more distressed, both from the noise and from sleep deprivation. I put my hand in the carrier to pet Dodger in an effort to soothe him, which helped a little. He eventually stopped and, with a couple of hours to go in the flight, I was finally able to nod off, relieved that the whimpering was replaced with the “scratch, scratch” sound of him playing with the Velcro.
At one point in my nap, I opened my eyes, looked down at the bag, and saw Dodger’s head peeking out, as he wiggled to free the rest of himself. The Velcro I’d been hearing all day was really Dodger and his long-a** nails scratching through the mesh ventilation pockets on his carrier. Unbeknownst to me, he’d scratched a Dodger-sized hole though the carrier and, to my horror, was well on his way to escaping and running loose on the crowded plane.
In-flight emergency: Dodger tries to claw his way to freedom during the flight. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
Now it was my turn to whimper. “Oh, no, no, no…” I said to myself. Not since the original Alien had the sight of a small creature’s head inspired such terror in me. I had visions of Dodger running free through the passenger cabin, and the words “diverted to Dallas” kept flashing through my mind; not only would that cause me to miss my connection to Italy, but I’d certainly end up on Yahoo Travel as a headline instead of a byline: “Travel Writer’s Runaway Chihuahua Diverts Flight!”
As Dodger tried to wiggle the rest of his body out of the ripped carrier, I had my hand on him desperately trying to keep him in the bag without using too much force on the small dog. “Please, buddy,” I pleaded. “Don’t do this to me.” But he continued, undeterred. During our mini “man vs. tiny beast” struggle, I thought for sure that Dodger was going to bite me.
Instead, he did the unexpected: Right in the middle of our struggle, he licked my hand. It was almost as if he was saying, “Hey, dude. It’s nothing personal. I just really need to get out of here. But you and I are cool.” At that point, I realized he really was a sweet dog, as everyone said. I actually started liking him a little bit, too. If only he’d stay in the bag….
Our struggle continued but I was clearly losing. I knew he was going to Shawshank his way to freedom right there on the crowded plane. So it was time for me to call in the cavalry: I rang the flight attendant call button. After what seemed like an eternity, I saw a flight attendant walk toward me. Not wanting to reveal to her how panicked I was, I started thinking about all those Dog Whisperer episodes my wife watched, where Cesar Millan talked about the importance of remaining calm and controlled when dealing with dog situations. I told myself to channel Cesar’s calm demeanor as I explained the situation:
Flight attendant: “Hi.”
Me: “PLEASE HELP ME MY DOG HAS CHEWED THROUGH HIS CARRIER AND I CAN’T HOLD HIM MUCH LONGER AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO AND I DON’T WANT TO GET DIVERTED!!!”
Screw Cesar. This probably never happened to him.
Fortunately for me, not only were the American Airlines flight attendants as kind and helpful as can be, they were also dog lovers. I don’t know if it was Dodger they took pity on or me, but they swooped to the rescue. They took Dodger and his mangled carrier to their seating area in the back of the plane. When I got back there, I saw they had managed to close the pet carrier hole just enough to keep Dodger inside. They’d placed it in an unused tray cart and when I got there, they were cooing over Dodger, who was significantly happier, more relaxed and, most importantly, not trying to escape.
Dodger hangs out with the flight attendants in a tray cart, where he quickly became the plane’s most popular passenger. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
And that’s when Dodger went from being a potential flight menace to being the plane’s most popular passenger. The flight attendants absolutely went nuts over him. “He’s the sweetest dog!” they kept saying. “He’s so cute!” I, on the other hand, apparently didn’t look as good, judging by the fact that several flight attendants — and, at one point, the captain — asked me if I needed a drink.
Word of Dodger’s playful presence spread throughout the plane. Some passengers also made their way to the back of the plane to coo over Dodger as well — one of them, a Sofía Vergara lookalike, even offered to take him to the front of the plane to sit in her lap. “I just lost my cat of 16 years,” she quietly told me, no further explanation needed.
I must admit, it was quite something to stand back there with the flight attendants and realize that this spunky, playful dog, who was now charming the entire plane, would probably have been euthanized by now had it not been for the folks at Waggytail. And when I told the crew about Waggytail and Dodger’s story, they fell in love with Dodger even more. And let’s just say the drink offers stopped and the drink orders began.
We landed at JFK without further incident. There were goodbyes, hugs, and licked faces all around as I profusely thanked the flight attendants, leashed up Dodger, and made our way to baggage claim. Anthony, a Waggytail volunteer, was waiting for us there. There was no lingering tearful goodbye between me and Dodger; after one final pet and a quick face lick, we parted ways. I was relieved to be free of this awesome responsibility for another life and Dodger was clearly relieved to be able to go outside to pee. He trotted off with Anthony into the parking lot and then on to his foster and hopefully, forever home.
I hand off Dodger to Anthony (left) at JFK. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
When I arrived in Italy much later in the day, I called Tracey and told her the whole story. “I’m so sorry that was so much harder than we thought it was going to be,” she said. (I figured now was not the time to say “I told you so.) “But now that it’s over,” she said, “doesn’t it at least make you feel good that you helped rescue Dodger and give him a good life?”
I paused for a second. “Maybe…”
Update: Dodger was adopted shortly after his arrival in New York. If you fly from L.A. to N.Y.C. and are interested in transporting other rescues as a Waggy West chaperone, contact Waggytail here.