Pilot.dog makes difference as unique dog rescue group

— Suzanne M. Blake • s.blake@n-que.com • September 2017

Pilot.dog - "Dude" the plane

“Dude” is the 1974 Cessna 182 airplane that serves as transportation to all of the rescue dogs Steve and Pam Rhode save by relocation. Photos courtesy of Steve and Pam Rhode

If you look up in the sky one day, you might not know it, but a rescue dog could be soaring above in a 1974 Cessna 182 airplane named “Dude.”

This dog would be among the 125 animals Steve and Pam Rhode, the founders of Pilot.dog, have saved by flying rescue or shelter dogs to be relocated to safe places.

The Rhodes, originally from the Washington, D.C., area, moved to Wake Forest 10 years ago from the U.K. Steve is the publisher of the Wake Forest News and a certified instrument and drone pilot. In 2015, he and his wife, Pam, took up a new venture and founded the nonprofit Pilot.dog to address the plight of many strays and rescue dogs in the South.

Pilot.dog - Steve and Pam Rhode

Founders of the Pilot.dog organization Steve and Pam Rhode hold one of around 125 animals they have saved via their unique service of taking rescue dogs in bad situations to the location of a safe rescue or home.

“We’ve loved dogs all our lives, and we’ve always had a family member who has a dog, so being compassionate people, doing what we could to help dogs find better futures seemed like a no-brainer,” Steve said. “We fly. Dogs needed help. I wish it was something sexier than that, but it’s not. We saw the need to help rescues relocate dogs from overcrowded kill shelters in the South to rescues who had a waiting list of people to adopt dogs in the North.”

During these transports aboard “Dude,” Pilot.dog frequently accepts volunteers to stay in the back of the plane with the dogs as the “designated cuddler,” volunteer Dorothy Ledford said.

The experiences and the memories that volunteers gain on the flights have been transformative for them as well.

“One of the puppies, June, she was so scared the whole time, and she just had to lay there buried behind my back. She had to be touching, and then Benny just slept the whole flight like you wouldn’t believe,” volunteer Michele Bobe said. “These were the sweetest puppies, and these puppies were found chained up in someone’s yard in just not a good situation. If I moved a fraction of an inch, she would move as well. You can’t forget these two mushes. They were amazing.”

Pilot.dog - Volunteer Dorothy Ledford

Volunteer Dorothy Ledford holds rescue dogs Molly, Polly and Lilly in the back of the Pilot.dog airplane as they transported them to Maryland. All of the dogs had been abandoned by former owners.

Ledford, who volunteered on a flight in April 2016 and this past May with Pets for Vets, felt compelled to help as a dog-lover.

“That just seemed like it was a win-win for everybody. Both flights we’ve taken multiple animals, and it just does your heart good. Steve and Pam are amazing, and Pilot.dog is amazing. They give up their time and the use of that plane and the donations for the gas, and they just do it out of the goodness of their heart. It’s such a feel-good thing,” Ledford said.

Ledford said she felt like a “temporary mother” for the dogs she cuddled with and took care of during the flights. She had a message she wished she could impart to the animals.

“They don’t know it, but their futures are about to change, and the looks in their eyes as they look up at you with trust. You want to go, ‘I wish I could explain to you what’s coming. You know, you’re going to be so happy,’ ” Ledford said.

The pilot, volunteers and rescue groups all come together to lead these dogs to a better life. For pitbulls Gus and Goblin, this included becoming therapy dogs.

“Our volunteers are people who love dogs and are excited about flying with us,” Steve said. “We love to bring people along to help share the experience. It’s not often you get a chance to spend a few hours cuddling a dog and know you help make a dog’s life better today.”