Episode 11 – Steve Rhode

Steve founded a non-profit organization to help people find a path through their financial troubles and solutions for debt problems. He has done a lot of television and radio appearances as a consumer debt expert on FOX, CNN, ABC, NBC, MSNBC, and local stations well as creating his own radio show. Steve is now an investigative reporter and journalist that specializes in covering consumer debt and the debt relief world and a regular animal rescue pilot through his organization, pilot.dog. Steve tells us how he got started in animal rescue and his pilot experience. To learn more you can visit his website, https://pilot.dog/ or on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/flypilotdog/.

Welcome to the Professionals in Animal Rescue podcast, where our goal is to introduce you to amazing people helping animals and share how you can get involved with animal rescue. This podcast is proudly sponsored by Doobert.com. Doobert is a free website designed to connect volunteers with rescues and shelters and the only site that automates rescue relay transport. Now, on with our show.

In today’s episode we’re speaking with Steve Rhode. Steve lives his life and conducts business by a very simple mantra. If you do good things, good things happen. He’s lived that philosophy and spent nearly all his adult life helping others. After having lived through tough money troubles in the 1990s, Steve founded a nonprofit organization to help people find a path through their financial troubles, and solutions for debt problems. He’s done a lot of television and radio appearances as a consumer debt expert, speaking on Fox, CNN, NBC, MSNBC as well as local stations. Steve also has his own radio show. Steve is now an investigative reporter and journalists that specializes in covering consumer debt and the debt relief world. Steve is also an avid and will rescue pilot through his organization Pilot.Dog.

Hey, Steve, welcome to the program.

It is such a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much, Chris.

Thanks. So tell us a little bit about yourself. I know you’re the pilot-type dog guy, but, introduce yourself.

Well, my life motto is, if you do good things, good things happen. I am a dog lover. My wife and I both are. We just combined our passion of dogs with our love of flying and just found a great opportunity to save more dogs. Especially since we live down here in the south.

Yes. Now you’ve got a very interesting background. You’re that “Get Out of Debt Guy.” Now you’ve transitioned, and you do a lot more rescue. How did that come about? How did that transition come about?

Well, yes, I am the “Get Out of Debt Guy.” I deal with consumer finance, chasing financial criminals, scam artists and helping people with money problems and find solutions for their issues. My website, I have to give a naked plug, is GetOutOfDebt.org. I have two lives. I have the life that’s primarily filled with angst, confrontation, and pain. Then I just needed a second life, so dog rescue is the complete opposite of what I do on a regular basis.

Now you got into flying. When?

Oh, I got my ticket in 1988 and like a lot of people I took – I flew aggressively for probably six or seven years. I was young man with a starting family and couldn’t afford to fly anymore. I took 25 years off or something. Something like that. I just got back into it probably five years ago or something like that. When I got back into it, I got my instrument rating, and I just do a lot of flying now. It’s the love of my life.

I know you’ve got a Cessna 182 and I’ve seen the great pictures and videos that you and Pam record on your website. You do a phenomenal job with those, by the way.

Thank you. Thank you very much.

Now walk me through. Where in the south are you guys?

We’re right in the heart of dog rescue country, located in Raleigh, North Carolina. You’re right, we do have a 1973 182 which seems like a really old plane, but all of the electronics are new and state of the art. In fact, this week, the plane is going in for more service. We’re taking out the back bench seat and putting in folding seats so that we can carry more cargo in it.

Oh, that’s really cool. So how did you get in to rescue? Was this just one day you said, “Hey, I’m going to go pick up some dogs and fly.” Tell us a little bit about how this came about.

So like most pilots, it was probably just a total accident. I was at my local airport at the time and noticed a request for some help with a local dog rescue, who had some dogs, had a dog that needed to go for treatment. The first dog I ever flew was little Sniper. She was, a little German Shepherd, rescue dog for military members who was born with a spinal issue. I was flying down to Orlando anyway, so I picked up little Sniper who was the most adored, adorable, gorgeous dog who insisted on peeing on my foot every chance that she could get. She was so cute.  Because of her spinal problems, she would run at you, but her back end wouldn’t stop. She was just so cute. So I flew her from Orlando to Newport News, Virginia, where she had an evaluation. That was the start of it. Once my wife said that we can fly and carry dogs, that was the end of you know.

Yes, definitely as a pilot – I’m a pilot myself, and it gives you a purpose for flying. We’re always looking for that reason, and it gives you that mission that you can fulfill.

Well, and the other part of my background, which goes further back into my medical days, is that I truly care about people who are in a difficult situation. My wife and I are both very compassionate about people who need help. So, we approach our flying much like that, too. Instead of just looking at the dogs that we fly as cargo, we bring along a flight volunteer. We cuddle the dogs in flight. We give them the best concierge VIP flight. They’d never have to minimize their stress. It makes it a really heartwarming event.

Yes, I think that’s one of things that I really noticed that you guys do is you have a specific approach that you take the number of dogs, how you’re handling them. I guess you touched on – but walk us a little bit through what is your methodology for animal transport?

There are two schools of thought. Either you fly as many dogs as possible, and you load them in, in the most efficient cargo mat that you can or you provide the least stressful, most compassionate flight you can. It’s significantly more expensive to fly fewer dogs but, many of the dogs we fly have come from very bad situations. These aren’t like we had some extra puppies from a litter down here in the south, these are like dogs that were rescued from a fighting group or found with a 10-foot chain around their neck. These are dogs that have difficult past. So many of them have scars and everything else. We just changed our approach to trying to make it the most fun day. The best day ever for the dogs that we fly. We just give them all sorts of treatment in. In fact, on a recent flight, we have a flight volunteer. We had a big dog and some puppies that were with us. I looked in the back seat in the middle of the flight, and our volunteer is sitting on the floor to give the dogs her seat.

That’s awesome. Now you mentioned you take flight volunteers. How do people find out about this? How do people get involved with you guys?

Well, the reason we take flight volunteers, they can sign up through our website Pilot.Dog and yes, that is a real domain.  The reason we take flight volunteers is because, we’re just pilots. We’re people who serve a little role inside a bigger effort. We’re just tiny cogs in a bigger wheel. This is about the rescues who do the tough work of getting the dog to begin with and finding home for the dog. They’re the real heroes in this story, but taking a flight volunteer allows somebody to have an introduction to dog rescue, to have a personal connection, and to learn more about it. We just do it as our role to try to help spread information and awareness about all the awesome dogs that are out here.

Now, one of the things I actually noticed from your LinkedIn profile that I didn’t know about you is that you’re a photojournalist as well.

Yes, I am. I have done a lot of freelance photojournalism. In my early days, I studied photojournalism in college, and I have done freelance photojournalism for TV stations here in the Raleigh area. You get an adrenaline rush out of pulling up on the side of the highway at a bad accident at four o’clock in the morning with all your lights flashing. It’s a different part of my life.

Yes, and I think what was really interesting to me and I should have noticed this from your website is you really have quite an amazing videos and pictures and the way that you tell the stories of the animals.

Well, we do a flight video for every flight, and we tell the stories and share all the pictures that we can. It’s our way of bringing people into the experience and showing them what it was like and especially, to let people know about just how awesome these rescue dogs are. We fly from the south here. We fly a lot of Pit bulls, Rottweilers, and dogs that people think are dangerous. I’ve got to tell you, they’re the most loving dogs around. As a quick example, we flew a dog whose name was Goblin. Goblin was a Pit bull who was on number one on the kill-list of the shelter. They just kept pushing him back each day and other dogs, unfortunately, went in this place. We got the call and we flew Goblin. Goblin turned out the next day up in Pennsylvania, where we took Goblin. A therapist came in to look at another dog, saw Goblin, just connected with him, and he became therapy dog for a kid with autism. They’re the best of buddies. There are great success stories out here.

Yes, those were the stories that really get people give them an uplift and want to make them get involved in rescue. One of the most common questions I get asked as a pilot – so I’m going to ask you as a pilot, how do the dogs take to flying?

The dogs are awesome. I’ve never had a problem with the dogs. Now we approach our flying on a very professional level. Pam and I are not out here like two – who’s just going flying on the weekend. When we go flying, the thing that nobody ever sees from our flights is all the preparation that goes into it behind the scenes, like we have vetted the dogs, who are they flying with, have they been introduced, and are they socialized. What you never see is we have contingency plans in case a dog ever became aggressive in flight. We carry different-sized muzzles. We flight brief, what’s going to happen if there ever was such an event. We’re very well prepared. We’ve just never had a dog that’s freaked out. Now, well, let me clarify. We have had a dog. We have had several dogs who have freaked out, but that only means that if you include having bad gas as freaking out – You can just open a window. Now, there’s nothing worse with breaking on instrument approach and your eyes are tearing up bad gas.

Sounds like you’ve had some really interesting stories. You’ve been doing this for how many years now?

I guess three years now, and I’ve been doing it aggressively. We’ve been flying a lot. Some months we fly 50 hours. Most of my flights are actually instrument flight, so I’m flying in bad weather. I’m usually doing flights when most of the guys are on the ground because they’re not instrument pilots. We also do much longer flights. Our typical flight is probably about six or seven hours. For me, to fly from eastern North Carolina, Western North Carolina, and then up to Atlantic City, that’s a typical flight. I have learned that I don’t really connect with pilots who I don’t know, because I’ve been left stranded a couple times. We just take long snacks and see a lot of the countryside on our flight.

How many flight hours are you logging in a given year now?

I’m doing about – This year I’ll probably be on pace for 500.

Wow, that’s a lot of flying. Good for you. Now, I know you mentioned Pilot.Dog and your first was, “Yes, that is a real URL.” Tell me how that came about?

Yes. So we went to look comment for a domain for a website, and it was one of these things. We plugged in a couple of different things, and it was on GoDaddy and it popped up. “Hey, this is a new domain, .dog.” I had the same reaction that everybody does, like, “Really? No, seriously?” Yes, it was. I just happened to be one of the first people that registered the domain name. Now I spend all my life going, “Yes, it’s a real domain.”

But now you’ve built quite a brand around it. You’ve got a really cool logo and a very well-done website that really tells the story.

Well, if you’re going to take a much longer view on dog flying and dog rescue, you’ve got to do the work. If you’re just going to be a weekend pilot and pick up a flight and go, that’s one thing. There is so much into running a bigger organization and bringing people in. Doing the flight videos, the video stuff, the editing, flight volunteers, and all the stuff we do requires great support and great supporters. That’s why we need to do all of that.

Yes, that’s a really good point. How did people get involved? How do the rescues and the shelters, if they need transport – Walk us through the process that they go through to find you?

Well, we have learned that there are some great rescues out there. There are some scam rescues out there, and then there are, like, the most wonderful rescues you’ve ever met out there. Since we’ve been doing this, we have learned the lesson and vetted rescues that we work with very carefully. Nowadays, we tend to get requests directly from those rescues. We are not out there just accepting every flight. The other thing that you learn as you do this is that, not every flight has to be an emergency. You get requests from rescues, “We’ve got to fly this dog today.” We have learned, who we work with, who is good, who is somewhat organized.

Years ago there was a sign hanging in a co-worker’s cubicle, and it said, “Failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” That’s the way that we approach who we work with because you could make some stupid mistakes just being reactionary. Flying dogs and doing dog rescue work is serious stuff. Pilots not only – The motto of my airplane is “There’s no sense dying all ten stop.” You have the risks and everything associated with flying. If you’re not aware, as a dog rescue pilot, you also have risks associated with doing that work. You’ve got state laws and transportation. We’ve actually had calls from people who said, “My neighbor doesn’t take care of the dog, and I’m going to kidnap the dog. We want you.” No, no. If you’re just a weekend flyer and you’re out there and you want to do good things, you better be prepared and know what you’re doing because there’s some serious consequences.

Yes, that’s a really good point. I’m glad you bring that up because they’re like anything. There’s a lot of rules and regulations and a lot of best practices. What are some of the tips you would have for other pilots or other people that are wanting to get involved?

Well this is why I love your organization. It’s a professional rescue association, and there’s some qualifications and information that people need to learn. That is a great. Even as just a base level, that is a great certification to have. I would urge people to start that way. If you just want to be a pilot or ground volunteer driving dogs, and you just want to drop them in the back of your –  playing in your car and you want to spend an hour or two flying around, that’s one thing. If you want to do the very best, you can be involved in a great community joining our organization like yours, and learning what the rules and laws are, somebody can always contact me, and I’m always I’ll be happy to answer any questions I can. That’s the way you become a professional in this field.

So one of the questions I always like to ask you Steve is, was there a particular person or organization that really inspired you originally to get into animal rescue?

No, but when I did get involved, I reached out to other pilots who I found and found a really cooperative community of other dog rescue pilots who helped me in my early days and provided advice, and were a brain trust and a sounding board and were a real help. Let me qualify that. When I say that I flight dogs, I’m not anti-cat at all. I just want to make that very clear. I’m just highly allergic to cats.

That would make it a little bit difficult.

Yes, but I understand that can fly rabbits. I haven’t done that yet, but I understand it. The community of professional dog rescue pilots out here is made up of great people who you can count on for some help and advice.

Yes. I know one of the ones that you partnered with is Flying Mutts. Tell us a little bit about how that came about.

Yes, Mike from Flying Mutts is a corporate pilot for a large drug chain. During the week he’s flying the Falcon 10 jet which is really cool, because when I meet up with him when he’s at work, I get to play around in the jet, so that’s cool. Mike and I, I think it was – we were introduced through a rescue or something, but we’re very like-minded. He’s up near Boston and so oftentimes we’ll meet in Delaware and he’ll fly the dogs the rest of the way. It’s learning how – There are other pilots who I work with, like Mike, who are guys I call on because again, the problem is, the weekend flyers. If you’re out there on your first trip. Well, here’s an example. We did a trip. We were connecting with a guy we’d never flown with before. It turns out the guy was just a VFR pilot. This was on early fall day. He was coming out of New York on a grass strip, and he was fogged in for a whole day. If I had known, he was a VFR pilot on a grass strip up there, because I learned to fly in Danbury, Connecticut, we would have found another pilot, but, because there are all sorts of guys that are out there.

That’s a really good point. I think it’s really cool that you’ve taken this to the next level and you developed those connections with all those people that do want to make sure that this is treated as a profession.

The way I look at it and Pam does too is, its dogs first. I’m not here to hug every flight that we can get. I have contacted my other rescue groups and said, “Hey, can you help this? Can you fly this dog on this day?” If we just work cooperatively and professionally, we can make it a great thing to do.

Yes, well, thank you, Steve, for what you do and it’s really been great having you on the show. Before we go is there anything else you want to share with our viewers or our listeners?

I think that if you have the opportunity to help in any animal rescue transport, even cats, you should do it. It opens your eyes and will give you an entirely different perspective about the thousands or tens of thousands of dogs and cats and animals that are out there who die needlessly every year just simply because people don’t know that they need help.

Well, thank you, Steve. We appreciate you joining us.

No problem, Chris.

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