MINNEAPOLIS — Just after sunrise on a recent Sunday, travelers hustling through MSP airport got an eyeful of cute near Gate C25: a curly-haired puppy, looking almost like a teddy bear come to life.
A little girl stopped to wave. A guy in a sport coat paused to ask about its breed. A lady dragging a roller bag screeched to a halt. "Omigod, so cute!" she exclaimed as she squatted down to snap a photo.
The apricot-colored, 10-week-old mini-goldendoodle seemed immune to the attention as it tugged on a chew toy held by Hope Lyberg, a "flight nanny" delivering the dog to its new owner.
The pandemic has spurred a rush to adopt puppies, but it's also made prospective pet owners reluctant to travel to fetch one. That's meant heightened demand for pup transporters.
"It blew up during COVID," Lyberg said of the business she runs with her sister Brooke. "People love the convenience."
In the past, the term "flight nanny" referred to an in-flight babysitter for young children, but in recent years it's been used to describe an animal lover who escorts a puppy traveling — via airline cabin — to its new home. Nannies are hired by the puppy's buyer, who finds one on their own or on the breeder's recommendation.
Since officially launching Up North Puppy Nannies in 2020, the Fargo-based sisters have flown 50-some puppies to cities all over the country, including Boston, Phoenix, Atlanta and Los Angeles.
"It's very rewarding work to be able to deliver puppies to their very excited families," Brooke said.
For all the job's appeal, it's still a niche gig; there are only few puppy nannies in the area.
Brooke and Hope, 22 and 20 respectively, grew up in Minnesota's northwest corner, just a few miles from the Canadian and North Dakota borders, along with two younger sisters, several horses and dogs.
Hope's interest in animals sparked the family's foray into dog-related businesses. A high school job assisting a local puppy breeder helped Hope learn the basics. After Hope got a female mini-Aussidoodle from the breeder, the dog had one final litter under the Lyberg family's care. That experience inspired the sisters' mother, Cheri, to get two female poodles and start a breeding business called Sister Doodles.
Hope made her first flight-nanny trip on Christmas Eve 2018, delivering two of her mini-Aussidoodle's puppies to a family in New Orleans, surprise gifts for their kids.
She was met with joy. "I was coming down the escalator and I had the puppies in my arms and the kids were screaming and crying," Hope recalled.
Before long, Hope and Brooke began flying some of their mom's puppies as well as those of other breeders in their area.
These days, the sisters live together in Fargo and work full time at a veterinary clinic, so they usually fly puppies on days off, typically a few times a month. But during a busy period last spring, the sisters did back-to-back weekend deliveries.
Internet increases travel
Rigorous national surveys of pet ownership don't yet reflect the pandemic's impact on household pet demographics. Anecdotally, breeders, pet stores, shelters and rescue groups nationwide have noted an uptick in demand for dogs.
With the internet easily connecting prospective puppy owners to breeders around the country, some dogs are traveling long distances to their new homes. While animal rights advocates recommend adopting shelter pets, many prospective owners turn to breeders when they are seeking a specific type, such as a hypoallergenic breed.
And while visiting a breeder in person is considered wise, buyers seeking the soonest-available puppy of a specific breed often purchase from someone they've never met. (Some websites listing breeders say they only include those vetted as small-scale and reputable.)
Puppies are sometimes transported in airplane cargo holds, but most airlines suspended the practice during the pandemic. And many breeders, including Cheri Lyberg, won't ship their puppies as cargo, because of concerns that it stresses the animals.
For most puppies flying to their new owners, the trip is also their first time away from their first home, mother and littermates, Brooke noted. And while dogs flying as cargo must remain in their crates between check-in and arrival, a puppy nanny can take the dog out of the carrier for snuggles and exercise while waiting to board, or during layovers.
On delivery day, the sisters check in with airline staff to confirm the puppy's carrier will fit under a seat and that veterinary records ensure it's healthy and has up-to-date shots. At the airport, the puppies attract a lot of attention, especially when the sisters recently delivered two littermates to different cities and departed MSP around the same time. "We went through security together and to get coffee together and people were ogling the puppies the whole time," Brooke said.
Puppies must remain stowed in their carrier during the flight, but if they show any signs of distress, the sisters are prepared with toys, bones and soothing techniques. "It's a big day for them," Brooke said. "But for the most part, once the plane gets in the air, they fall asleep."
Up in the air
As Hope prepared to board her plane at MSP, she texted a photo of the puppy to its new owner, Wendy Castano of Newington, Connecticut.
During the pandemic, Castano had wanted to get a hypoallergenic puppy but had difficulty finding one from breeders near her because of high demand. So she followed the lead of a colleague who had recently found Sister Doodles online, purchased a puppy from Cheri and hired her daughters to deliver it.
"Flights already make me nervous, as is," Castano said. "To add a dog into the mix would have just been a little too much."
Though the nanny service is costly (the sisters charge $500 a day, in addition to the cost of their plane ticket and the dog's in-cabin fee), Castano saw it as the safer approach. "It's expensive, but it's less traumatic for the puppy," she said.
After deplaning, Hope handed off the puppy to Castano, along with a bag of goodies: toys and treats the puppy liked, plus a small blanket retaining its mother's scent. Then Hope dashed off to catch her return flight.
Saying goodbye to puppies you've known from birth can be bittersweet, Brooke said.
"You fall in love with them for the first eight to 10 weeks that they're with you," she said. "But when you have five or six or 10 puppies in the litter, it gets to be a lot of work. So you're ready for them to go to their new homes and be happy with their new families."
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