A few weeks ago, I was in the waiting area for a crowded four-hour United flight when I noticed a fellow member of Boarding Group 4 had a dog. The dog was on a leash, but the leash seemed long to me. Its owner wasn’t carrying any sort of cage or container. Clearly, this dog was going to be one of my fellow passengers. It was brown and medium-size and had hair, I think. If I were inclined to notice more than that when it comes to dogs, I wouldn’t be telling this story.
“Unbelievable,” I thought to myself, and then, the last resort of the miffed: “If anything happens, I’m going to tweet about it.” To my great relief, I soon saw the dog and its owner settling into a row far ahead of mine. The flight passed without incident.
A second wave of relief passed over me this week, when I realized how narrowly I had missed making an enemy of the entire internet. By now, this weekend’s most notorious canine tale has been well covered by both the watchdog and lapdog press. It started when NBC News Senior Political Analyst Mark Halperin tweeted the following from his first-class seat on a Delta red-eye on Friday night:
This was a bad move. Halperin’s nemesis turns out to be a bernedoodle named Charlie, and the internet’s dog people rose up to defend her. Unlike Halperin, these online observers looked into Charlie’s eyes, George W. Bush-style, and saw that she was a good girl, yes she was. They adopted one of several reactive personae: There was the incredulous dogophile (“how is this a bad thing? IT’S A DOG IN A BOWTIE”), the Dad (“He’s better dressed than most first class flyers these days!”), the insult comic (“I would ask to switch seats so I didn’t have to sit next to Mark Halperin”), and the gratuitous baby-basher (“I’d say the same if I had to sit next to your baby”). But everyone seemed to agree: Sitting next to Charlie the bow-tie-wearing dog is a privilege to be embraced. What kind of monster would complain about it?
Me. It’s me. Mark Halperin, I am here to tell you that you were right. It’s perfectly reasonable to not want to sit next to a dog on an airplane.
Halperin is admittedly an imperfect flag-bearer for the canine-skeptical movement. For one, he is an annoying person, a well-fed journalist (first class!) and flatterer of the powerful whose horse-race-obsessed coverage has been criticized for enabling the Trump candidacy. So he’s a ready-made target for the internet’s ire. He also immediately backed away from the palpable annoyance in his initial tweet. Faced with outrage and mockery, he tried to say his “?!” referred not to Charlie’s presence, but to his seat assignment across the aisle from her owner; he was merely “expressing surprise owner/dog hadn’t been put 2gether,” he tweeted. He indicated vaguely that the dog might be a service animal (the “best souls on earth”). Come on, Halperin: Own it!
Meanwhile, Charlie’s owner, a Delta flight attendant named Anthony Pisano, came forward with his own account, and more details. The seats were arranged A–BC–D in first class, Pisano said. Charlie was in 6A, Pisano was in 6B and Halperin was in 6C. Charlie and Pisano fly cross-country several times a month, and Charlie always gets her own seat, where she lies on the floor and sleeps. When Halperin snapped the photo, Charlie was temporarily positioned between Pisano’s legs in 6B so the dog would be secure for takeoff. In Pisano’s account, Halperin called a flight attendant over and said he “refuses to sit next to a dog.” The flight attendant asked Pisano if Halperin and Charlie could switch, so the dog and her owner would be next to each other and Halperin would be by himself. He agreed. Pisano made a point of saying Halperin was rude, refusing to look at him as they rearranged their belongings.
When Charlie’s legion of new fans read Pisano’s side of the story, they trumpeted it as “receipts.” But I read it as nothing more than a description of a reasonable resolution to a reasonable complaint. Could Halperin have been more polite and direct about his complaint? Sure. But it was a 10:45 p.m. cross-country flight. Let’s cut the man some slack.
Anyway, the question of Halperin’s rudeness didn’t enter the conversation until Pisano shared his account of what happened. The story only became a story because thousands of people could not fathom the notion that a grown man did not want to spend six hours sharing a tiny cube of airspace with an unknown dog.
There are several good reasons to be less than thrilled by the prospect of a dog occupying its own seat on a plane, let alone a seat next to you. First, there is the question of fear. For people with severe allergies, dogs on planes can pose a direct health risk. But what about more violent, if unlikely, outcomes? There are certain people who can see a strange dog staring at them and intuit whether the dog is angry or excited. I envy those who can look at a snapshot of Charlie and know with certainty how she’ll behave over the next six hours. But more than 12,000 dog bites take place every day in America, and some of them take place in the air. There was the terrier who bit a passenger and a flight attendant when its owner opened its carrier. The woman who asked to sit next to a passenger with a dog “because I love dogs,” and was promptly bitten on the cheek. When Barbra Streisand’s dog bit an attendant on a private plane in 2015, her representative blamed the attendant for not showing the dog her hand first. The attendant required stitches.
None of the cases I mentioned involved service animals, who are formally trained to perform specific roles, and also not to bark or to approach people. “Emotional support animals,” a relatively recent phenomenon, are another matter. Their only role is to comfort their owners, and they require no training; certification can be easily obtained online. Unlike pets, they are also allowed to sit on the floor or in their owner’s lap, instead of being confined to a cage. “The ‘emotional support animal’ situation is out of control,” a travel industry analyst told Today last fall, comparing the result to “an airborne Noah’s Ark.”
That said, Halperin doesn’t seem to have been actively afraid of Charlie. (And Pisano hasn’t said that Charlie is a support or service animal.) Rather, the journalist’s initial tweet suggested he was simply annoyed. That, I suspect, is his real crime. He just didn’t want to sit next to a dog, or even to sit in the same aisle with an uncaged dog who had his own seat. If he’s like me, he didn’t want to get the dog’s fur on him, or have the dog lick him, or hear the dog bark, or have the dog’s claws tear his nice new tights. Dogs aren’t people, even if they’re wearing bowties.
“There’s now a cultural assumption that everyone must love dogs,” fellow curmudgeon Farhad Manjoo wrote in Slate a few years ago. “Dog owners are rarely forced to reckon with the idea that there are people who aren’t enthralled by their furry friends, and that taking their dogs everywhere might not be completely pleasant for these folks.” No longer confined to the yard, the house, or even the leash, dogs now enjoy free rein in many cafes, restaurants, museums, and offices. I know who’s winning this dogfight, and it’s not me and Mark Halperin. We will live with the new breed of plane dogs, if we must. But no one can make us love them.