Five Years After Hitching a Ride on a Flight to Freedom, Chihuahua Mix is Family’s Protector

In June 2017, a 5-year-old chihuahua mix left a crowded Texas shelter where her adoption chances were slim. She was about to catch a flight that would take her to the Pacific Northwest and a brand new life.

Ashley and more than 100 other pets touched down in Seattle, Washington, eight hours later. They’d arrived on one of many Flight to Freedom transports, on which thousands of pets have hitched a ride since 2017. The program is a partnership between The Animal Rescue Site, Free Kibble, and Greater Good Charities’ Good Flights initiative. It flies pets from crowded southern shelters to rescues up north, where they will quickly find loving forever homes. The shelter that would provide that for Ashley was The NOAH Center in Stanwood, Washington, her first stop. It wasn’t long before she saw a family with three young girls that she needed to join.

PHOTO: DEZARAE MCKINNEY

Dezarae McKinney, Ashley’s owner, says, “We went to NOAH just to look at dogs. We weren’t necessarily going to adopt one that day. But we saw her in her kennel, and that was the only kennel we actually went into. We went in there. The girls sat on the ground.

“Ashley instantly went into their lap and just loved the kids. And so that was what made us want to adopt her: how much she just gravitated towards the the kids.”

It didn’t take much time to weigh the decision. After taking Ashley to a fenced-in area outside and playing with her, the family decided to take her home that day.

PHOTO: DEZARAE MCKINNEY

When she first arrived in her new home, she was a bit reserved, which her family thinks could have been because the dog with whom she’d been found, believed to be her puppy, was adopted to a different family. The stress of her first shelter or air travel could have played a role, too.

One thing that helped coax her out, though, was the chance to play nurse.

Dezarae explains, “I remember one of the first things that happened after we adopted her is we went for a hike, and I fell and broke my arm on that hike. So after we got home, I just had to rest a lot and I couldn’t work, so she was my buddy and was by my side the whole time during the recovery, and we just really bonded from that. I think that helped her come out of her shell, too, just to have that time together and to be comforted, kind of comforting each other during that time.”

PHOTO: DEZARAE MCKINNEY

Once Ashley was unabashedly herself, there was no stopping her. She became the house goofball, with her overbite and hanging tongue helping her play the role. She also snorts a lot, has a fear of farts, and is passionate about licking her two cat siblings’ faces. Don’t let the silly look fool you, though. She’s also very smart, can play fetch with her stuffed animals, and follows the “lay down” and “shake” commands. She continues to learn, too, at the ripe old age of 10. She also maintains that streak of care and concern that she demonstrated while helping her fur mom recover.

Kailyn, one of Ashley’s human sisters, explains, “I remember this one time when we were hiking. Me and my sisters hopped over a little stream and it was a pretty wide stream. We hopped on this little island and we started calling Ashley because she hates water. We started calling her to see if she would come over, and she started whining and barking at us. And then she finally actually came over, which we were pretty surprised that she did that, and she walked with us.”

Keeping an eye on her favorite kids outdoors is hardly a one-time thing.

PHOTO: DEZARAE MCKINNEY

Kailyn adds, “She also waits for us. Like, if someone stops and looks at something, she always stops and waits for us or starts barking at them.”

As Dezarae explains, she wants all of them to stay together as a pack. This isn’t limited to the outdoors, either. Ashley sleeps with one of the girls each night, taking her job as protector very seriously. When they’re in the city and she stays outside a store with Dezarae while the girls go inside, she also can’t relax and won’t stop barking or whining until they’re back.

She may fancy herself a protector because she thinks she’s much larger than she actually is.

PHOTO: DEZARAE MCKINNEY

Her human sister Brielle says she “sort of acts like a big dog. She tries to act bigger than all the other dogs. One time there was this neighbor’s dog in our house, and it was a really big dog. She jumped on the chair to make herself seem bigger and started barking at it. It was really funny.”

This big personality in a small dog has come a long way since she was a shelter pet going on a cross country adventure, headed toward the family she didn’t know was waiting for her. The McKinneys are happy she had the chance to board that Flight to Freedom.

Dezarae says, “We’re really thankful for that program because if that program didn’t exist, then we wouldn’t have Ashley. And she’s been such an amazing part of our family. I think she’s almost like a therapy dog. If the kids are anxious at all, she definitely keeps them calm and keeps them feeling secure at night, and the Flights to Freedom, I think that’s just an amazing program because they rescue all these dogs from these higher kill shelters and transport them all around the United States to shelters where they could get adopted.”

PHOTO: DEZARAE MCKINNEY

A shelter just like The NOAH Center, where this family became the unit they are today, a unit that Ashley continues to protect, on hiking excursions, at home, and when her beloved humans go into strange stores.

To see more of Ashley’s story, check out the video below!

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